François-Xavier Roth's impressive programs with the Boston Symphony Orchestra
A couple evenings with the energetic French conductor François-Xavier Roth almost put to rest the turmoil swirling around the industry, and particularly around Symphony Hall. Almost.
It is reassuring that Roth has become a regular guest during recent BSO seasons. His music bears his own stamp, like it or not. The musicians respond to his ideas, and he doesn’t take a single measure off when on the podium. And the audience can sense that someone is working hard, both to present compelling programs and to make the familiar into something worth hearing once again.
Tuesday evening (the finale of a four-concert run, disrupted by the weather) Roth programmed Méhul’s “Amazon” overture, Mozart’s C major concerto (pianist Benjamin Grosvenor), and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. On Thursday, the beginning of a second run for the Paris-born conductor, he offered Webern’s Passacaglia, Bartok’s first piano concerto (Pierre-Laurent Aimard), and Stravinsky’s Firebird. These concerts mark the fourth season that Roth has led the BSO, and, with last season’s premiere of Matthias Pintscher’s cello concerto “un desparter” particularly in mind, all the programs have been thoughtful, aggressively interpreted and exciting to listen to.
Some details: Roth works without a baton, but precisely—and with both hands. In fact, he often works with both hands indicating entrances and dynamics, and his body working the rhythm. Everything gets involved.
He seated the orchestra with the violin sections split, which was indicated for most of the music—especially the Méhul overture, the Webern, and Firebird, all of which had orchestrations that invested the violins with multiple simultaneous ideas. It also splits up the lower strings, with the cellos and basses stage right, the violas stage left, rather than having all that rumble on the same side of the podium.
His tempo for Beethoven’s Fifth was probably the most identifiable stamp of the two programs. You may have some tempo or another in your head for the recognizable Fifth; this was certainly not one of those.
From the first measure, you could tell no babysitters were going to get paid overtime for this evening. He blasted through the opening, calling for a crisp pace but at the same time insisting on clarity, and stuck rests. It was an alternate reading, for sure, but deeply committed, with lots of integrity, and the orchestra certainly responded. And tempo was not Roth’s only unique idea; the dynamic range had a variety rarely called for—and challenging to produce, if the orchestra is not willing. They were.
His Firebird two nights later had a remarkably similar approach: quicksilver tempos, wide dynamic range. This entire program spoke volumes about ambitious performers, and the breadth of the repertory. The Webern Passacaglia had details in every measure—no surprise. Spot-on solos were everywhere: Alexander Velinzon, sitting in the concertmaster’s chair (for both of these programs); Elita Kang, seated next to him; even the third chair in the firsts, Yoncong Zhang. And double reeds throughout.
Bartok’s first is known as the percussive concerto, and it is. To emphasize the point, Roth placed Kyle Brightwell with his tam-tams stage front, just behind the estimable Aimard.
But it also creates a melodic swirl from its insistent chords, which stayed in the ear throughout intermission. And practically anytime one can hear Aimard, the experience is invigorating.
CADENCES: Dutoit; ugh. At least he will never work again.
Further allegations—including one of rape—have unseated him from the Royal Philharmonic, where he was music director. Lets hope that all untold allegations come forth now, not just against Dutoit, but others, so that at some point we can begin revitalizing the profession. A recent article speculating about how classical music—all white men, leading orchestras (largely all white men) through performances of music by all white men—might be appealing to white supremacists. Sadly close to the mark.
One proviso, for any commentators (myself to blame at times). It’s all too easy to point the finger at organizations in these matters. If there is institutional malfeasance, let’s hold their feet to the fire. But blaming an orchestra for hiring someone whose non-professional activities are criminal misses the mark. Orchestras are not in the business of private investigation. They should never ignore the facts, and should aggressively pursue persistent rumors of misconduct. But unearthing criminal activity?
To replace the disgraced Dutoit, the BSO has announced that Jacques Lacombe will step in for February’s all French program, with soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet. This summer, Ken-David Masur and Dima Slobodeniouk will take over Dutoit’s only two Tanglewood dates.