Boston Phil Sensitively Plays Modernists

Courtesy of Jeffrey Filiault - BPO

Stefan Jackiw performs a solo in Sergei Prokofiev’s “Violin Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 63” during the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance October 28 in Sanders Theatre.

With three of the biggest names in 20th-century classical music on its October 28 program, the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra filled Sanders Theatre with rich and subtle renditions of works that often challenge both orchestra and listener. Under the baton of Benjamin Zander, the orchestra showed an attentiveness to the modernists’ diverse demands, from the constantly wandering tonal center of Sergei Prokofiev’s “Violin Concerto No. 2” to the dissonant flutter-tongue horns in Richard Strauss’s “Don Quixote.” Yet, the program was often as mixed in its results as it was varied: tempo problems marred otherwise sensitive renditions, and a peculiar ordering of the program caused the concert to end in anticlimax.

The program opened with Jean Sibelius’s “Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of the Island,” which showcased the orchestra’s dynamic and textural flexibility. The orchestra beautifully rendered the piece’s hushed and portentous introduction—the gossamer violin lines were tightly strung, while the distant and exposed horn calls suggested heroism but kept from announcing it outright. Even more remarkable was the orchestra’s ability to revisit this original mood of ambient anticipation throughout the piece, even after build upon build. The resulting volume variation was electrifying, even unnerving, and Sibelius’s piece glowed as a result.

Tempo problems attenuated some of this excitement. Throughout the middle of the piece, for example, the violins sung an expressive and melancholy theme while the horns provided a plodding waltz bass line. In the BPO’s rendition, these sections clashed—the horns rushed as the violins dragged—which detracted from the impression of the orchestra’s unity.

This lack of responsiveness to tempo persisted somewhat in the second piece of the program, Prokofiev’s “Violin Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 63,” although this hardly tarnished what was otherwise a brilliant performance of a challenging work. Guest soloist Stefan Jackiw performed the three-movement piece’s violin solo with mastery and maturity. The genius of his performance was in its general restraint, exemplified best by his performance of the unstable first movement. His initial statement of the theme, for instance, was deeply measured, with only an occasional hint of a glissando to match Prokofiev’s slippery tonality. Therefore, when the movement escalated, which it did suddenly and repeatedly, Jackiw’s violent stabs at the violin seemed completely deserved, as if his earlier moderation had earned our full emotional trust. His renderings of the second and third movements, the former saccharine and the latter Bacchanalian and decadent, were similarly varied and well paced. Jackiw’s profound emotional control culminated in a subtly dazzling performance.

The orchestra served as a fine complement to his virtuosic performance, following the involutions and sudden offshoots of Prokofiev’s tonality with poise. The dense chords of the subversively dissonant third movement, for instance, sounded especially clear despite their difficulty.

However, the orchestra’s performance faltered on the second movement, which, alongside Jackiw’s soaring vibrato, sounded emotionally flat. Based around a slow, gentle pizzicato waltz, this movement gains much of its energy from the abrupt introduction of a rapid minor section, which casts a lurking shadow under the main theme’s light simplicity. In the BPO’s performance, the rapid sections were taken at too slow of a tempo, which stripped the movement of this jarring contrast. Fortunately, in the context of an absorbing performance that generally made Prokofiev’s treacherous tonal leaps with success, this lack of nuance did little harm.

After the spirited and varied performance of Prokofiev’s piece, which drew a standing ovation from the audience, Strauss’s “Don Quixote” sounded undeniably anticlimactic. This piece, which is based around scenes from Cervantes’s novel, consists of a theme, ten variations, and a finale, a structure which inherently lacks the intense dramaturgy of a tight, three-movement work like Prokofiev’s. Similarly, Rafael Popper-Keizer’s cello solo, though technically adept, lacked the spirit and dynamism of Jackiw’s, to the extent that it often blended in with the orchestra behind it. Even the conclusion lacked drama: Strauss’s piece ends with a light authentic cadence, eschewing the satisfaction of a grand finale. The resulting feeling of anticlimax could have been avoided had the program concluded with the Prokofiev or another piece with as much energy.

Anticlimax, though, indicates that the power of the program’s first two pieces built up expectations for the third. The BPO showed an impressive control and emotional variety in these first two works, and the relative monotony of the third should not overshadow that dynamism.

—Staff writer Patrick W. Lauppe can be reached at