Leonore Overture

collects the music and arts criticism of Keith Powers

Renée Fleming sings Strauss with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Renée Fleming sings with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, March 14, 2017 at Symphony Hall. Hilary Scott photograph

Renée Fleming sings with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, March 14, 2017 at Symphony Hall. Hilary Scott photograph

Audiences benefit when the Boston Symphony Orchestra leaves town.

High-profile programs that eventually tour to Carnegie Hall in the spring have become a given under Andris Nelsons. They show the orchestra at its best. The short trip ensures that the BSO’s most prominent collaborators—like Emmanuel Ax in 2017, and Yo-Yo Ma last year—perform in Boston first before riding Amtrak to New York. 

This season is no different. Readying two programs for the Carnegie schedule next week, the BSO offered a world premiere last Thursday—Thomas Adès’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, with Kirill Gerstein as soloist—and an all-Strauss program, which opened last night, featuring the glittering Strauss instrument, Renée Fleming. 

The current program repeats Friday and Saturday evenings, with the Carnegie performance next Tuesday. Read a review of the Adès concerto here, at Classical Voice North America. 

Last night’s program opened with music from Capriccio, the composer’s last opera; it closed with the bracing tone poem “Also Sprach Zarathustra.”

The BSO began with the opera’s “overture”—a heavily textured string sextet, which at first glance seems the usual warmup, but miraculously morphs into part of the story itself. Fleming then came on to sing the concluding Moonlight music and the finale.

Her instrument remains superior. Fleming wraps you in her sound, rather than stuns. She glows. Her tone is precise; pitches clinically spot-on, unstrained. She is always alert to potential partnerships with other instruments. She’s a commanding presence onstage, both for the audience and for her colleagues.

She certainly was as Strauss’s Madeleine: unsure in her choice of suitors, knowing that the morning will force her decision. She did seem to need to check in frequently with Nelsons about entrances and cadences, which ended up a distraction.

Such sad music. The sextet suggests a contemplative mood—concertmaster Tamara Smirnova played her extensive, sweet solo part with earnest. The Moonlight music, as its called—an evening rumination by Madeleine on her choice of suitors—was also one mood, an extended interior monologue for Fleming. She has a choice, but to her it feels like loss. It’s a deeply felt libretto. Hornist Richard Sebring unveiled the introductory horn solo gorgeously, sweeping Fleming into character.

The music—and scenario—were sobering. The aura continued, after the performance, when Fleming spoke to the room, remembering her late colleague André Previn, and singing the closing aria to his opera A Streetcar Named Desire.

“I Can Smell the Sea Air” written for Fleming as Blanche DuBois, and she invoked it beautifully here. The orchestra played with respectful intensity. Previn’s spirit has lingered all week around Symphony Hall, for many old colleagues and acquaintances. One might remember him conducting nearly the same Strauss program at Symphony Hall, nineteen years ago.

This program concluded with an explosively vibrant “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” It was a reminder that this program was also about Strauss. The two Strausses that is—the radical composer of the early century, inciting popular fascination with a succession of brilliant tone poems; and the gentleman Strauss, creating his last opera fifty years after the first, mired in the hellishness of his homeland, still looking inward at both his craft and his life.

This program repeats Friday and Saturday evening at Symphony Hall, then Tuesday evening at Carnegie Hall. bso.org; 866-266-1200.


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Kirill Gerstein gives world premiere of Thomas Adès's Concerto for Piano and Orchestra