This concert marked the first appearance of Music Director Andris Nelsons with the Boston Symphony Orchestra for over a year – and he returned with a bang. It was a welcome chance to see them spread their wings in the first instalment of their latest mini-series, badged The Spirit of Beethoven, with a healthy ruffling of a few musical feathers thrown in for good measure.

Andris Nelsons © Aram Boghosian
Andris Nelsons
© Aram Boghosian

With the BSO’s considerable wingspan, Nelsons started unusually with the big symphony, rather than the two shorter contemporary pieces. His vibrant reading of Beethoven’s Eroica was unhurried, maybe not appealing to some period performance aficionados, but it did allow Nelsons to wring out every ounce of tension and beauty, capturing a sense of the whole without pandering solely to dynamism. Beethoven’s characteristic accents were finely judged, and the performance had an overarching lyrical quality, with some delicious wind detailing and a string texture that was both gutsy and silky. Nelsons cultured tension in the climaxes and crushing dissonances, and layered the poignancy of the Marcia funebre with plaintive oboe solos and real intensity in the fugue. The Scherzo was light and tight, the horns in the Trio warm and bright, with the orchestra full of character in the Prometheus variations of the Finale, bouncing with energy and passion. This was an Eroica played with a straight bat – honest and transparent, performed with refinement and determination.

Andris Nelsons conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra © Aram Boghosian
Andris Nelsons conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra
© Aram Boghosian

British composer Hannah Kendall wrote her 2018 piece Disillusioned Dreamer as a musical response to a passage from Ralph Ellison’s landmark novel Invisible Man about awakening to the reality of racial tensions in segregated America. She also cites the opening of Beethoven’s Eroica as a part-inspiration – a nice link. Broadly in two parts, there is an emotional and musical depiction through swirls and splashes of orchestral timbres reflecting the contrasting worlds of dreaming and reality, intricate lines weaving in and out over more grounded pulsating gestures. Kendall makes great use of silence and space too, maintaining fluidity but with an unsettled feeling that she describes as “being in suspense and slightly restless”. This was Kendall’s BSO debut, and both conductor and orchestra seemed to get right under the skin of this engaging and provocative piece.

Andris Nelsons conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra © Aram Boghosian
Andris Nelsons conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra
© Aram Boghosian

Pulitzer Prize-winnning composer Caroline Shaw provided an intriguing chamber music ending to the programme. Her 2016 work Blueprint for string quartet takes its title partly from a particular blue pigment used in Japanese woodblock printing, but also reflects the origins of the piece, being a kind of harmonic reduction or “blueprint” of Beethoven’s String Quartet no. 6 in B flat major. With a nice introduction by violist Mary Ferrillo, describing the piece as “great fun to play” – Shaw even provides some distinctly modern-day directions, including a section marked “partayyy”! – the BSO players making up the quartet gave a polished and committed, and sometimes mischievous, performance. The variety and richness of textures in this seven-minute piece created a harmonic and sonic journey that was neat, upbeat and inventive.


This performance was reviewed from the BSO NOW video stream

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