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Beethoven, Elliott Carter, Debussy, John Williams and Ravel: Boston Symphony Orchestra, Julian Kuerti & Shi-Yeon Sung (BSO assistant conductors), Boston, 3.10.2009 (KH)

Beethoven, Symphony № 4 in B-flat, Opus 60 - (Julian Kuerti conducting)

Carter, Mosaic for harp & chamber ensemble
Debussy, Danses sacrée et profane
Williams, “On Willows and Birches,” Concerto for Harp (2009) -Ann Hobson Pilot, harp
Ravel, La valse, poème choréographique - (Shi-Yeon Sung conducting)

On 29 September, the headline in The New York Times’s  “ArtBeat” read, James Levine to Undergo Back Surgery, Cancels Performances. Levine was to have led the BSO in a performance as part of Carnegie Hall’s opening gala, and time was too short to field a substitute.

In Boston the ensuing weekend, there was enough going on for the subscription concerts at Symphony Hall that two assistant conductors shared conducting duties, and rose brilliantly to the occasion. My pleasure at this includes a measure of both relief and surprise  - as I remembered an earlier occasion where an assistant substituted at the last minute for an unexpectedly hospitalized Levine, and the evening was largely a musical disappointment.

There was nothing tentative on Saturday in either assistant conductor at the podium. Julian Kuerti led the orchestra in what overall I should call the best Beethoven I have heard in the hall in the past few seasons. This even though I might be expected to listen with a ‘harsher ear’, as the Fourth is one of my very favorites among the Beethoven symphonies. The spirited energy in both the Allegro vivace of the opening movement and the Allegro ma non troppo of the finale was electrifying. The Adagio was perhaps just shy of conviction, though it were hard to say why; there was nothing wrong with tempo, or with the character, or with the balance in the textures. Just one of those cases where a little more rapport between conductor and band might have made up the difference.

BSO principal harpist Ann Hobson Pilot officially retired this past April at the end of the 2008-2009 subscription season. Levine has often told that Ms Hobson Pilot had intended to retire sooner, but that she consented to stay on, at his earnest request.

Elliott Carter’s Mosaic was a joint commission from England’s Nash Ensemble, and from the BSO for the Boston Symphony Chamber Players. Ms Hobson Pilot thus gave the American première with Fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center on 22 July 2008. Prior to this weekend, I had always seen the piece as scored for “solo harp and seven instruments” — where in the program at Symphony this was adjusted to harp and chamber ensemble. Carter had written it so that the oboist could double on English horn, and the clarinetist on bass clarinet; however it came about, it was decided to let separate players drive these four instruments, and thus there were eleven people on stage (including conductor Shi-Yeon Sung). Each new Carter piece I hear, I tend to like simply because it sounds (and looks) such fun; such an impression is helped when the harpist is she who had given the US première, and she is accompanied by Boston’s finest.

Incredibly, the Boston Symphony had played the Debussy Danses only once before, at Tanglewood ten years ago. So there was an extra goose-bump this weekend at the thought of the hearing this score at Symphony Hall for the very first time. A more dramatic contrast with the Carter immediately before were hard to imagine. But for all the differences between the two composers, and between their separate styles and eras, the two pieces showed rich character, and a mastery of scoring serving a joy in musical color.

Shi-Yeon Sung closed out “The Triumph of the Apprentices” with Ravel’s sumptuous La valse. We had last heard La valse at Symphony in April of 2005, but Ms Sung’s account on Saturday topped that occasion in fire and exhilaration.

We were all dismayed on Levine’s behalf to hear of his sudden indisposition. This past concert marked the orchestra’s true return to business (after the opening gala). We all wish Levine a speedy recovery; and we are relieved to find that the store is minded so very well in his absence.

Karl Henning

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