BSO Impresses Despite Setbacks

Infighting costs BSO its guest conductor, but soloist sparkles in performance

The Boston Symphony Orchestra pulled together a refined performance Thursday evening after scrambling to replace Russian guest conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky. Their recovery was largely due to the powerful touch of cellist Lynn Harrell.

Last-minute replacement Julian Kuerti—now in his second season as the BSO’s assistant conductor—led the orchestra in a clean performance of Brahms’s “Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel.” The brass section’s muddled sounds in the opening harmonies set the BSO off to a shaky start. Following the two introductory phrases, Kuerti eased into the set of 25 variations and a fugue, orchestrated by British composer Edmund Rubbra.

Rozhdestvensky, the 77-year-old maestro who rose to prominence during the Soviet era, pulled out of all four concerts he was scheduled to conduct with the BSO, The Boston Globe reported.

Earlier last week, the conductor and his wife came across a promotional poster in Symphony Hall that billed Harrell as the highlight of the program with large print and a photograph. Rozhdestvensky’s name appeared in smaller print on the announcement and was not featured in the “Distinguished Conductors” section of the orchestra’s season brochure.

“I felt insulted by the actions of the administration,” he told The Globe, “I feel not only slighted but I suffered what is called in Russian a moral insult, and I’m free to take any actions to defend myself in public.”

The Brahms variations, which form a series of brief musical sketches, were performed with much character, and the orchestra easily shifted from the lovely dance-like themes in the first variation to the quiet, minor lyricism of the fifth. The dialogue between the solo voices of the orchestra was especially well articulated, as the two-note slurs and other musical motives were seamlessly passed among the different instrument sections.

Though the passages were, for the most part, cleanly executed, the performance lacked a malleable dynamism. The overall shape of the piece was relatively flat, and there was an audible uncertainty that suggested too much hesitation. The orchestra ran into recurring problems with the ensemble, as the individual instrumental voices did not pull back in unison for several ritardandos.

There is no doubt that the BSO had the power to fill Symphony Hall with its rich sounds, but their full potential was not reached. The concluding fugue closed on a clean note that left the listener’s thirst for an impassioned performance unquenched.

Seated on a leather piano bench, Harrell opened the adagio-moderato movement of Sir Edward Elgar’s “Cello Concerto in E Minor, Op. 85” with a declamatory broken chord. Harrell—who made his BSO debut in November 1978—favored a smoother, lighter touch to the opening theme, as opposed to the heavily sustained passion of English cellist Jacqueline Du Pré’s definitive 1965 recording of the concerto with the London Symphony.

Harrell coaxed a fluid stream of airy sound from his cello, creating an ethereal effect that was complemented by the orchestra’s ability to carry the melodic themes through the sections between solo entrances. His never-ending lines brought the Romantic work together with an aching melancholy, echoed in the ringing pizzicato of the heart-wrenching harmonies.

Though Harrell’s performance was mostly characterized by the dreamlike quality of nebulous sound, sometimes so soft that listeners had to strain their ears to hear the pitch, his virtuosity was not dampened by his sensitivity to touch and tone in the lyrical sections. Every note in the spiccato passages of later movements was clearly articulated, and difficult ascending scales and slides were timed to perfection.

Even when not playing, Harrell’s passion continued to drive the orchestra and give the performance the sense of direction and purpose the Brahms lacked. The effect of Harrell’s performance was evident in the rousing standing ovation following the concerto.

The BSO concluded the night with a performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Manfred Symphony Op. 58,” a work inspired by the poem by English Romantic writer Lord Byron. The lush sound of the orchestra and driving pulse of the four movements created a stronger sense of cohesion in the piece than in the Brahms.

The running passage work passed from the bass strings to the violins, and the dark, brooding lines in the brass reflected the programmatic themes of the work. The muted lyrical theme in the strings in the middle of the first movement was sustained especially well and helped the overlapping phrases build to the climatic end of the movement.

The light touch of the vivace con spirito recalls that of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake,” but the orchestra erred on the heavy side, sometimes bogging down the music lines. Overall, Kuerti paced the orchestra well throughout the work for a clean performance.

The majestic entrance of the organ signaled the beginning of an almost liturgical closing section. The subsequent stately harmonic procession by the full orchestra was well conducted before returning to the opening B minor key and ending on an unsynchronized pizzicato note.

Though Kuerti led the BSO off to a lukewarm start, Harrell’s sensitive performance soon warmed the audience to three hours of Romantic pieces, which ended on a note of exhaustion in the tragic theme of the Tchaikovsky symphony.

—Reviewer June Q. Wu can be reached at