You might not think that a conductor nearing his 80th birthday and leading an orchestra from a swivel chair would be as effective as a conductor in full health, but you would be wrong. On Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall, the Boston Symphony Orchestra careened through a delightfully energetic performance led by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, a frequent guest conductor for this orchestra and several others across North America. Mr Frühbeck de Burgos, even while seated, drew crisp interpretations of three works composed within a thirteen-year span, from 1930 to 1943. The “giuoco delle coppie” (“game of pairs”) of Bartók’s 1943 Concerto for Orchestra truly felt like a game, and the orchestra, joined by American pianist Garrick Ohlsson, was fleet and focused throughout the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, written by Rachmaninov in 1934. Both the Bartók Concerto and the concert-opener, Hindemith’s Concert Music for Strings and Brass, were composed for and received their world premières by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, though the orchestra’s incredible rendering of the Concerto dashed any thoughts of the Konzertmusik from my mind.

Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos © Morten Abrahamsen
Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos
© Morten Abrahamsen

The 1930 Konzertmusik for Strings and Brass was perhaps not the wisest choice to kick off the BSO’s three-night residency at Carnegie Hall. German composer Paul Hindemith churned out some fascinating music during his 68 years, but this work, despite its historical significance for the BSO, is somewhat dreary. The musicians plodded from the full, powerful opening through heavy-handed dissonance, chromaticism, melodic sections, and finally the resolution of the dramatic finish. The playing wasn’t entirely consistent: usually nimble, occasionally muddy.

Luckily the energy picked up with Rachmaninov’s playful Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. The collaboration between Mr Frühbeck de Burgos in his swivel chair and Mr Ohlsson at the piano bench was fluid and flawless. Any apprehensions regarding this arrangement dissolved with the unfolding of a subtle, precise communication between the musicians, soloist, and conductor; additionally, any apprehension only enhanced the rawest aspect of live music. The reminder that, in spite of any Carnegie-goer’s high expectations, this wasn’t a pre-prepared performance, lent an unexpected breathlessness to the experience. The Rhapsody, which consists of an introduction and 24 variations, was transformed into more than just an exploration of a series of notes. Mr Frühbeck de Burgos kept the well-known melodies from sounding at all regurgitated, and Mr Ohlsson tackled the work with an understated lyricism. Double octaves, leaps from one end of the keyboard to the other – even the most ballistically challenging passages looked effortless and were woven delicately into the compelling fabric of the piece at large.

After intermission, Mr Frühbeck de Burgos and the musicians kept up the momentum with a brilliant rendition of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, so titled because, rather than a single soloist, each section of the orchestra is highlighted at some point during the piece. Hungarian composer Béla Bartók was not only one of the foremost composers of the early 20th century, he was also essentially the first ethnomusicologist, through his study and teaching of folk music. His concerto is teeming with folk melodies handed off from section to section throughout the five widely varying movements. During the first movement, the hushed opening splintered suddenly into searing chords from the strings; the musicians plunged into the quickly shifting textures and rhythmic complexities with a vitality that was a joy to watch. The chorale in the second movement shone with warmth, juxtaposing gracefully with the interlacing, almost dance-like folk tunes passing from instrument to instrument. The third movement was lush, while the fourth movement was lively and at times almost comedic, and the final movement soared with gathering intensity, finally finishing in a frantic flurry that felt almost surreal. Mr Frühbeck de Burgos and the BSO deserved their lengthy round of applause; the evening’s program may have all been from the same general era, but it covered a wide array of musical ideas and emotions.