Boston Symphony Orchestra

Bernard Haitink, conducting

April 28, 2015 8PM






There is always a debate of the role of conductor in an orchestra. From the point of view of the audience, this singular figure dances at the center of the stage, while madness and beauty carry on to surround the baton wielder, but no one ever knows what would happen if the penguin in the middle ceased to exist. However, from the point of view of a musician, the conductor is truly the maestro, the baton your beck and call, and you are no longer an artist but rather part of a whole machine, dangled and shaped by the only one on stage not playing an instrument, because the maestro is playing you. Bernard Haitink returns to conduct the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a thrilling program of well loved pieces, and his familiarity with the stage and orchestra is apparent. This is not Dudamel, these are not over hyped youth musicians; this is an 86 year old man coming back to commandeer an orchestra that has changed little since he was last here, to play a well known program, and rather interestingly curated program.

We start off with a bit of Ravel, a ballet adapted from a four handed piano piece meant for children. Aptly named Mother Goose, it’s a medley of fairy tales, and as the orchestra rushes exhilaratingly through sweeping arpeggiations and glisses we are reminded of the soundtrack to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The beginning is a magical array of pianissimos, soft flutterings in the strings and marvelously light feathering, punctuated with almost misplaced notes from the xylophones. The woodwinds sing and the piccolo flute shimmies through a familiar motif. A harp shockingly punctuates the soft mass of sounds, thanks to the acoustic design of Symphony Hall. It is an interesting space, geometrically, the vast space dwarfing the performers and the harsh angle skewing the field lines. It sets up constrained control, mirroring the onstage performance where the strings are fluctuating gently, precisely executing hairpin crescendos and decrescendos, and if their volume were to be plotted, it would resemble something of a perfect sine wave. About seven minutes into the piece, a cello sneaks in out of nowhere and the brass takes over the soundsphere, creating a call and response sequence that then builds up into a buzz. The strings maintain their background ostinado, interjecting clear fluctuations that fight to be heard above the brass and we climax, and there is silence.

If this reads like a sportscaster giving a play by play, that is because it is. Everything is delicately controlled by Haitink, a white haired figure respectably plump for his age, puppeteering each sound with minimal effort. It is as if he were DJ back at a familiar soundboard, fiddling with knobs and buttons, completely competent and able to perform this in his sleep. And this pause, this gap of silence that holds the audience in suspense, is Haitink holding his breath, and the audience and orchestra with him, until the harp plays a long, undulating glissando that ends in a single triangle note in “Les entretiers de la Belle et de la Bete”, the third movement of Mother Goose. It is a small complaint, and the fault of a very unlucky percussionist, that the note is not quite hit at the right time, only milliseconds off, and this is acknowledged by a slight glance from Haitink towards the percussion section, but there is no time to fret, we are transported by a pentatonic scale to Asia, where Laidronnette’s garden seduces us. Haitink seems to lose control for bit, taking on a laissez-faire approach as fragments of Gershwin drift in and out, the xylophone belting out riffs worthy of Porgy and Bess, but just as we’re getting used to the fresh, jazzy air, the time has come for “Le jarden fe’erique”, a frenzied but controlled build up to the percussion and brass laden finale. It builds to a volume unprecedented in the night and races to a breathless finish. The orchestra goes silent but the music hangs in the air, the magic of Ravel casting a spell over the audience. It is a game that we play, between musicians and the listeners, between how long we show our appreciation by stunned silence, or by thunderous applause. Haitink, of course, as with all things tonight, has a hand in this too, keeping his statuesque composure until the last molecules of vibrating air come to a standstill. A thousand people collectively let out their held breath of air, ending the caesura of silence added to the ending. This is the beauty in live concerts.

We move onto more Ravel, and Jean-Yves Thibaudet adds to the French theme of the evening. It’s a bit off kilter, the jazzy opening, and something is out of sync with the orchestra. However, this is no fault of either Haitink or Thibaudet. The contrast between the two men is stark, with the younger still in his prime and oozing charm, but they are completely at ease with each other. Somewhere between Thibaudet’s right hand holding a sixteenth note patterned ostinato and the start of the second movement, the orchestra and the soloist find their stride and we barrel into the ending, building up and climaxing with aplomb. Note, however, that it is not a soul searing, eardrum exploding final punch. That would be far too undignified. It is perhaps worth nothing here that Haitink’s ease on stage may come from having recorded Ravel’s works with the Boston Symphony Orchestra some years before. He needs only exert the smallest amount of energy to coax the sounds he wants out of the orchestra. And the orchestra seems to feel the same way, responding to each small finger lift and gesture as if it were a computer program.

A more modern piece follows the intermission, and of course one wonders if the dignified maestro will discard his composed style for a piece decidedly more erratic and unfamiliar. It is an ode to Couperin from Ades, a composer familiar to the Boston Symphony orchestra. Ades is known for taking musical passages and assimilating them into new works, paying homage to the tradition, but noticeably setting something off kilter, making the listener feel as though in a dream. This is apparent in “Les Amusemens” where a bass marimba filters in, the sound foreign and starkly apparent against the texture of traditional instrumentation. The second movement “Les Torres de passe-passe” keeps the classic soundscape but unmistakably references Stravinsky, complex polyrhythms pulsing through the piece. Haitink here again only has to point, and the strings pulse together. But the most impressive feat of conducting occurs in the third movement, where we are surprised with a visit to the Romantic era, complete with grounding from the bass drum and an emphatic swing up tempo. A little disjointed going in and a bit of tinniness from the brass is resolved quickly with a few flicks from Haitink. In a piece only three minutes long, we have traversed the good half of a century, Ades mixing the old and the new.

A quick stage change clears out the percussion section, leaving just a timpanist, and a few seats are removed. The space fills with Mozart. A quick glance at the program notes reveals that this was composed in four days, and one realizes that although its conception demanded only four days, its execution must demand a lifetime of hours. Frankly, as impressive and thrilling as Mozart usually is, it is in practice a bit trite. Haitink is visibly tired, and Symphony No. 36 stands out only because it is lacking a coda in the minuet, the other three movements all following sonata form, with variations only in tempo. It simply sounds like Mozart, with an interesting slow 6/8 waltzy feel in “Andante con moto” that will come up in a subsequent symphony of his. This is a piece composed during what we would consider a modern day layover, and the orchestra has failed to make something special of this. It could be any one of the big five orchestras of the world playing this; everything is too on time and too perfect, nothing is offensive, nothing is breathtaking. It is decidedly perfect in the most mediocre sense of the world, with Haitink only conducting as a metronome and each musician doggedly following.

It is perhaps a bit of an anticlimax to the entire production, but there is no doubt that Haitink has done a splendid job, eliciting applause from not only the audience but his musicians as well, the conductor emeritus coming home. It does bring up the question, however, of whether or not a conductor plays a large role in shaping the performance, or if it is all an illusion. Was the Mozart only mediocre because it didn’t quite fit into the “Frenchness” of the rest of the show, or was it because it was a piece that Haitink and Co. hadn’t quite worked out the intricacies of? Is the beauty in the silence between the third and fourth movement of Ravel’s Mother Goose due to the uncertainty of length, or has the perfect timing been calculated already by Haitink when the Boston Symphony and the maestro recorded it several years ago? Surely a group of top-notch musicians could play together and remember their cues and come in at the same time. Why is a venerable old man necessary? It lies in the experience of the orchestra and the reason why live music still exists. Music has always been, and will always be something that exists in the key of human, a language universally shared, commonly debated, taught to be understood and respected, but only loved because of something innately human. The spirit of collectiveness is gathered on a stage, the erratic bass pulses in “L’Ame-en-peine” in the Ades perfectly together, not because of metronomic precision, but because of the gentle motions of a single conductor. It is the humanness in the music, in the maestro on stage controlling not only his musicians, but also our hearts, that draws us back to listen. Music, as we are reminded whenever we frequent a concert, lives in the context of daily living, not stuck on the staves or the albums.

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