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Classical Review: Hey BSO, Where’s the Beef?

Orchestra Performs Mediocre Opener to Otherwise Promising Season

By Jacqueline O’Connor

Boston Symphony Orchestra

James Levine, conductor

Simon Preston, organ

Symphony Hall, Boston

Saturday, Oct. 1, 2005

The 125th season of the Boston Symphony Orchestra opened on Saturday night with an all French program featuring Berlioz, Debussy, Milhaud, and Saint-Saens. This weekend marked the beginning of James Levine’s second year as Music Director of the orchestra. I had high hopes for this performance, especially after the spectacular summer season the BSO had at Tanglewood. Rumors indicate that the 2005-2006 season is to be particularly demanding; each concert promises a challenging and exciting list of repertoire. In spite of the hype, the BSO’s opening night performance was less than the promised sensational.

The first half of the concert was disappointing. The orchestra opened with Berlioz’s “Le Corsaire Overture,” a collage of virtuosic flares and lyric melodies. The opening is especially brilliant, with the strings section playing fast moving lines with a woodwind and brass chorus behind. My first impression was that the orchestra had a great sound that night, something I have always liked about the BSO. But as the orchestra played on, I noticed that there was something lacking. Despite the array of colors this piece offers, the symphony was missing the sense of feeling and subtlety I had heard them play with so many times last season. Repeated passages seemed to stagnate and the recapitulation of the main theme was plain. Regardless of this lackluster performance, the audience commended it with boisterous applause. People will clap at anything. If the orchestra plays loud and fast, general concert-goers seem to think this is an ovation-worthy feat. I say, get a grip.

The program continued with Debussy’s wonderful orchestral poem “Jeux — Po me dans ,” a piece that is challenging not only in its technical rigor but also its interpretational depth. When performed well, it’s a captivating and hypnotic work of Impressionism. Saturday night’s performance did not capture the magic of this piece. The BSO has, on many occasions, sent chills down my spine because of its subtlety and truly exceptional playing. The performance of the Debussy had no such effect. Despite the strong playing in the wind section, especially the English horn, the piece had no movement, no life. At times, the music was so measured that I could actually count along with it. The lack of freedom and necessary sparkle was disappointing.

I love Debussy, so at this point in the performance, I was completely miffed. How could an orchestra that I had heard turn a banal program into a truly exceptional concert just a month and a half ago lose that spark? This may have just been a bad night, but I suspect the music direction may have played a part in it.

I believe the BSO is at its most brilliant under the baton of Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos, a Spanish conductor who appeared many times over the course of the 2004-2005 season. I may be overly romantic about conductors; while most middle school girls held George Clooney as their “older man of choice,” I chose Zubin Mehta, conductor of the Israeli Philharmonic, for his amazing performance of Mahler’s “Fifth Symphony.” De Burgos memorizes the score for every concert he conducts, and his conducting style shows his passion for the music and attention to every detail. James Levine, on the other hand, is very removed. He sits on a stool, barely moving and seldom giving cues. I can respect different conducting styles, but his apparent distance from the concert seems to translate into a feeling of distance from the heart of the music.

This distance was again obvious in the final piece of the first half of the concert, Darius Milhaud’s short ballet, “Le Boeuf sur le toit.” The title of this piece literally translates to “The Ox on the Roof,” and was inspired by Milhaud’s two-year stay in Brazil. The work is a compilation of various Brazilian folk songs and contains the characteristic syncopated rhythms and enchanting tangos found in Brazilian music.

The ballet tells the story of a boxer, a dwarf, a rich woman, a red-headed boy, a bookmaker, a gentleman, and a policeman in a bar called The Ox on the Roof during Prohibition in New York City. The ridiculousness of the story, in which the policeman is decapitated by a ceiling fan and then miraculously reappears at the end to pay the bill, is evident in the music. While the orchestra musicians seemed to enjoy playing this playfully quirky work, Levine remained his same detached self. The piece was certainly fun to listen to, but the unique Brazilian flavor that was obviously written into the music was not brought out by the orchestra.

The concert was not a total loss, though, as the final piece on the program was a more heartfelt and moving rendition of Saint-Saens’ Symphony No. 3, the “Organ Symphony.” I was especially excited to hear this piece because of its wonderful use of the organ. When many people think back to their childhood, their most prominent sound memories are of squeaky swing sets, their dog barking, or their little sister screaming. Mine is the organ playing. My mother was an organist, and at least twice a week my brother and I would listen to her practice at the congregational church in the old part of town, coloring in the pews while Mom’s playing shook the entire building. The BSO and guest organist Simon Preston captured the essence of the power of the organ in this splendid symphony.

The newly-restored organ in Symphony Hall is a beautiful instrument. It has a rich and pure sound, as well as an extensive range of voices — a characteristic of any good organ. Preston’s performance was exquisite, never drowning out the orchestra (as I’m sure the instrument could) and always playing very musically. Despite a couple of places where the orchestra was only marginally together, the Saint-Saens was enjoyable to hear. Highlights included wonderful solos from the oboes, bassoons, and the English horn, as well as a powerful conclusion to the final movement that made the entire hall shake.

In spite of the rocky start, I am still looking forward to a great season from the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Levine has raised the bar on programming this year, including many large works and twentieth-century pieces to which I feel Boston listeners should be exposed. I only hope that Levine also raises his expectations in performance quality, not just the difficulty of the repertoire.