At this time of pandemic uncertainty and austerity in the arts, it was brave of the Boston Symphony Orchestra to bring its fullest forces on its six-concert Japan tour to perform repertoire such as Mahler’s Sixth Symphony and Strauss’ Alpine Symphony. I caught the orchestra on its final day of the tour in Suntory Hall, and it was clear from the performance that the Strauss highlighted the best of the current partnership of Music Director Andris Nelsons and his orchestra.

Andris Nelsons conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra
© Naoya Ikegami | Suntory Hall

I've previously found the Alpine Symphony over-descriptive, too much of a vehicle for virtuosic display of the orchestra. It had felt like I was observing someone’s ascent and descent of the Alpine mountain from a distance – in awe but not involved personally. But Nelsons’ approach was not merely about the spectacular symphonic display of his undoubtedly world-class orchestra, but it was a vivid but nuanced, sensitive and all-embracing experience that took the listener on the mountain journey too. I felt I was amidst the sunrise, the birds, the darkening sky and the storm.

Nelsons paced and steered the orchestra through the 22 tableaux smoothly and seamlessly. The vibrato-induced warmth of the string section, brilliant from top to bottom, formed the foundation of the orchestral sonority, above which the woodwind flourished, depicting birdsong, waterfall, shepherd’s pipes, and the staggering walk across the glaciers. Meanwhile, the magnificent brass (including Wagner tubas) glowed brightly and lushly, sometimes darkly. The smooth, mellow sound of the BSO brass is distinctive even within the US orchestras, let alone from the European or Russian traditions. The solo trumpet and horn deserve special mention: in particular, it was the last performance for horn principal James Sommerville, and he was given a long and warm ovation at the end by Nelsons and the players, which the audience also joined enthusiastically. The harpists and the multi-tasking percussionists also provided vivid colours, and the organist played on Suntory Hall’s great organ with sensitivity.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra
© Naoya Ikegami | Suntory Hall

What was memorable was that the climaxes – the sunrise, on the summit, the storm – were not only monumental in terms of sonority and orchestral brilliance, but were also truly emotional moments as well. Meanwhile, the subtle expressions Nelsons beautifully shaped in the more introspective and darker moments were equally evocative and moving. It was a memorable performance that showed how deeply Nelsons identifies with this work and how the orchestra shared his vision.

In comparison, the first half of the concert was less memorable. It opened with a string orchestra version of Caroline Shaw’s Punctum, which she recently arranged for the BSO as part of its commissions to female composers, and premiered last summer at Tanglewood. It is an increasingly popular repertoire work for string quartets, and I recently heard it vividly performed in London by the members of the Philharmonia Orchestra. Somehow the orchestral version, while gaining in sonority and colour, loses the vividness of the gestures and the harmonic tensions of the original. 

Andris Nelsons
© Naoya Ikegami | Suntory Hall

Mozart’s Symphony no. 40 in G minor was characterised by an elegant and lyrical approach, which is fine if you like your Mozart rich and creamy, but if you prefer a leaner, more articulated approach (even on modern instruments), it wasn’t for you. The first movement was Romantic and melancholic rather than turbulent, and the second movement was mellifluously played, but at a plodding pace. Things perked up a little in the Menuetto, with some lively wind playing in the Trio section, and concluded with some fine ensemble playing in the finale. A concert of two halves then, but an Alpine experience to remember.