Of all the other great American orchestras that the San Francisco Symphony has invited to town on the occasion of its centennial, the Boston Symphony is the only one currently without a music director (or regular chief conductor in the case of Philadelphia, which has spent several years pretending it doesn't have a music director), as the artistically acclaimed but illness-plagued James Levine finally faced reality and resigned a few months ago. To lead them on this tour, the BSO brought in Levine's former assistant Ludovic Morlot, the new music director in Seattle.
I'd never heard Morlot's work before. For that matter, I'd never heard the BSO in person either (they were off the one time I've been in Boston during the season), so this concert turned out to be a chance to confirm why I've never been particularly fond of their recordings. They sound really nice, but they lack drive and direction.
Berlioz' Roman Carnival Overture opened the concert and illustrated this. It was less pointlessly meandering than some performances, and a few transitional passages really did pick up and go for a few moments, but it didn't truly shape itself. The main impression left was the astonishing smoothness of the strings, pure and silky without any overlushness. The winds were more pungent and sounded at times as if they came from a different orchestra.
This approach led to predictable results when applied to a fat Mozart piano concerto like K. 503. Richard Goode was soloist and played with the same plush tones as the strings. It was very beautiful and it went absolutely nowhere.
Elliott Carter's Flute Concerto. Twitter, twitter, twitter, twitter, twitter.
Bartok's Miraculous Mandarin suite was particularly sad because it's loud and ferocious and requires the orchestra to play with demonic passion, and they did, but it just didn't add up to anything. A lot of sound and fury signifying, you know. I heard the Vienna Philharmonic play this earlier this year, and anybody else trying it in their wake is going to be sorry.
What I did enjoy was the encore, one of the shortest encores on record. Morlot remembered why the BSO had been invited and led them in Igor Stravinsky's version of "Happy Birthday To You", a thoroughly Stravinskified metamorphosis that resembles the original no more than a Frank Gehry structure resembles a building. Fun to listen to and very brief.