The Boston Symphony Orchestra is not only one of America’s ‘Big Five’, but one of the finest orchestras in the world. We’ve been fortunate to hear them not only at the Proms under their then music director James Levine in 2007, but on their home turf as well.
Given Levine’s ill-health over the last few years, the orchestra has been without the kind of direction that any orchestra of its calibre requires, so the appointment of Andris Nelsons as its new music director was a canny move on the management’s part, as he’s worked wonders with the CBSO over the last eight years.
No doubt his tenure with the BSO will produce equally thrilling music making but on the evidence of this Prom, the last of two, there is much work to be done. Things got off to a shaky start with a performance of Haydn’s Symphony No. 90 in C major that began with a fudged opening chord, and took longer than necessary to settle. Tuning was awry in the woodwind and there were far too many bloopers form the horns, and despite Nelsons’ Kleiber-esque moves on the podium, the orchestra’s playing remained resolutely earth-bound.
There was some magic in Barber’s Essay No.2, written in 1942 and firmly rooted in tonality – nothing to frighten the horses here – but it seemed strange to switch so many of the players. On closer inspection the programme revealed that the orchestra was peppered with ‘guest musicians’, so were we actually hearing the BSO? It was difficult to compare the playing between all three works, when there were changes to the musical personnel in each one.
After the interval things improved considerably as Nelsons treated us to a competent, sometimes thrilling performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 in E minor. This symphony has become something of a party piece for Nelsons and the BSO, their recording of it for DG having been praised to the skies, so maybe given their affinity with it I expected more. Nelsons’ command of the line and architecture of the work was never in doubt, and there were some thrilling individual moments. William R. Hudgins’ clarinet playing was evocative, sensual and mesmerising – some of the best I’ve ever heard, yet the horns could have been more commanding in their D-S-C-H theme in the third movement – acidity creeping in where a robust, fullness of tone was required.
They saved the best until last – an uproarious account of Shostakovich’s bitterly sardonic and sarcastic Galop. In this brief, yet telling encore, both orchestra and conductor gave the audience a glimpse of the musical riches that undoubtedly lie ahead as they embark on their journey together.