Serge Koussevitzky was as much a presence in Symphony Hall opening night as Finnish maestro, Hannu Lintu, making his BSO debut. Of the three pieces performed, Koussevitzky led the world premières of two: Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments (London, 1921) and Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra (Boston, 1943), and made a calling card of the third, Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings. In fact, the BSO’s identification with the Bartók is such that over 20 different conductors have programmed it since 1943 – some multiple times – while the orchestra has recorded it thrice. Meeting the score’s many challenges is now so taken for granted that it has become a sort of diagnostic for the orchestra’s health. Based on this performance, it is safe to say, “the kids are alright”.

Brooding double basses answered by ghostly violins and a skirling flute opened the Concerto  with three distinct voices and three distinct timbres. The rest of the lower strings joined in along with the brass to complete a summoning of forces shrouded in mystery and foreboding. Mood and color changed with the introduction of swirling dance rhythms both sinister and sensuous and redolent of The Arabian Nights. Lintu continued to sharply delineate and characterize Bartók’s cavalcade of contrasting episodes capturing the score’s tension between light and darkness and imbuing the exchanges between and amongst instruments with a conversational quality. This latter aspect served best the score’s puckish humor and nowhere moreso than in the Intermezzo interrotto where various instruments constantly heckle the ongoing Shostakovich parody.

Erich Leinsdorf once compared the Concerto with its preponderance of Allegro markings and its combination of the quicksilver and the autumnal to Verdi’s Falstaff. Lintu’s weighty lightness betrayed a similar sensibility.

Lightness of a different sort – spare and stark – characterizes Stravinsky’s 1947 revision of Symphonies of Wind Instruments. A marked departure from the kaleidoscopic scores of his three Paris ballets, this brief piece for 23 instruments had its genesis in a brass chorale written for a commemorative issue of La Revue musicale honoring the recently deceased Debussy. The chorale became the final passage in a score augmented by the woodwinds. It honored its dedicatee through a Jeux-like exploration of discontinuity and collage with swift and ever changing combinations of instruments, rhythms, timbres, and motifs.

Lintu sat the woodwinds in three rows in front of him. The brass remained apart but in their usual place curling out in a line along the back wall from the stage left corner, heightening the individuality of  the two cohorts and the score’s collage aspect. Lintu played with timbre, color, and voicing to differentiate the various episodes of what Stravinsky described as an  “austere ritual [...] of short litanies”. Even so he couldn’t keep the recurring motif for the clarinets which opens Symphonies from sounding like honking geese.

The BSO strings, led by First Associate Concertmaster, Tamara Smirnova, stood in a tight semi-circle with the double basses embedded in the center of the group to perform Tchaikovsky’s Serenade. Only the cellos were seated. Performing without a conductor, the large group played off each other like a chamber ensemble. The full lustrous tone and robust attack opening the first movement raised chills. The gravity of the opening gave way to the lilting grace of the famous waltz and the warm embrace of the elegy. The closing movement began as soothing as a lullaby, its air of repose cunningly dispersed  by the wild dance of the virtuoso Allegro con spirito.

Both pieces in the first half set the table for the Bartók: Stravinsky with his use of collage and a succession of succinct episodes growing out of and elaborating on previous material; Tchaikovsky with his inclusion of an elegy and a final movement where more somber music tries to intrude but is consistently overwhelmed by a lively flurry of strings, ultimately ending things with an affirmative flourish. Bartók likely had neither piece in mind while composing the Concerto but affinities abound nonetheless creating a collage out of the program itself. 

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