BSO Strikes Out Under Sung

Ambitious programming, remarkable technical standards, and impeccable artistry have guaranteed the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) a spot on the “Big Five” list of American orchestras for over a century. The iconic performing arts institution, which routinely skims the international arts circuit for Symphony Hall recruits, is not afraid to showcase established artists and promising new talent on the same stage.

This past Saturday, music director James Levine hedged a program of eclectic music from four countries on the shoulders of young Korean conductor Shi-Yeon Sung, who recently became one of two assistant conductors of the BSO. Save for an electrifying rendition of Bela Bartok’s suite from “The Miraculous Mandarin,” however, the BSO delivered an unpolished, bland, and thoroughly disappointing performance under Sung’s baton.

In her subscription series debut with the BSO, Sung opened with Jean Sibelius’s “The Bard,” a little-known tone poem from the Finnish composer’s “dark period.” The exploratory rubato and ethereal runs in principal harpist Ann Hobson Pilot’s introductory solo were masterfully evocative of Nordic folklore, but a messy ensemble entrance quickly overran her lyrical interpretation.

The minimalist dynamic range and bare orchestration of the piece, which should have constructed a spare yet meditative musical texture, only served to render the orchestra’s shortcomings all the more apparent. Rocky tempo changes and halfhearted instrumental solos transformed what might have been an entrancing musical reflection into a painful exercise in the mechanical art of staying together.

The Grieg Piano Concerto in A minor fared no better under Sung’s direction and Brazilian pianist Nelson Friere’s touch. Friere, whose command of the keyboard rivaled that of his longtime duo partner and legendary pianist Martha Argerich at the peak of his career, delivered a restrained performance that failed to communicate the rustic, fiercely nationalistic character of Grieg’s music. Friere’s former flair for pairing reckless abandon with nuanced maturity was completely absent from this performance.

The attack of the opening octave cascade was overly cautious, and Sung’s uninvolved conducting generated orchestral accompaniment that further quenched any musical excitement. Friere’s rough phrasing of the second movement’s main theme disrupted the chordal harmonies in Grieg’s composition, interrupting the audience’s imagination of the majestic fjords and luscious landscape of the composer’s native Norway.

In the third movement, Friere’s accents and staccatos lacked the caustic bite that keeps listeners on edge. He never foraged deep enough into the keyboard to make Grieg’s melodies soar, though the orchestra, which finally reached a fully blended volume near the coda, did manage to salvage the concerto’s explosive conclusion.

After Friere’s encore rendition of Gluck’s “Dance of the Blessed Spirits,” which was just as tame as the main performance itself, Sung led the orchestra in the 1945 version of Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring,” a ballet written on commission by dancer/choreographer Martha Graham. While the BSO attacked Copland’s syncopated rhythms with crisp precision and settled upon key symphonic harmonies in layers of perfect intonation, the distinctively optimistic, Americana aura of Copland’s work made only a transient appearance. Sung’s conducting failed to coax a spacious tone from the orchestra, and poorly integrated high string-woodwind dialogues dragged the ensemble into musical stagnation. The orchestra recovered slightly during the piece’s variations on the Shaker theme “Simple Gifts,” which Sung executed with animation and drive.

If any piece could have pulled the BSO out of a string of three mediocre performances in one night, it was Hungarian composer Bela Bartok’s Suite from “The Miraculous Mandarin,” a musical vortex of discordant chords and pointed rhythms that the BSO executed with gripping prowess. The orchestra came out in full force, with the string section effortlessly running up and down scales in augmented octaves to the backdrop of frenetic trombone glissandos. The jazzy interlude in the middle of the suite allowed individual soloists to showcase their musical personalities; the principal oboist’s arpeggios were sneaky and playful, while the clarinet soloist’s plaintive phrasing complemented the ebb and flow of Bartok’s meticulously constructed tempo lines. The suite ended in a roar of climactic dissonance that even Sung, whose conservative conducting had constricted the other pieces, could not help but encourage.

The BSO’s take on Bartok was proof of the artistic talent of each BSO member and their collective caliber as an ensemble. One just wonders why it took three pieces for this top-notch orchestra to warm up and start playing.