The Boston Symphony, Landing On Its Feet

David Robertson conducted in James Levine's absence.
David Robertson conducted in James Levine's absence. (Washington Performing Arts Society)
By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 13, 2006

The Boston Symphony Orchestra is playing better than it has in many years, and its Saturday afternoon concert at the Kennedy Center, presented under the auspices of the Washington Performing Arts Society, was one of the great musical events of the season.

It was always obvious that the program was going to be smart, varied and challenging -- familiar works by Richard Strauss and Beethoven intertwined with brand-new music by Peter Lieberson and Elliott Carter -- but the circumstances surrounding the performance infused the afternoon with some high drama as well.

James Levine, the orchestra's recently installed music director, took a nasty tumble two weeks ago while leaving the stage of Boston's Symphony Hall and landed on his shoulder, putting him out of commission. The fall, which took place only days before the orchestra was to leave on its first tour under Levine's direction, might have necessitated a complete change of program (conductors equally happy in Beethoven and Carter are just about as rare as ivory-billed woodpeckers) had it not been for the availability of David Robertson.

Robertson is clearly the young conductor of the hour -- the music director of the St. Louis Symphony through 2008 and a leading contender for the top jobs at the orchestras in Chicago and New York. He made a strong impression here when he conducted the National Symphony Orchestra in 2004; still, nothing could have prepared me for the assurance and authority he displayed on Saturday, on such short notice.

The afternoon began with Strauss's "Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks," the tone poem's second performance in Washington in as many months. It was, for once, played with a total absence of "cute"; rather, it seemed just as serious, unified and epical as the composer's "Don Juan." One was reminded that Strauss's orchestration, while big and ornate and sometimes mind-splittingly lush, is also astonishingly clear -- that the blowzy and undifferentiated sounds produced by lesser orchestras in this material usually represent a lapse of taste on the part of the players and conductors, rather than the composer. On Saturday, all was sweeping, charged, meticulous and seemingly inevitable.

Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 was conceived in the same spirit and was also beautifully played. This was not a performance for all tastes -- I found its demeanor rather fierce and its tempos unrelentingly fast, as though the symphony had been (as Quaker used to claim for its Puffed Rice) "shot from guns." But there could be no denying the vitality of Robertson's interpretation: He plotted the symphony as four grand and vehement dances, all of which crackled with electricity and excitement.

The mere fact that Elliott Carter is still composing music in his late nineties is one for the Guinness Book. He was represented by a set of short pieces entitled "Three Illusions," written between 2002 and 2004, and they were pretty much what might have been expected of Carter three decades ago -- brainy, tensile, hard-edged, abrupt. Those who respond to this composer's music tend to like it wholeheartedly, and any fair-minded listener ought to honor Carter for pursuing his sonic "vision" with such integrity for so many years, with no apparent diminution of his powers.

But the great new music of the afternoon came with Peter Lieberson's "Neruda Songs" for mezzo-soprano and orchestra. The soloist was Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, the composer's wife, and it is one of very few engagements she has managed to keep in the past year. She has been said to be suffering from a back injury (a bizarre and invasive article in the New York Times last year suggested more challenging health problems). Whatever the case, the "Neruda Songs" -- a setting of five love poems on deep and wrenching subjects such as passing delight, memory, fear of separation and transcendence beyond death -- is one of the most extraordinarily affecting artistic gifts ever created by one lover for another.

"I am so grateful for Neruda's beautiful poetry," Peter Lieberson wrote in his program notes. "When I set them I was speaking directly to my own beloved, Lorraine." And the gift was reciprocated by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's rapt performance, which I will remember all my life. Her voice took on a floating intensity (two words that can very rarely be used together). Every phrase seemed fraught with meaning, yet nothing was strained or histrionic.

The score is achingly lovely, a genuine mixture of modernism and romanticism (rather than the tawdry, forced mating of so-called "neo-romanticism") that has been sumptuously orchestrated and charged with the same appreciative ripeness that pervades Richard Strauss's "Four Last Songs."

While taking their bows, composer and soloist fell into each other's arms with the same ardor they had brought to the creation of their masterpiece: This was no time for the tidy, professional peck on the cheek. I hope the "Neruda Songs" are recorded, for they are just as universal as they are shatteringly personal.

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