Arts concert review

The orchestra starts a dialogue with a piano

The Boston Symphony Orchestra performs Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 & Shostakovich‘s ‘The Year 1905’

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 & Shostakovich’s “The Year 1905”
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Sept. 29, 2017

As usual, hearing the orchestra warm up is an entertaining prelude to the concert. The strings playing frantic and chaotic runs are occasionally overshadowed by a horn crying out or a flute furiously chirping away, but today, something was underneath it all: the ominous beating of drums. The bass drum was tuned to its booming magnificence, the timpani scaled across its range, the snares tested. In addition to this slightly unusual sound a grand piano dominated center-stage, taking the conductor’s usual spot as center of attention.

Wordlessly, the conductor, Andris Nelsons, and tonight’s piano virtuoso, Paul Lewis, took to the stage in a shower of applause as the anticipation of the crowd rose rising. Both took their positions, the lights dimmed, and silence fell. Softly, Lewis introduced a simple melody, short and sweet, to be picked up by a hushed orchestra, building lightly at first, then grandly, growing dramatically in the strings. Lewis then re-entered, joining in, scaling up and down the piano with speed and vigor to match the violins, all the while playing a counter-melody with his left hand. In all this, the piano felt almost like a teacher, and the orchestra its students, as it passionately outlined beautifully complex melodies and counter-melodies, using its full range, as the orchestra repeats and develops their own ideas.

In the second movement, this dialogue becomes an argument. The orchestra angrily presented its theme in contrast to the piano’s quiet pleading, which eventually tamed the orchestral beast. When each the piece concluded, both conductor and soloist walked off the stage . Surprisingly, the pianist then returned for an improvisation on the first theme of the piece, again exploring the complete instrument briefly, laden with tasteful chording and counter-melodic vigor. An ocean of applause crashed down on the stage to this conclusion of the dramatic piece.

The intermission came and went, building suspense as the piano disappeared into the left wing, bringing the full stage in view. The next piece was “The Year 1905” by Dmitri Shostakovich. Unsurprisingly, it details the prelude to the Russian Revolution, Bloody Sunday. With this in mind, I sat anticipating this musical rendition of one of the major historical turning points of the 20th century, as the lights dimmed and the strings began.

Immediately, the tone was set. The orchestra sounded like an organ, and big, dark chords filled the hall. Occasionally, dissonance entered these oppressive chords, giving the impression of dissent, counteracted by a regal melody from the trumpets, all underscored by the dark rolls of thunderous timpani. Intermittently, the winds and high strings would interrupt with variations on folk tunes, reminding the audience of the rich and varied cultures of Russia, even if the autocracy was a constant undertone.

This back-and-forth of expression and repression came to a head in a whirlwind of sound. The trumpets, like gunshots firing into a confused crowd, cut clear above the chaos of the orchestra, shouted from section to section, until — quiet. The low strings began a pizzicato variation on the orchestra’s earlier palace theme with impressive unity, I might add), giving it a darker, more morbid tone.

The conflict is restated as a retelling: a more orderly, more furious , more sinister dramatization of the events of Bloody Sunday. Restatements of the regal theme in the trumpets follow, along with a mourning tune, for all those lost (including, allegedly, Shostakovich’s father). This relative serenity is interrupted by an explosion of the percussion section over an equally loud orchestra; the people invigorated by the outrage of the events of the ninth of January. This passion and energy is once more quieted (although not quite successfully) by the regal theme, rife with dissonance.

The themes further evolve, with tension rising and falling, giving and taking, until a new theme, built on Bloody Sunday’s hope theme, angrily marches forth, the snare lending it  a military zeal. I can describe this as nothing other than revolution, fully fledged, organized, and malevolent, dramatically eliminating any essence of the regal theme.

However, in the end, the palace theme returned: after conflict, time, and revolution, still the same palace — its chords still rife with oppressive richness and dissatisfied dissonance.

This was a performance to be reckoned with. The performers delivered all of the emotion and story-telling of an opera wordlessly, telling the history of a people with their instrumentation. While the piano concerto was dramatic and, for lack of a better term, very Beethoven-esque, it was blown out of the water by the majesty and conflict of “The Year 1905.”

Next week’s performance is Arlene Sierra’s Moler, Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto, and Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2.