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Concert Review: A Celestial Night

BSO Concert Features Planets, Asteroids, and a Star

By Tanya Goldhaber

Boston Symphony Orchestra

Robert Spano, guest conductor

Joshua Bell, soloist

Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2007

The program of last Tuesday night’s Boston Symphony Orchestra concert featured two familiar favorites: Bruch’s Violin Concerto in G-minor performed by Joshua Bell, and Holst’s The Planets. The first piece in the program, Ceres: Asteroid for Orchestra by the contemporary composer Mark-Anthony Turnage, was less pleasant to listen to, but nonetheless conveyed a vivid image. Robert Spano was an effective guest conductor, although I didn’t agree with his interpretation at times.

Joshua Bell’s interpretations of standard repertoire have become more original as he has matured. In recent performances that I have heard, Bell had been drawn to flashy and speedy playing, which would not wholly suit the style of the Bruch Concerto. I was, however, very impressed with this performance of the Bruch, as it was musically as well as technically sound, although it featured a run of octaves at the end of the first movement that I’m fairly sure was not in the original score.

The Bruch Concerto is a standard piece in the violin repertoire, and is subsequently performed very often. Previous performances I have heard by violin virtuosi have subscribed to the “loud and fast” school of violin soloing, and I have found those performances to be ineffective and unmoving. I was pleasantly surprised when Bell began the first movement at a melodious and reasonable tempo. Bell’s tone was also smooth and passionate. Overall, the performance was filled with emotional musicality. In particular, I very much liked his rendition of the third movement, which is technically very challenging and subsequently tends to be overdone by soloists; Bell, however, did not fall into this trap.

The Planets is an emotionally powerful and complex piece that is unusually difficult for an orchestra to prepare. The piece itself features the standard orchestral ensemble plus an organ, celesta, two timpani (not to mention a variety of other percussion instruments), and, for the last movement, female chorus. The piece is riddled with tricky rhythms and tempo changes that would frustrate almost any orchestra. The BSO performed The Planets with superb technical prowess. They were together, in tune, and really came together as an orchestra. Nonetheless, a majority of the performance was missing the emotional spark that would have made this performance of The Planets truly spectacular.

The performances of the Bruch concerto and The Planets also had a common flaw: the tempo was often too slow. While concertos such as the Bruch are often rushed, I felt that in this performance, the Bruch would occasionally drag a little bit, particularly in the first movement. The Planets has some very slow movements (Venus and Saturn, for example) but contrasting movements such as Jupiter should be lively and proceed at a good tempo. While the Jupiter movement did bring out a lot of musical intricacies, it was just not fast enough to convey the necessary energy.

The piece by Turnage was appropriate, given the celestial theme of the concert, but on the whole I did not find it to be a satisfying piece. According to Turnage, he was drawn to “the doomsday aspect of asteroids and the idea that the Earth could be destroyed by one any day.” While interesting, the musical represention of an asteroid colliding with the Earth, with its theme of destruction and chaos, is not necessarily pleasing to the ear; those sounds were not something that I would necessarily like to listen to again.

I would strongly encourage anyone to go see Joshua Bell perform, and I also recommend seeing a live performance of The Planets at least once. However, should Asteroid for Orchestra come to town again, it would not be a terrible thing if you missed it.