LUSCIOUS AND BRILLIANT In Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 3, Maazel’s detachment balanced the orchestra’s depth of color.
Lorin Maazel made his Boston Symphony Orchestra debut in 1960, but this busy conductor has returned rarely, once in 1973 and again in 2009 as a substitute for the ailing James Levine in Beethoven's last four symphonies. I've never been much of an admirer of his, and his rushed and rigid Beethoven reinforced my opinion. So I wasn't exactly looking forward to last weekend's BSO concert, three Russian pieces, two of which he had already programmed together in 1960: Stravinsky's elegant, colorful Le chant du rossignol ("The Song of the Nightingale) and Scriabin's bloated Poem of Ecstasy (orgiastic without much actual XTC). He got excellent results from the orchestra, though despite the spectacular trumpeting of Thomas Rolfs, the Scriabin never transcended background music, and despite moving trumpet solos by Thomas Siders (the "voice" of Hans Christian Andersen's Chinese Fisherman), the Stravinsky never achieved the magical atmosphere Pierre Boulez endowed it with in his unforgettable 1986 BSO appearance.
The most pleasure came with the opening Tchaikovsky, a respite from the more lugubrious symphonies, his 40-minute Suite No. 3, with its opening "Elégie," its "Valse mélancolique," its jumpy Presto, and its grand "Theme and Variations" finale (Frank Epstein smashing his cymbals with rhythmic élan). That 20-minute final movement provided the music to one of George Balanchine's greatest classical ballets, and he eventually choreographed the entire Suite, just after his most favored ballerina, Suzanne Farrell, left New York City Ballet (a true story much richer and sadder than Black Swan). I've heard the Suite and especially "Theme and Variations" on countless ballet programs, but never in a more brilliant or luscious live performance, Maazel's detachment providing welcome understatement to balance the orchestra's depth of color.
This year, Boston Chamber Music Society's annual forum exploring the relation between music and some other idea (last year it was "time") connected early-20th-century compositions with the visual images important artists created for them. At the post-forum concert at MIT's Kresge Auditorium, Mihae Lee and Randall Hodgkinson played four-hand piano arrangements by the composers themselves of three of their most famous ballet scores, accompanied by slides of original sets and costumes: Satie's witty Parade (maybe Picasso's most famous stage design), Milhaud's Le création du monde (dazzling African-inspired Fernand Léger geometries), and Stravinsky's Le sacre du printemps (Nicholas Roerich's proto-Disney pastoral landscapes - not capturing the power of the music as thoroughly as Disney's own primordial images for Sacre in Fantasia). Illustrations were also projected while baritone David Kravitz sang two enchanting musical bestiaries: Ravel's Histoire naturelles (Jules Renard poems illustrated by Pierre Bonnard and Toulouse-Lautrec), accompanied by Lee, and, accompanied by Hodgkinson, Poulenc's early Le bestiaire (Apollinaire illustrated by Raoul Dufy).
This all made for a delightful program. Kravitz, in sumptuous voice and elegantly accompanied, sang with understated slyness. Parade, with its jaunty marches and ragtime, and the addition of Simone Ovsey on percussion that included capguns and a ratchety wheel of fortune, fared best, and the Stravinsky, a tremendous workout for the pianists, was almost as good, substituting vigor for ferocity but happily emphasizing Stravinsky's haunting melodic gift. The Milhaud lacked dynamic variety and made one ache for the orchestral version.