James Levine’s ongoing health issues are taking a toll on the Boston Symphony. He had been scheduled to conduct last night’s premiere of John Harbison’s Double Concerto for Violin, Viola and Orchestra, but he withdrew weeks ago from his remaining performances of the season (and missed a Peter Lieberson premiere as well). But one felt his absent not so much in the Harbison, which sounded adequately prepared and almost clinically precise, but in a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 7, which was messy and formless. In Levine’s absence, Carlos Kalmar stepped up to conduct the ambitious program, which pairs a difficult and complicated new work with one of the most sprawling and variegated symphonies in the repertoire. This is a signature Levine program, the kind of intellectual grand project that he has made a regular part of BSO concert life during his tenure. If back problems hadn’t laid him low, all bets are it would have been a memorable evening.
The Harbison concerto is a genial academic piece, well made, smartly orchestrated, and filled with generosity toward the two soloists who often trade phrases and lurk in each other’s general tonal range—a little low in the violin and a little high in the cello. Violinist Mira Wang and cellist Jan Vogler are also husband and wife, and that seems to have informed Harbison’s approach to how the solo lines relate musically. They are prominently on a pedestal throughout, with most of the drama focused on their interaction, while the orchestra intersects with them lightly and tangentially.
Chains of rising and falling thirds recur, falling somewhere between melodic material and motivic wallpaper. These figures feel flash-frozen from some other context, as if Harbison took rapid figuration patterns from Chopin, slowed them down, and turned his microscope on the material. They have a chromatic intensity, as if torn from an expressionist score. The effect is musical DNA dangling in the air, not quite connected, but not random either. Wang and Vogler played very well and gave the piece an appealing and sometimes frustrating sense of directionless urgency.
Two movements of this kind of smart, focused and somewhat inert writing leads to a sudden burst of fiddling in the third movement, and passages that remind one of Stravinsky in his alienated jazz and folk modes. It’s a strange transition, not to an entirely different sound world, but to a more determined effort at immediate entertainment. We’ve just spent 20 minutes in a white room with spare white furniture, as sanitary as a hospital, and suddenly someone dressed in white flashes you a blindingly white smile and asks, not very convincingly, if you’d like a glass of water. It’s a polite gesture towards hospitality, but with no real warmth behind it.
The orchestra, and the soloists, kept it all tidy, but not so in the Mahler. This was as unfocused and episodic a performance as I’ve heard the BSO give in the years since I started visiting Boston regularly. Kalmar simply didn’t have a solid sense of the piece, its larger architecture, or its details. Everything was in the foreground—the brass especially—without texture, depth or complexity of sound behind it. You were torn between wishing the piece would be over, and frustration that he wouldn’t just slow down a little and let it breath. He never found the balance between indulging the wildness of Mahler’s heterogeneous material, and forging a coherent narrative to carry it forward.
In the first movement, especially, you sense the closeness between what Mahler was doing in one language and what Schoenberg, Berg and Webern would do in another. A tectonic polyphony is breaking out in Mahler’s writing, carrying the music to the precipice of chaos. But in performance it must be a controlled, marshaled, directed, managed chaos. It wasn’t. Neither of the Nachtmusik movements—those weird, interior folk sketches that were written before the great bookends of the five-movement behemoth—had much charm. Even the cowbells and mandolin felt constrained and isolated, instruments following a score rather than magical effects from Mahler’s imaginary woodlands. Violin solos had luster and warmth but were played without much expansiveness or freedom.
The last movement brought the audience to its feet. I’m sure they’ve heard far better Mahler from the BSO, but the brass, which had a few problems earlier in the symphony, were playing spectacularly. You can’t resist that. So they cheered. They also gave a warm round of applause to Roman Totenberg, father of the famous NPR correspondent Nina Totenberg. The concert was dedicated to the renowned violinist and pedagogue, in honor of his long service “to the world of music and to Boston University.” It’s moving to see a local audience engaged deeply enough with music to recognize the man. But I think their enthusiasm for this performance was more a matter of loyalty than discernment.
Image by Michael J. Lutch, courtesy of the Boston Symphony Orchestra