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With Nelsons, Gewandhaus Orchestra shows its strengths at Symphony Hall

Andris Nelsons leads the Gewandhaus Orchestra at Boston's Symphony Hall. (Robert Torres)

It does no one any favors to directly compare the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Leipzig’s Gewandhaus Orchestra (GHO). That said, for many who spend semi-regular evenings at Symphony Hall, the redoubtable BSO is the primary orchestral point of reference, and Sunday afternoon at that same hall, at the GHO’s first concert of this year’s much-anticipated “Leipzig Week in Boston” festivities, certain things were quite familiar.

Celebrity Series of Boston has presented the GHO in town on numerous occasions, most recently in 2014; this Sunday’s concert was a joint presentation between Celebrity Series and the BSO. The man on the podium was, of course, BSO music director Andris Nelsons, who has proclaimed his intention of connecting the two orchestras ever since he was announced as the GHO’s new music director in 2015. The repertoire was chosen to celebrate Leipzig’s fecund musical history — meaning it was nothing most classical music fanciers haven’t heard before. One can probably count on the BSO playing Brahms’s Double Concerto and Schubert’s Symphony in C major, “The Great,” a few times a decade.

The soloists for said concerto, violinist Leonidas Kavakos and cellist Gautier Capuçon, are international A-listers who have performed with the BSO several times. Sharp-eyed audience members might have even spotted a few familiar faces in the orchestra: flutist Clint Foreman and violinist Lisa Kim are this autumn’s participants in the BSO/GHO musician exchange program.


But Boston, make no mistake. This may be your beautiful house, and this may be your beautiful conductor, but this is not your beautiful orchestra.

The GHO tunes to A=443hz, two hertz higher than the BSO: a minuscule difference on paper, but a huge difference in practice. Fire sang through the opening measures of the concerto, practically exploding off the stage, and the piece’s later lyrical orchestral episodes were burnished but not brassy. The GHO found the perfect balance between sinking into phrases and skating over the top, with each note compact and collected. The subtle heaviness that can drag down German music, even in the most top-flight orchestras, was nowhere in evidence.


The second movement might have been better served with a little more of that weight. Played nobly and sans much sentiment, the dreamy songlike rhythms felt square. After that, Nelsons led a thrilling rush through the finale, with the orchestra egging on fleet exchanges between the soloists. The GHO’s nimble, poised sound was enhanced by seating the first and second violin sections on either side of the podium, with lower strings at the rear. (How about trying that at home, Maestro?)

At the front of the stage, Kavakos and Capuçon inverted the typical dynamic between their instruments, as Kavakos’s violin sang out in a warmer, richer timbre than Capuçon’s nicely granular cello. The two are frequent collaborators, and they faced off with unforced, vital energy, locked in with each other and the orchestra. When the audience insisted on an encore, they laid down a prankish second movement from Ravel’s sonata for violin and cello.

After that, it was almost inevitable that whatever happened post-intermission would be a comedown, and with Schubert’s “Great” Symphony on the docket, the Leipzigers had their work cut out for them. Robert Schumann praised the almost hour-long piece for its “heavenly length," and without a savvy orchestra and conductor, it’ll mire down in its copious developments of themes.


Sunday’s performance often felt short on forward motion, but what it lacked there it made up for with impeccable cohesion within the orchestra, unshakable through all of Nelsons’s dynamic peaks and valleys. One might compare the Leipzigers to a well-oiled machine, but to do that would deny the sheer human efforts and years of practice necessary to be so solid. Within the GHO’s woodwinds and brass, tone colors and attacks matched each other so congruently that each section sounded like a single instrument with the slightest hint of reverb.

Again, the audience was jonesing for an encore, but this time there was none. If you want more, they’re here all week.


At Symphony Hall. Sunday afternoon.

Zoë Madonna can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.

Correction: An earlier version of this review stated that the repertoire was all German. Schubert was Austrian, though the first fully authenticated performance of his Symphony in C major took place at Leipzig’s Gewandhaus.