Stuff at night

The BSO without Levine, Yo-Yo Ma, the Cantata Singers, American Classics, the Zerounian Ensemble
By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  April 29, 2010

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This week’s health headlines also included the announcement from the Boston Symphony Orchestra that music director James Levine has been sidelined again, from the “excruciating pain” he’s been suffering since his surgery for a herniated disc. He’s led stunning performances at the BSO and the Metropolitan Opera since his operation, but now he’s had to cancel the rest of his BSO season (which was to include an appearance at Carnegie Hall). The news stories raise the question whether he’ll ever be fit to resume his strenuous commitments to the BSO and the Met. Perhaps he needs a full sabbatical to heal thoroughly. The BSO could try to get a major full-time “visiting” substitute to keep the gears oiled. I’d rather miss him for a year than risk not having him back at all.

The BSO tapped guest conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos to replace him in this weekend’s performances of Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah. Frühbeck has just led two programs. The first featured 30-year-old violin superstar Hilary Hahn in a refreshingly fresh, seemingly effortless rendition of Prokofiev’s fiendishly challenging yet mysteriously, ingratiatingly melodic Violin Concerto No. 1 (whose American premiere the BSO gave in 1925). Josef Szigeti’s 1935 recording under Sir Thomas Beecham has more intense dramatic “pressure,” but Hahn avoided the squishy sentimentality that ruins many versions. She was rewarded (as were we) with an encore: the introspective Loure from Bach’s Third Partita for Unaccompanied Violin.

By design or accident, the BSO has lately offered a slew of popular warhorses oddly out of circulation. Frühbeck’s first program closed with Rimsky-Korsakov’s fabulous Orientalist narrative Sheherazade (not played by the BSO since 1993). Although individual solos (especially concertmaster Malcolm Lowe in the title role of the Arabian Nights storyteller, John Ferrillo’s sinuous oboe, and the warmth of Martha Babcock’s cello) projected super-saturated Technicolor, the whole lacked narrative drive and emerged as a mere showpiece. Sheherazade deserved better.

So did Mendelssohn’s Overture and Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which opened Frühbeck’s second program. The BSO has mostly relegated near-complete performances of this familiar score to Tanglewood, where Frühbeck conducted it in 2001. The Overture started, and ended, particularly well, and the lovely passage for vocal soloist (Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova) and women’s chorus (Tanglewood Festival) was enchanting. But there was little enchantment elsewhere.

More fun was Rossini’s at times vulgarly tuneful and bouncy Stabat Mater (one section of which sounded as if it were about to burst into “Oklahoma!”). The BSO has played this only once before, in 1974, when Carlo Maria Giulini was famously criticized in the Boston Globe by the late Michael Steinberg. Frühbeck kept it animated, and the vocal quartet — ear-bending Shagimuratova, restrained British mezzo-soprano Alice Coote, Met tenor Eric Cutler (a bit desperate on his high notes), and (best of all) returning African-American bass Alfred Walker — was pretty well matched for style and vocal heft, though the chorus ran away with the honors.

This week, at short notice, gangly 31-year-old composer and former Cleveland Orchestra assistant conductor Jayce Ogren stepped in for Levine, exchanged Debussy’s dazzlingly tricky Jeux for two Sibelius chestnuts (Finlandia and Valse triste — neither played by the BSO in at least half a century), and led the world premiere of Peter Lieberson’s Songs of Love and Sorrow, his “companion piece” to the award-winning Neruda Songs he composed for his wife, the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (who sang them at her very last BSO concerts, November 25 and 26, 2005). Lieberson himself has emerged from his own life-threatening illness (he nearly couldn’t begin this commission) and has now remarried.

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