In the swim

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  October 14, 2009

There were some compensations for James Levine’s medical leave from the BSO to have a herniated spinal disc repaired. Assistant conductors Shi-Yeon Sung and Julian Kuerti are accomplished musicians, though their names weren’t big enough to satisfy Carnegie Hall, where Daniele Gatti stepped in to lead the orchestra for its big New York event. In Boston, Sung conducted Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms without a single rehearsal and still got touching refinement from the orchestra, and her Mozart Requiem had vigor and eloquence (and well-matched young vocal soloists). The following weekend, Kuerti’s Beethoven Fourth Symphony was eloquently colored and balanced and, after a square-ish slow introduction, very lively. Then Sung led pieces all honoring — and with — recently retired BSO principal harpist Ann Hobson Pilot. Elliott Carter’s complex but seductive Mosaic, for bardlike harp and chamber ensemble, was more expansive in Symphony Hall than it had been in 2008 at Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall. Debussy’s Danses sacrée et profane had both impressionist delicacy and waves of a La mer–like pulsation. Sung was Pilot’s third conductor in two weeks for John Williams’s new On Willows and Birches; hearing it again didn’t make me think more highly of its musical content, though it was a pleasure to hear Pilot show what she can do. She ended the concert, at her own request, as first harp in Ravel’s La valse. Sung led an all-stops-pulled-out showstopper, and Pilot’s fingers flew through swirls of rhapsodic glissandi. She modestly acknowledged the huge ovation and gave half her bouquet to Jessica Zhou, her fine young successor. A class act.

Imagine a conductor with the balletic flexibility of Rudolf Nureyev, the traffic-cop precision of Seiji Ozawa, and the musicality of Valery Gergiev and you might have some notion of Vasily Petrenko, the lanky, willowy, elfin 33-year-old Russian chief conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, who led the BSO in concerts originally announced for Daniele Gatti. Stravinsky’s early Scherzo fantastique was all twinkle and buzz (it’s about bees). The Stygian rowboat in Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead (based on Böcklin’s famous painting) moved inexorably forward as waves pushed it from side to side. And in Shostakovich’s autobiographical Tenth Symphony, Petrenko managed, whenever possible, to get restraint and conviction instead of melodrama. Each part of his body seemed aimed at a different section of the orchestra. The audience cheered. This was, as they say, an auspicious debut.

The Handel and Haydn Society began its 195th (!) season with its new director, Harry Christophers, greeting the Symphony Hall audience before turning the evening over to dynamic French conductor Jean-Christophe Spinosi and German countertenor Andreas Scholl. I’ve admired Scholl since the size and beauty of his voice overwhelmed me at the Frauenkirche in Dresden. My one disappointment had been his previous Symphony Hall appearance, with the BSO. Symphony Hall is too big for a countertenor. Beautiful as his Handel and Vivaldi was with H&H, his voice didn’t project, and it was occasionally covered by the relatively small Baroque orchestra. There were beauties — a ravishing aria with strummed pizzicatos, “Ah, ch’infelice sempre” from Vivaldi’s cantata Cessate, omai cessate (even better when it was encored), and a reticent but fervent Vivaldi Stabat Mater. But in Handel’s “Aure, deh, per pietà,” he didn’t erase my memory of Jeffrey Gall in the Peter Sellars/Craig Smith Giulio Cesare, Gall’s Caesar just saved from drowning and with complex urgency thanking the comforting breeze (“Aure!”) yet still worrying about the safety of Cleopatra. Scholl’s uninflected undersinging had no such emotional underpinning.

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