Since its founding, the Boston Symphony had been staffed and led by German or German-educated musicians. An exodus following the conclusion of World War I and the appointment of two French conductors in a row, Henri Rabaud and Pierre Monteux, began the orchestra’s transformation into a French ensemble, a shift solidified when a strike during Monteux’s tenure created 30 vacancies for him to fill. Andris Nelsons' program this week paid homage to that history with two touchstones of the French repertory, plus a commissioned piece by George Benjamin which owes much to the French impressionists and his teacher, Olivier Messiaen.

Andris Nelsons © Marco Borggreve
Andris Nelsons
© Marco Borggreve

The BSO gave the American première of Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin in 1920 under Monteux. It has been performed with regularity ever since, once conducted by Ravel himself. Both in poetry and music the tombeau genre was somber and elegiac. Ravel felt “the dead were sad enough” and chose the vital rhythms of the dance to honor the memory of his comrades fallen in battle. The forms may evoke Couperin, but the music is firmly in the 20th century with its use of the chromatic scale, dissonance, and pungent harmonies. Springing rhythms, bright colors and sparkling clarity animated the dances, even the more restrained Menuet, in a life-affirming romp. John Ferillo’s oboe stood out as it negotiated the challenging twists and turns of the Prèlude and voiced the lilting melody of the Menuet. Harpist Jessica Zhou discreetly dealt with a snapped string, sliding over to play the other harp set for the following two pieces. This was the first of two string mishaps; Assistant Concertmaster, Elita Kang, would have to deal with one of her own.

George Benjamin is British by birth but his musical genealogy is French, thanks to Messiaen, and the influence of Pierre Boulez. He is a direct descendant of Ravel and the impressionists in his skillful use of color and texture. Dream of the Song takes its title from an anthology of translations of Hebrew poetry written in Muslim and Christian Spain between 950 and 1492, Dream of the Poem. Benjamin chose texts by two 11th-century poets, Ibn Gabriol and Samuel HaNagid, for the countertenor, and snippets from García Lorca poems in Spanish, inspired by 8th-century Arab poetry, for the female chorus. Twice the two sing simultaneously, the intermingling and overlapping of vocal timbres, genres, images, and languages creating a richer, more intensely dreamlike atmosphere of mystery and allusion than the solos. Benjamin wanted the eight female voices to “surround and encase the sound of the countertenor” an effect blunted here by standing the consummate women of the Lorelei Ensemble on the floor instead of a platform, as done at Tanglewood this past summer.

Benjamin wrote the countertenor part for Bejun Mehta, whose commitment was total and physical, moulding phrases with his hands and arms, using his body for dramatic emphasis. The extended melisma on the very first word “naked” spun out in pure, full, robust tones. Mehta’s ethereal, unearthly sound wrapped the themes of mortality and the toll of passing time in an angelic halo and both blended and contrasted eloquently with the voices of the female chorus.

Rainer Maria Rilke, contemplating a forest, wrote “These tree are magnificent, but even more magnificent is the sublime and moving space between them.” Nelson’s interpretation of the Symphonie fantastique dwells in that space, exploring Berlioz’s opium-induced hallucinations in all their sublime weirdness, plumbing the depth of life and intimate grandeur revealed through the orchestral spectacle. Dreams transport us beyond the immediate into the ghostly expanse of the infinite where logic and causality cease to rule. That sense of vast space animated the balance, voicing and dynamic range Nelsons lavished on the symphony’s five parts. Attacks were sharp, rhythms elastic, phrasing carefully calibrated, each section had its own color and distinct voice. A spectral aura shrouded the entire symphony, most strikingly in the ball of the second movement, while time stood still for the “Scene in the Country” from the moment the oboe called out to the English horn. Though John Ferillo and Robert Sheena were only one seat away from each other they sounded like wraiths calling across a vast indeterminate expanse. Even this pastoral interlude skirted the frontier of the macabre before Nelsons had the orchestra. hurtling towards the manic frenzy of the Witches’ Sabbath.

Berlioz’s symphony was performed so many times (and recorded twice) during Charles Munch’s thirteen years as Music Director that it became in effect the orchestra’s calling card. Munch often blazed trough the piece in 45 minutes or less. Nelson’s more leisurely pace allowed details rarely heard to register and put his own unique stamp on this hometown favorite.

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