LET DOWN Though the cast was almost the same as the 2011 Tanglewood performance (including conductor Bramwell Tovey and Alfred Walker as Porgy), the Porgy and Bess at Symphony Hall was undone by amplification.
The sculptural, poetically named microtonal instruments American composer Harry Partch (1901-1974) invented — Spoils of War, chromelodeon, cloud chamber bowls, cone gongs, diamond marimba, kithara, harmonic canon, zymo-xyl, and boo (often with 43 pitches to an octave) — look as fascinating as they sound (you can "virtually" play them yourself at the Music Mavericks website). But you could have heard them live at the New England Conservatory's symposium "The Harry Partch Legacy." This was the first time these unique and fragile instruments were ever transported to Boston from their home in Montclair, New Jersey, and the two Partch pieces on the central program, "Images and Intrusions"— O Frabjous Day! (The Jabberwock) from 1954 and Eleven Intrusions (1949-1950) — were enchanting, hauntingly mercurial, with a personal sound world warmer and more colorful than most electronic compositions, and more delicate than the pieces for these instruments by Partch disciples that were also on the program.
A few days after this delicious avant-garde experience came the Boston Symphony Orchestra at its most retrograde — its annual opening gala, which has become an occasion for short concerts with celebrity guest performers playing unthreatening pieces at high ticket prices, with a post-concert fund-raising dinner. This year, the attraction was superstar violinist Itzhak Perlman (who performed a similar function a few days later at the New York Philharmonic) in an all-Beethoven program. Whatever enjoyment this event provided was far from a triumph of art or artistry, or a significant image of the BSO at its best. But the take was over $2 million.
The evening began with Perlman playing (and leading) the two minor Beethoven Romances for violin and orchestra he's done twice before with the BSO at Tanglewood. The second, Opus 50, in F, is more harmonically and melodically compelling (shades of a Bellini aria) than the first, Opus 40, in G. But neither was very compelling in Perlman's hands. His tone no longer has the uncanny sweetness that launched his career. But the technical limitations of age shouldn't have interfered with his ability to play these pieces with the seductive charm and songfulness they require. Instead, they were consistently loud and unvaried in dynamics and color, lacking in either passion or playfulness.
Then Perlman, a budding conductor at 67, led the orchestra in Beethoven's familiar Seventh Symphony — a work the BSO can probably play in its sleep. This was not a sleepy performance. After a plodding opening movement, the Allegretto slow movement had both solemnity and drive, and the speed of the finale conveyed considerable excitement. These parts were stronger than the whole. As a conductor, Perlman hasn't yet figured out how everything fits together, or how to balance the playing. The symphony at least had a fundamental musicality that the Romances mysteriously lacked.