A few weeks ago, the conductor James Levine landed in the headlines by announcing that he was canceling his remaining appearances this season with the Boston Symphony Orchestra for health reasons and, quickly thereafter, that he was stepping down from the music directorship of the orchestra altogether. The announcement raised questions about Levine’s ability to continue conducting at all, though he is planning to honor all his coming engagements with the Metropolitan Opera. It also cast a pall over one of the highlights of Washington’s spring season, the BSO’s appearance at the Kennedy Center courtesy of the Washington Performing Arts Society, which — led not by Levine, but by Roberto Abbado — took place as scheduled on Saturday afternoon.
To replace Levine on the current tour — which also included stops in New Jersey and Carnegie Hall — the orchestra had to find conductors who were both prominent enough and available enough. Abbado, the scion of a musical family who is destined to be known throughout his life as Claudio Abbado’s nephew, toes just this line: At 56, he has established himself as a perfectly reliable and unobjectionable figure on the international B list. He did nothing on Saturday to contradict this impression.
It’s no small feat to conduct a world-class orchestra on short notice, in a new program. (When the season was announced, Levine was slated to lead Mozart’s “Jupiter” symphony and Schumann’s Third; Abbado, however, conducted Haydn’s Symphony No. 93, Bartok’s third piano concerto and Beethoven’s Fifth.) At the same time, a world-class orchestra such as the BSO is capable of playing very well no matter who’s standing in front of them, particularly in familiar repertory such as Beethoven’s Fifth. That’s not to say they necessarily will play well. There was a general consensus when Levine took over in 2004 that the orchestra was in need of some corrective work. To judge from Sunday’s performance, Levine has done a fine job; the orchestra sounded full, warm and responsive.
Abbado is not chopped liver by any means. In fact, he’s a considerable technician. On Saturday, reasonably enough for someone coming in on short notice, he focused on detail and control, whether tamping down the orchestra to a tissue-thin layer of sound, ramping them up to warp speed in the Allegro of the third movement of the Beethoven, or focusing on the orchestra’s middle voices so much that the dominant themes were eclipsed.
What was lacking was a sense of emotional urgency. The afternoon offered lots of polished surfaces, but it didn’t always seem to matter very much. The robust brass could become a little lackluster, the thunderous buildup to the fourth movement of the Beethoven didn’t have real payoff. The Haydn was elegant and polite — not necessarily adjectives you’d associate with a wide-ranging symphony filled with earthy humor, like the blatt from the bassoon that rips indecorously through the end of the second movement.
Abbado seemed, in fact, the opposite of Christoph Eschenbach, who led the National Symphony Orchestra in Beethoven’s Fifth here not quite two months ago. Eschenbach is not a paragon of technical precision, but his music-making is always deeply felt.
The afternoon’s highlight was the Bartok, with Peter Serkin as the pianist, looking and sounding professorial in the best sense: Appearing at a slight remove, he explicated the music so as to render it transparent and evident to the ear. At the start of the second movement, he presented each chord as a discrete and precious object, set off on a cushion of the empty space that surrounded it, and continued to build steadily toward a maelstrom of sound without ever losing sight of the initial, inspiring thought. The third movement leapt from a springboard of triple rhythms into a romp of syncopations, the orchestra taking up the soloist’s music with an eagerness that threatened to bowl him over.