At BSO, a substitution and a century-hopping debut
The BSO by this point knows a thing or two about conductor cancellations, including the fact that the wave of events they set off can sometimes break in unpredictable directions.
Daniele Gatti was scheduled to conduct this week’s program at Symphony Hall, but was forced to cancel due to a shoulder injury. The BSO tapped the French conductor Francois-Xavier Roth in his stead.
Roth had never conducted before in this country, but his credentials made him well-suited to take over this week’s century-hopping program. Among his European affiliations, he serves as founding director of an ensemble called Les Siècles, which, last summer at the Proms, gave a period-instrument performance of “The Rite of Spring” on the same program that it played music of the French Baroque with Roth conducting in the style of that period: by striking the stage with a staff.
Alas no staff was drawn on Thursday night at Symphony Hall, but a similarly wide range of fluencies was required for the evening’s program, consisting of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 1, Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms,” and two works by Beethoven. Roth met the challenge and then some, leading over all with an understated elegance and instinctive musicality.
The all-Beethoven second half shone the brighter of the two, opening with the composer’s “Elegischer Gesang” or “Elegaic Song,” a seldom-heard gem of a choral work written in memory of Beethoven’s landlord’s wife, who died in childbirth. Just a few minutes long, the piece is suffused with a tenderness and warmth perhaps unexpected for the occasion, and under Roth’s direction, it unfurled in a single unbroken arch. This was followed by a lightly drawn, lucidly articulated account of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 in which Roth, leading without a baton, made the score feel at many points like chamber music. First and second violins were seated antiphonally, which drew out their volleying lines to striking effect. Tempos in the last movement were excitingly brisk without compromising too much clarity. And William R. Hudgins contributed some uncommonly silken clarinet solos.
Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms,” commissioned by this orchestra, rarely strays far from the BSO’s programming. On Thursday night, in his shaping of the choral writing in particular (eloquently sung by the Tanglewood Festival Chorus) Roth brought out the work’s jagged lines and austere majesty. The night opened with the Bach, last played by the BSO in 1982, and receiving here a performance that, while not without some lively solo playing, was still in search of more refined balances and a deeper measure of stylistic comfort.