Boston Symphony in New York

Coriolan Overture, Op.62
Piano Concerto No.2 in F minor, Op.21
John Williams
On Willows and Birches, Harp Concerto [NY premiere]
La mer – three symphonic sketches

Evgeny Kissin (piano)

Ann Hobson Pilot (harp)

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Daniele Gatti

Reviewed by: Gail Wein

Reviewed: 1 October, 2009
Venue: Carnegie Hall, New York City

Daniele GattiIt can’t be easy to come up with an eleventh-hour replacement conductor for an A-list orchestra. But that’s exactly the scramble that the Boston Symphony Orchestra administration was going through just a few days ago, when James Levine had to undergo emergency back surgery. Daniele Gatti, already in New York to lead the Metropolitan Opera in Verdi’s “Aïda”, was tapped for the last-minute job.

Gatti, currently the director of the Orchestre National de France, faced a special challenge in that the program included John Williams’s On Willows and Birches. With just a handful of hours to become familiar with Williams’s score, Gatti did an outstanding job conducting this engaging piece. The concerto was written for and performed by Ann Hobson Pilot, the recently retired principal harpist of the Boston Symphony. Hobson had been asking Williams to write a concerto for her for years; the two had gotten to know each other in the 1980s when Williams was conductor of the Boston Pops. The composer had long resisted this proposal, citing an overloaded schedule and the difficulties of writing music for harp with orchestra. Hobson persisted, and finally with her impending retirement after 40 years with the BSO, Williams obliged.

The first movement, ‘On Willows’, has one of the most delicate beginnings of any music in classical repertoire, a dreamy solo harp with solo strings and flute. Generally the accompaniment kept to a respectful pianissimo, in deference to the harp’s dainty sound.

The second movement, ‘On Birches’, is pure John Williams of Hollywood. Its whimsical melody has one picturing sprites bounding around the forest. Full-orchestra chords including bells, a signature Williams technique, and his colorful use of percussion, combine to create very accessible music; and Pilot seemed to have at least twenty fingers to elicit complicated passages from her instrument.

On Willows and Branches manages to sound fresh and conventional at the same time. There aren’t that many worthy works for harp and orchestra, and my guess is that this one will become part of the standard repertoire pretty quickly.

In many ways Debussy’s La mer was a fine complement to John Williams’s music. Though written a century apart, the two works share an Impressionist style, a focus on color and a cinematic sound. Under Gatti the BSO gave an appropriately nuanced and subtle performance. In the impressive crescendo at the conclusion of the first section, ‘From Dawn to Midday’, replete with swelling brass, timpani and fortissimo violins, one could visualize the Hokusai print of an enormous breaking wave which the composer chose to adorn the cover of the published score. The BSO captured the urgency of the final section, ‘Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea’, ending the work, and the concert in physically powerful style.

The concert did not begin with bounding brilliance. Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture (the only modification that Gatti made to the program, replacing Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture), initially lacked energy. Perhaps Gatti was being overly cautious, but in any event, the plodding effect was short-lived.

Evgeny KissinChopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 featured Evgeny Kissin. He has performed often with the Boston Symphony and the comfort between soloist and orchestra was evident. His bright approach to the first movement produced a jaunty, nearly jazz-like theme, complimented by excellent playing in the lovely woodwind chorale. In the finale, Gatti’s spritely tempo and Kissin’s effusive fluidity and emotional intensity swept the piece to a thrilling end.

Kissin was typically generous with encores, Soirées de Vienne (Valses caprices d’après Schubert) by Franz Liszt was full of contrast and youthful ardor, and, with many in the audience having begun their intermission schmoozing, Kissin offered Chopin’s ‘Minute’ Waltz at a challenging pace.

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