Maestro Kent Nagano’s opening words to the audience outlined the plan of the program eloquently. The concert was to be an investigation of form and structure, as elucidated musically by the surprising juxtaposition of Boulez’s monstrous orchestration and Perotin’s plainchant. The Boulez, according to the maestro, is a ‘kaleidoscope of structural evolutions,’ each small piano piece developing expansively into larger and more complex movements. Similarly, the melodic material of the Perotin chant is expanded structurally from one basic unit or idea. With the addition of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto and Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Symphony, Nagano and the OSM truly crafted a unique and compelling program.

Kent Nagano © Ben Ealovega
Kent Nagano
© Ben Ealovega

The Boulez Notations I and IV found Nagano at his most precise, his clear and sharp gestures reminiscent of the conducting style of the composer himself. A gigantic orchestra portended a kind of wild Bacchanalian discord, but in fact the interpretation was carefully controlled and balanced––each unique orchestral timbre was allowed to breathe and resonate clearly.

The ultra-modernist music of Boulez bookended the archaic Organum: Viderunt omnus of Perotin, sung by an a capella choir and accompanied by a droning nyckelharpa, a 600 year-old stringed instrument. The combination of Boulez and Perotin was surprisingly effective––the vocalists suddenly emerged from behind the orchestra and sang below great stalactite-like organ pipes. This foray into experimental programming was a complete success––the audience’s applause was full of surprise and gratitude for the unique experience.

Gidon Kremer is an artist who has refused to specialize. His celebrated repertoire literally spans the entire evolution of the violin as a solo instrument, yet he maintains the ability to deliver stunning renditions of the tried-and-true classics. This was especially true for his interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. He played boldly and with great abandon, though without the over-indulgent vibrato so prevalent in the interpretations of young prodigies. In fact, the OSM and Kremer delivered an uncommonly subtle and respectful Tchaikovsky, devoid of the unnecessary rubato and portamento that pervades many famous recordings. The batonless Nagano was observed with heightened expressivity and intimacy, and the OSM, although containing a more-than-generous compliment of strings, played as though chamber musicians, responding to Kremer’s every nuance with the most agile musical reflexivity.

The Fifteenth Symphony of Shostakovich has often been perceived as a lengthy reminiscence––a recollection of a whole lifetime replete with childhood humor and curiosity, the boldness of middle age, hard pain of war and pensiveness of seniority. Whether or not the composer intended such a direct reflection, the symphony surely is built upon a great arc that, along the way, explores a myriad of emotional concepts and ponders heavy questions that, although thoroughly investigated, are perhaps never answered. Moreover, amidst a tangled web of musical quotations from the music of Mahler, Wagner, Rossini and himself, Shostakovich pens one of his most modernist symphonies. Written in 1971, this was to be Shostakovich’s last symphony, and it is clear in the music that he was undoubtedly aware of his failing health.

The first movement of the Fifteenth oozes with all the sardonic wit we expect from the master who, until has last days, derived great pleasure in telling jokes, especially to children. According to the composer, the movement represents a toy store––an atmosphere generated by clever orchestral effects such as lightly skipping flute solos and jaunty percussion passages evocative of youthful joy and energy. Nagano’s OSM danced in this movement and crafted the perfect image of youth.

Lugubrious brass chords and suspensions open the ponderous second movement which, reminiscent of the Ninth Symphony, bookend long solo passages in the orchestra. Brian Manker’s cello first moaned in it’s lowest register, then shot high into thumb position, lamenting expressively over the archaic string chords. When moments of repose seemed imminent, shrill oboe and trumpet chords pierced the hall discordantly––a gesture Boulez himself might have employed. An equally brooding trombone solo unfolded, and the movement soon exploded into a tutti fanfare, the theme reaching its hight of expression and power.

The last two movements, elided through a bassoon-stitched attacca (or attack), mull over previous thematic material and new motives even more exhaustively. Wagner quotations arise in the brass and strings, and finally, all important motives are revisited in the last moments of the symphony, a kind of subdued ‘parade of themes.’ If we are to perceive the symphony as a ‘remembrance of things past,’ the last pages of the work certainly prove that old age is a kind of second childhood. In these moments Shostakovich revisits the musical motives relating to youth from the first movement. Nagano and the OSM delivered a stunningly expressive and informed performance, devoid of the unwarranted brazenness that exists in many Shostakovich interpretations.

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