Two tight chords slicing the silence, not so much a beginning as an authoritative and dismissive ending. Ignore what has gone before; everything from here on will be different. Pay attention. So Andris Nelsons chose to launch his performance of Symphony no. 3 in E flat major “Eroica” highlighting the dialectic between the traditional and revolutionary aspects of this seminal work in an effort to dramatize its truly trailblazing nature for an audience well familiar with it and its legacy.

Andris Nelsons © Marco Borggreve
Andris Nelsons
© Marco Borggreve

As the titular hero struggles to master his fate and, in remaking himself, remake the world, so Beethoven wrestles with Mozart and Haydn as he seeks to master his own voice and remake the symphony. The result baffled early audiences: too long, too dissonant, too rhythmically confusing with different meters often in direct conflict. Melodies drift in and out. The cellos are a major independent voice and there are three horns! And just what was a funeral march doing in a symphony in the first place? Nelsons tried to restore a sense of the symphony’s strangeness by accentuating precisely those aspects which bewildered Beethoven’s audiences. Usually he is able to maintain tension and momentum as he lingers over specific passages. Unfortunately, that was not consistently the case with the Eroica. Transitions were not as smooth as they might have been and the two more restless outer movements in particular flagged at times, leaving the jubilation of the concluding coda unusually muted. Perhaps things will gel better in subsequent performances.

Unusually muted as well was Emanuel Ax closing the first half of the program with Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 22 in E flat major . This is one of Ax’s favorite concertos. He has played it several times in the past year and just six months ago at Tanglewood with Charles Dutoit. That performance was effervescent and colorful. This one was less gregarious, more withdrawn and generalized. An agile, light touch, refined dynamic contrasts,  luminous cascades of runs and trills, and a darker tone than usual in Mozart remained constants however. The reduced orchestra kept up its end of the conversation giving a welcome nudge from time to time to its interlocutor.

The program opened on a brighter note with Gunther Schuller’s Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee. Klee, the son of two musicians, initially trained as a musician himself. When he turned to art, music remained an inspiration. Gunther Schuller’s compositions frequently drew inspiration from the visual arts. Frequent trips to the Museum of Modern Art during his fifteen-year tenure in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra exposed him to Klee’s work. When he composed the studies in 1959, he chose works with specific musical references and, in effect, translated them back into music.

The blocks of color in Antique Harmonies became blocks of sound, many “antique” open fifths; three different instruments at a time cycled through Abstract Trio, creating a shifting palette of colors and textures; the orchestra morphed into a jazz ensemble complete with cymbal grooves and walking bass for Little Blue Devil, while The Twittering Machine did, as Schuller himself said, “primarily one thing: twitter” like a tree full of puckish birds. Arabian Town conjured a flute playing snake charmer music offstage then shifted further east to India as the viola, harp, and oboe intertwined to create the sound of something like a sitar.

Schuller limned the eerie aspect of Klee’s colorless An Eerie Moment by mimicking its odd humanoid and animal shapes to create a strange and ominous atmosphere. Klee subtitled Pastorale – which looks like a cuneiform tablet with its alternating rows of contrasting shapes – “Rhythms”. Those rows suggested to Schuller a series of variations which he expressed through “several rhythmic-melodic shapes” sinuously sounding “on various register and speed (temporal) levels”. Nelsons mixed the paints, expertly shading the hues, while the orchestra brushed on the shifting rhythms and colors with deft strokes.