It may seem curious to focus on individual breath control and delicate tonal nuances in a review of a program containing no voices. But in the case of the Boston Symphony Orchestra's brilliant performance Saturday night at the Kennedy Center, the voices were winds and horns--not Prices and Hornes.
In a sprawling musical canvas like Stravinsky's complete first version of "The Firebird"--all 50 minutes of it--the first-chair players play solo so much that they are almost like singers woven into a complex orchestral fabric. "The Firebird," because it accompanies the unbroken episodes of a story ballet, is more narrative than symphonic in character and thus lacks melodic and contrapuntal unity. This is the reason "The Firebird" is usually played in abbreviated suites.
The success or failure of the complete work depends greatly on the tonal and breath control of an orchestra's solo players. The Boston Symphony's wind players have long been celebrated; their opulence and sensuousness are a main reason people keep making the crack that the Boston is "the world's greatest French orchestra."
And what they did for "The Firebird" Saturday was magical--using virtuosity for exquisite subtleties of tone and phrase. Some examples: Sherman Walt played the languid bassoon melody that is the Firebird's Lullaby's with the gravity and concentration of a great bass-baritone; Charles Kavalovski opened the solo horn theme of the final "General Thanksgiving" more deliberately, and serenely, than most horn players would have dared, for fear of giving out before the phrase's end; the luscious sound of famed first flutist Doriot Anthony Dwyer, who soared like a sumptuous soprano throughout this tonal feast; and the pure, full phrasing of Ralph Gomberg's oboe in the "Round Dance."
Conductor Seiji Ozawa held all this together with tautness and breadth, and with a superb ear for Stravinsky's tricky balances and diaphanous textures. A special word for Ozawa: Since he became the Boston's music director in 1973 he has avoided the temptation that has struck so many other conductors of his generation, to take on a great orchestra and convert it into a sound in his own image. He respects what he inherited and, 11 years later, the Boston Symphony has seldom sounded better.
The program began with Beethoven's First Symphony. It was beautifully polished, but a little short on sparkle and elegance.