The Boston Symphony Orchestra performed two concerts at Davies this week as part of the American Orchestras Series for San Francisco Symphony's Centennial celebration. Tuesday night's concert was very good, but Wednesday's was a revelation. After hearing them two nights in a row, I feel bit of of envy toward Bostonians.
The American Orchestra series features the leading orchestras of the country in two nights of performances- the first featuring a commission by the visitors, the second showcasing works closely associated with them. No two orchestras sound alike, and the opportunity to experience these differences live is one of the great aspects of the series, which previously brought the LA Phil to town. Still to come are the orchestras of Chicago, New York, Cleveland and Philadelphia. 
Tuesday's concert began with Berlioz's Roman Carnival Overture and from the first notes one knew a different band had taken over the house. It wasn't just the brass isolated at 2:00, nor the basses and cellos  situated on the opposite side of the stage from where they usually are, nor the split string section. No, it was the warmth of their sound- a deep, resonant glow, fully embracing the classical tradition in a manner I'd never heard before which seemed to emanate from the entire orchestra. It was immediate and profoundly inviting.
Richard Goode. Photo by Stu Rosner

Soloist Richard Goode joined them for the next piece, Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 25. It's no secret that I'm not a tremendous fan of Mozart. It's not that I dislike his work, that would be absurd of course, but aside from Cosi, the Requiem, and a few sonatas, little of it moves me. Goode's restraint fit the piece well, and the result, for this listener at least, was predictable- I admired it but little of an impression was left. I found my mind drifting off, and soon I was imagining Isabella naked, frolicking in a field of flowers with a giraffe. Ridiculous I know, but that's how it went.

Elizabeth Rowe. Photo by Stu Rosner

After the intermission things became really interesting. The orchestra's principal flute Elizabeth Rowe came onstage in a gorgeous red gown as the featured soloist for Elliot Carter's Flute Concerto, a work composed in 2008 by the then 100 year-old composer. It's amazing enough Carter is still composing at this age, but to produce a work as engaging as this is something of a miracle. She handled the snaking melodic lines woven through the piece with ease and its jittery parts (which would be a perfect soundtrack for a high-tension thriller) with equal aplomb. Rowe performed the American premiere of the work last year with the BSO, which co-commissioned the piece, and her execution of Carter's determined, contemporary composition created an interesting juxtaposition against Goode's traditional take on Mozart and to borrow a line from a local art's organization, the resulting impression is that the future is now. Clocking in at around thirteen minutes, it left me wanting much more.

The final piece on the program was Bartok's suite from The Miraculous Mandarin, a work with which I have little exposure, though the lurid story line of the ballet (about three men who pimp their female companion to rob a man) is something which should have caught my attention long ago. The score is riddled with great moments- a magnificent blast from the trombones led it off, and when the Mandarin came toward the end, the orchestra let it all blow with a ribald burst. Now I know where Shostakovitch got his inspiration for the hilarious trombone orgasm in Lady Macbeth. Amidst the fun of sex and violence was a superb solo by principal clarinet William Hudgins.

The orchestra returned for a brief encore- a birthday tribute for their San Francisco friends in the form of Stravinsky's Greeting Prelude.

Ludovic Morlot. Photo by Stu Rosner

The impressive sound and cohesion of the orchestra made me wonder about the influence of conductor Ludovic Morlot, who took over the reigns for this tour when James Levine resigned his post due to his myriad health issues. Morlot, who just began as Music Director for the Seattle Symphony, is obviously well in sync with these musicians (he was the BSO's assistant conductor from 2004-07 and started working with them in 2001), but did the heart of their extraordinary sound beat with his baton or were we hearing the result of Levine's influence over the past few years. Or is it just that the 131-year-old orchestra is simply that great? There's no way to really know of course, but the next night's performance made it clear that Morlot is a formidable and gifted talent- and that the Boston Symphony Orchestra is an amazing group of musicians.

The concert began with John Harbison's Symphony No. 4. The timing of this was fortuitous, because earlier in the week I attended a workshop led by the directors of  Ensemble Parallele on the composer's opera The Great Gatsby,  which they will present in a re-orchestrated version this coming February.  Harbison's Fourth deals directly with Gatsby - he's quoted in the program notes, "In the symphony I thought I was addressing the shaking of a three-to four year Gatsby endeavor... by acknowledging it in the first movement. That is, here is where is was. Ending in a dissolve. Then in the second movement doing something completely." He goes on to cite the influence of Stravinsky specifically on second movement, the origins of the fourth movement's "Threnody" coming from an awareness of "the imminence and inevitability of loss at times we of course do not choose," and the influence of Emily Dickinson on the final part.

The jazz riddling the score of Gatsby dominates the first movement and Harbison (who was in the house this evening) has an innate gift for weaving two musical genres together. There was strong playing throughout in this piece, but in the first movement it was the instruments traditionally found in jazz who created the greatest impact. The BSO's brass section is remarkable- especially the trombones, who made me long to hear them play some Wagner. The scherzo confused me a bit, causing me to wonder when is a scherzo not a scherzo? Anchored by the brass, it builds toward something approaching the frightening, only to turn toward a rough levity provided by the trombones and the tuba.

The "Threnody" features the score's most lush moments. There's no grief to be found in it, but a sense of resignation permeates the movement, which ends with a pronounced somberness. I wondered about the composer's inspiration for it and somehow that led me to feel the movement belongs in a Brian DePalma movie. Turning away from the darkness toward the light, the finale was the best part of the wonderfully played work.

Then something miraculous indeed happened. The orchestra took what I initially thought was going to be a bit of filler, Ravels's Daphnis et Chloe, Suite No.2, and turned it into one of the finest orchestral performances I've ever witnessed. The swelling sound they created by the strings, especially the nine bass players, during the "Daybreak" section was devastatingly powerful, so rich it was almost vulgar in its opulence. Rowe turned in a performance that was so stunning it managed to eclipse her star turn from the night before. She's worthy of any superlative one can use for a musician- pick one. Pick a few, in fact. Elizabeth Rowe amazed me. It was during this piece I began to realize the depth of Morlot's talent- I like Ravel and always look forward to hearing him, but if his work was always played like this his popularity with audiences would undoubtedly be much greater. The only thing I could say after it was over was, "Wow"- and I did just that, and then repeated the sentiment to Lisa Hirsch when I saw her in the lobby during intermission, who felt pretty much the same way about it.

The presence of a Mahler symphony on the program's second half seemed like a challenge in a way, given the prominence the San Francisco Symphony has given these works during Michael Tilson Thomas' tenure. If Mahler is associated with any orchestra at the moment, it's San Francisco. However, the Bostonians delivered a handsome performance of the First, going for depth and color in places one might expect to hear a more lustrous sheen coming from the locals. The "Wayfarer" songs were given an especially marked prominence, further intensifying the warmth the orchestra conveyed through the entire work. In the end it felt unlike a challenge, but rather a respectful compliment from one orchestra to another- an acknowledgement of the impact MTT and the SFS have made with Mahler's music. And even if none of that was intended either way, it was beautifully done.

Hopefully it won't be another fifteen years before they return.