Boston Symphony Orchestra/Previn Gil Shaham … Owls

Owls [Boston Symphony Orchestra commission: World premiere performances]
Violin Concerto in D
Symphony No.4 in B flat, Op.60

Gil Shaham (violin)

Boston Symphony Orchestra
André Previn

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 4 October, 2008
Venue: Boston Symphony Hall, Boston, Massachusetts

André PrevinAs part of a season-long celebration of his 80th-birthday, André Previn – who enjoys a long-standing relationship with the Boston Symphony Orchestra as a conductor, pianist and composer – returned to the Symphony Hall podium to conduct the world premiere performances of his composition Owls, a tone poem commissioned by the BSO. Prior to these Boston performances, his most recent appearances with the orchestra were at Tanglewood this past summer, where he conducted an all-Mozart program on August 10 and Russian-themed one on August 16.

Previn’s Owls is the first of four BSO commissions this season. Still to come are Leon Kirchner’s The Forbidden (also this month), Elliott Carter’s Interventions for Piano and Orchestra (December), and Gunther Schuller’s Where the Word Ends (February. James Levine conducts all three.

A pair of young Snowy owlsBSO Artistic Administrator Anthony Fogg had asked Previn to compose “a quiet piece” as an opener for this concert program, instead of (in Previn’s words) “a big, blazing opener”. Previn says the work was inspired by an incident in the woods behind his home in England: “One night I was wandering around at dusk and came upon two baby owls that had fallen out of a tree. I called the British equivalent of the ASPCA and was told to pick the owls up and bring them inside to save them … The Society came and picked them up, then, when they were well, returned them to just where they’d been found; and they flew off.”

The resulting work, an orchestral nocturne about ten minutes long, picks up on the idea of animals spotted in pairs. Previn makes prominent and frequent use of paired woodwinds to convey a generally peaceful atmosphere. Balancing lush tonal melodies from the strings with polytonal dissonance from the woodwinds, the highly pictorial piece suggests a succession of forest sounds and scenes at twilight: small animals scampering about, the fluttering of wings, and the hooting of owls among them.

Previn, who needs a little extra help and time to walk to and from the podium, conducted a decidedly genial account of his highly accessible music. Under his direction, the BSO delivered a light, fluidly played performance.

After Owls, the charismatic violinist Gil Shaham administered a strong dose of adrenaline with a lively, biting account of Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto. Shaham was at his most incisive in the outer movements – the bright opening ‘Toccata’ and the splendidly spiky ‘Capriccio’ – which, with the help of Previn and the BSO musicians, were bold and full of wit. The slow inner movements, both entitled ‘Aria’ came across as more deeply felt and expressive played. ‘Aria II’ in particular, a true lyric showpiece, was most sensitively shaped.

The second half of the concert was far less exciting: an overly subdued account of Beethoven’s Symphony No.4. The daunting bassoon solo in the final movement, vigorously played by Richard Svoboda, instilled a welcome bit of energy into what, on the whole, came across as a disappointingly limp performance.

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