The unfamiliar. The Boston Symphony Orchestra, Ken-David Masur conducting, Thursday evening, 5 Jan. 2017
Experience makes it difficult to experience non-experience. Hear a familiar concerto a dozen times, and one performance is bound to stand out. And so become a measuring stick for the others.
Something is gained from that knowledge, but something too is lost. Or better, overshadowed. The magic of a first encounter, the intimacy of the unknown.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s opening program of the new year, Thursday evening at Symphony Hall, offered no such grounds for experience. The five concertos on the program, all with soloists drawn from the BSO ranks, had scant performance history, neither here nor elsewhere. It was all fresh.
Piccolo players may know Vivaldi’s C major concerto, as their only chance to shine. That hardly means audiences have heard it as well. Cynthia Meyers performed, with a small string ensemble and John Finney at harpsichord. Ken-David Masur was on the podium.
The work had challenges for the player, befitting a concerto. The middle Largo showed some of the expressive lower range of the instrument, the one revelation. The terrifically virtuosic third movement was smartly played. Thanks to the small ensemble, it was nice to be able to hear Finney’s continuo for a change.
There were some muddied passages, especially in the first movement. Masur, tremendously confident conductor, treated this music and his soloist lovingly—as he did everything and everyone else all evening.
Confidence is the word for principal trumpet Thomas Rolfs, who performed the most modern-sounding work on the program, Jolivet’s Concertino for Trumpet, Strings and Piano (Vytas Baksys). One movement, but with three distinct moods, the music reached its height with a jazzy intro to the final section on piano, followed up with an echo by the soloist and extended interplay afterward.
The BSO horn section has performed robustly under music director Andris Nelsons in past seasons, and Rolfs stands out as its leader. It was a pleasure to hear him at the front of the stage.
Principal clarinet William R. Hudgins and his desk mate Michael Wayne ventured Krommer’s dated but well-developed duo clarinet concerto. An 1815 work, it’s mid-period for Krommer (1759–1831), whose professional life included intersections with Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.
After a clunky opening (the sort of thing that was written to get concert-goers to snuff out cigars and settle down in their seats), the concerto had real interest. From a performance perspective, what struck most was the fluidity and accuracy of the duo unison sections, tossed off with casual perfection. The wind section is also a BSO signature strength, and here were two reasons why, sounding like one.
The mood of the middle slow movement (Adagio) had unique interest: not melancholy, or dark, or even intellectual; but tender and reserved.
Principal trombone Toby Oft brought the biggest personality and most accessible work to the stage, performing Nino Rota’s cinematic concerto (C major). There was lots to like, even a bit of trombone vibrato (with the slide, not the embouchure). And you have to give props to Oft’s three-piece black leather ensemble.
“Cinematic” is too easy a descriptor for Rota; his professional reputation overwhelms any initial reception for his music. The middle movement, marked Lento, ben ritmato, set the soloist off against multiple voices from the orchestra, particularly statements from the horns.
Schumann’s “Conzertstück” for four horns (F major) closed the evening, featuring principal horn James Sommerville along with Rachel Childers, Michael Winter and Jason Snider, and a large ensemble.
Much of the music was mature-Schumann beautiful, enveloping, but the concerto only infrequently made its case for a quartet of horns. The most notable evidence of that came in the finale, with a pass-the-passage section worked over by each soloist.
Otherwise, the work was notable for the compositional respect offered to the soloists: the French horn is a beastly instrument to play, and repeated virtuosic passages are doomed to fail. Schumann relegated virtuosity to some sections of the final movement.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra, with conductor Ken-David Masur and multiple soloists drawn from its ranks, performs music of Vivaldi, Jolivet, Krommer, Rota and Schumann through Saturday evening. 888-266-1200; bso.org