Boston Symphony Orchestra/Shi-Yeon Sung Nelson Freire – The Bard … Appalachian Spring … The Miraculous Mandarin

The Bard, Op.64
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.16
Appalachian Spring – Suite
The Miraculous Mandarin – Suite

Nelson Freire (piano)

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Shi-Yeon Sung

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 9 April, 2009
Venue: Boston Symphony Hall, Boston, Massachusetts

Shi-Yeon Sung, in her second season as the first female assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, led the orchestra for the first time last July at Tanglewood. This concert marked her first appearance at Symphony Hall, and she made an impressive debut conducting a rich and varied program.

The evening began with Sibelius’s rarely-heard tone poem, The Bard. The most the composer ever divulged about its inspiration was to say that it “refers to a skald (bard) of the Ancient Scandinavian world and is not drawn from the Kalevala”. Composed in 1913, the brief, meditative piece shows Sibelius at his most evocative. It begins with soft chords on a harp over a backdrop of unsettled motifs in the violins, followed by passages of misty harmonies and moments of shimmering activity in the violas and cellos, and ends with a sense of resignation. Sung perfectly captured the music’s brooding, introspective atmosphere in a compelling performance that drew splendid playing from orchestra. Principal harp Ann Hobson Pilot played her extensive solos with impressive agility and grace, while the BSO strings displayed a splendid richness in timbre.

Nelson Freire. ©Andrys BastenGrieg’s popular Piano Concerto followed, with Nelson Freire as the soloist. Sensitivity, spontaneity and grace were the hallmarks of his performance, and Sung and the vibrant orchestra supported him superbly. Freire’s lithe, sensitive playing was especially mesmerizing in the more reflective passages – the opening of the second movement, for example – but he was bold and authoritative when required. Freire responded to the audience’s enthusiastic ovation with an encore: a captivating rendition (in Sgambati’s arrangement) of ‘Dance of the Blessed Spirits’ from Gluck’s opera “Orfeo ed Euridice”.

The BSO has a long history with the concert-suite of Copland’s greatest ballet score, Appalachian Spring, composed for choreographer Martha Graham. The first BSO performance, conducted by Serge Koussevitzky, took place on 5 October 1945, one day after Artur Rodzinski and the New York Philharmonic had introduced it. Among the BSO’s numerous subsequent performances is one in 1959 led by the composer himself, and preserved on an RCA recording.

Sung delivered a warmly lyrical reading, but it was not as inspired as one would wish. She drew some beautiful playing from the orchestra, including some especially vibrant detail from the winds, but overall this was a less than sharply edged performance that failed to fully catch the robust spirit of the work.

She was much more successful with the final piece, a vigorous account of the Suite from Bartók’s ballet-pantomime The Miraculous Mandarin”. Bartók’s eerie, demented score is full of biting harmonies, driving rhythms and angular lines, and Sung’s intense, perfectly shaped reading brilliantly conveyed the lurid and violent passages, entering fully into the merciless barbarism of Bartók’s score, as well as the more shadowy, mysterious passages. Particularly vivid contributions came from the brass, especially the trombones and William R. Hudgins’s clarinet.

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