Boston Symphony Orchestra New Season

Berlioz
Overture, Le carnaval romain, Op.9
Chopin
Piano Concerto No.2 in F minor, Op.21
John Williams
On Willows and Birches, Concerto for Harp [Boston Symphony Orchestra commission: world premiere]
Debussy
La mer – three symphonic sketches

Evgeny Kissin (piano)

Ann Hobson Pilot (harp)

Boston Symphony Orchestra
James Levine


Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 23 September, 2009
Venue: Boston Symphony Hall

James LevineThis generously programmed gala concert, which opened the BSO’s 129th season, celebrated the orchestra’s long tradition with music from the French repertory, and featured Evgeny Kissin playing Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto, and for the first time in nearly three decades included a world premiere as its centerpiece: a two-movement harp concerto by former Boston Pops conductor John Williams.

The program opened with an appropriately rousing rendition of Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture. James Levine and the BSO musicians were in fine form for this, the most demanding of Berlioz’s overtures. Levine gave a warm and dramatic reading, and the orchestra responded with great vitality and virtuosic flair.

Evgeny KissinThen Evgeny Kissin gave a dazzling performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No.2. Kissin is an old hand at Chopin. As piano enthusiasts well know, he first came to international attention in 1984 when, at the age of twelve, he played and recorded both of Chopin’s piano concertos with the Moscow State Philharmonic in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. On this occasion Kissin’s splendid pianism and instinctive musicality were constantly on display. His extraordinary skills brought scintillating vitality to the passagework of the first movement, a delicate sense of dreamy meditation to the slow one, and a sparkling rhythmic lift to the finale, following which Kissin delivered an encore, a warmly emotive rendering of Valse Caprice No.6 from Soirées de Vienne, Liszt re-working Schubert.

Following intermission was John Williams’s On Willows and Birches. The composer wrote the piece especially for Ann Hobson Pilot, the BSO’s longtime principal harp who, after a 40-year career with the orchestra, retired in August, at the end of the 2009 Tanglewood season. Hobson and Williams are colleagues of long standing.

The work is about fifteen minutes long, with two highly-contrasted movements. The title ties it to other concerted works by Williams, for whom trees have a special meaning. In 1993 he composed The Five Sacred Trees for New York Philharmonic principal bassoon Judith LeClair. His TreeSong for violin and orchestra (2000) was written for soloist Gil Shaham, and Heartwood (2001), a work for cello and orchestra inspired by a book of photographs of trees, was premiered by Yo-Yo Ma.

The neatly-formulated concerto shows Williams as his most graceful and appealing. The first movement, ‘On Willows’, an Adagio inspired by a quote from Psalm 137 (“We hanged our harps upon the willows…”) evokes an ethereal and warmly elegant soundworld typically associated with the harp. The ensuing Allegro, ‘On Birches’ (after Robert Frost’s poem), with its lively, ever-shifting rhythms showcased Hobson’s expressive energy and virtuosity.

The program closed with Debussy’s La mer, one of the most frequently performed works in the BSO’s repertoire (the orchestra gave the work its American premiere in 1907). Levine and the BSO delivered a flawless performance, brimming with atmosphere, and bringing the concert to an exciting finish.

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