Arts concert review

The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s opening night was a rollercoaster of varied enjoyability

The BSO’s 139th opening night was solid and full of striking performances, but not consistently riveting

9148 9.19.19 pianists arthur and lucas jussen with andris nelsons and the bso in the poulenc double piano concerto %28winslow townson%29
Pianists Arthur and Lucas Jussen perform with Andris Nelsons and the BSO in the Poulenc Double Piano Concerto.
Winslow Townson

Week 1: Poulenc’s “Concerto for Two Pianos” and “Gloria,” Beethoven’s “Fantasia,” and Nathan’s “Concerto for Orchestra”
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Conducted by Andris Nelsons
Boston Symphony Hall
Sept. 19–21

The opening night of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 139th season began with the delicate first notes of Poulenc’s "Concerto for two pianos in D minor," courtesy of Dutch brothers Lucas and Arthur Jussen, two pianists who are wildly accomplished for their young age. Despite the youthful exuberance they exhibited when they (quite literally) ran onstage mere minutes before director Andris Nelsons raised his baton, it quickly became evident that the pair of them have great musical maturity. Poulenc’s concerto demands that the soloists play almost continuously, often without orchestral accompaniment, with several sections of a call-and-response-like dialogue that requires precise coordination between the two pianists. The Jussen brothers handled the dialogue so seamlessly that had there not been two pianos visibly located at the front of the stage, one could have easily believed that there was only one person creating the beautiful sounds rising through Symphony Hall. The brothers executed the shifts in mood with grace, easily transitioning from the dreamy Allegro movement to a more tension-filled Larghetto movement, and ending in the energetic Allegro molto movement. Meanwhile, the orchestra, featuring the woodwinds, brass, and percussion, provided a beautiful accompaniment. The piece ended in an uproarious and well-deserved standing ovation, setting a standard for the rest of the evening.

Next came Beethoven’s "Choral Fantasy in C minor for piano, chorus, and orchestra, Op. 80," which the composer wrote as a finale for his December 1808 Akademie benefit concert and featured Beethoven himself soloing (and even improvising) on the piano. Arthur Jussen came back onstage to solo, starting off the piece with the beautifully dramatic, Adagio piano movement that transitioned into a lighter, run-heavy C major section. The orchestra soon joined Jussen for the Allegro movement, and as the piece modulated between C minor and C major, and eventually to an A major section that featured the horns and the double reeds, the soloist and the orchestra both demonstrated impressive range. The C major and A major sections were bright, lively, and full of joy, but still interesting and nuanced, while the C minor sections were played with great flair and energy. 

The rest of the piece unfolded in a wave-like pattern, modulating between keys and slowly building up the tension until the choir finally burst in with majestic fervor. Written in German, the song’s lyrics praised the uplifting power of music and the arts on the human soul. The choir escalated through the next few moments armed with fricative phonetics and strong intonations, the vivacity of their sound in perfect synergy with the theme embedded in the translated libretto. The vocal soloists soon joined this proud crescendo, their powerful and young voices adding an especially effervescent tone to the dynamic piece. Alexandra Smither and Paulina Swierczek amazed the crowd with their impressive vocal acrobatics while Katherine Maysek imbued the performance with a rich and expressive timbre.

The third piece of the night was the world premiere of composer Eric Nathan's "Concerto for Orchestra," which was commissioned by the BSO and dedicated to Nathan's parents and composer Sven-David Sandström. The concerto began with a literal bang of the cymbals, followed by raucous, angry sounds from the brass that resembled the aggressive blare of a truck horn. The trombone slides were particularly jarring, and the only real benefit of opening the piece with such an entrance was that any audience members who had fallen asleep during the previous piece would be jolted awake. The rest of the piece proceeded to assault the listener’s ears without mercy, interrupted only by occasional lyrical phrases that added an interesting level of complexity to the piece. By the end of the performance, we were slightly confused — feeling glad that the uncomfortably inharmonious cacophony of sounds had ended, but also appreciative of its cohesive and coordinated execution. The concerto was doubtlessly well rehearsed and skillfully composed, but we personally would not pay to listen to a piece that reminds us of a highway brimming with traffic.

The final performance was Poulenc's "Gloria" for soprano solo, mixed chorus, and orchestra, one of the composer's most acclaimed works. This piece, usually sung at Latin Mass on festive occasions, is considered one of the greatest prose hymns of Christian literature and ended the opening night with a resplendent tone. In the first few seconds, the trumpets proudly marched in, calling to mind a powerful monarch entering a grandiose ballroom. Soon after, the choir joined in, contributing to the grandeur of the atmosphere. 

When Nicole Cabell finally made her entrance, her first note amazed the crowd with its clarity and power. The soloist’s part was characterized by its solemnity and contrasting tones, smoothly transitioning from the orchestra’s more flamboyant performance. Throughout the piece, each of the soloist’s phrases closely resembled each other, starting out low and ominous and building up to a direly high note. Cabell’s performance was remarkable in the way she carefully handled each vibrato, delivering each note with the perfect amount of expression without going overboard. Cabell’s soft ending notes carried throughout the concert hall and provided a satisfying conclusion that integrated seamlessly into the BSO’s overall performance.