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Music Review

Sweet silliness in a BSO concert flaunting organ’s epic potential

Bramwell Tovey conducts organist Cameron Carpenter and the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Hall Thursday night.Winslow Townson/BSO

Here’s to wackiness. Here’s to orchestras, soloists, and conductors who can get wacky with sincerity, without irony. “Wacky” might not be the word that first comes to mind when thinking of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and probably not when considering Samuel Barber or Edward Elgar. However, with guest Bramwell Tovey conducting and organist Cameron Carpenter’s signature silver-spangled Cuban heels flashing below the console’s bench, anything was possible, or so it seemed Thursday night.

Two works that flaunted the Symphony Hall Aeolian-Skinner organ’s epic potential made up the concert’s first half. Barber’s vivacious “Toccata Festiva” gave the organ prominence but not dominance; it turned the orchestra into an organ all its own, solo instruments sometimes indistinguishable from some of the keyboard’s stops. Carpenter danced up and down the pedals during the zany, virtuosic cadenza and piloted the keyboards through formidable rumbles, high whistling tones, and a mischievous squawk. In the meantime, Tovey drew out phrases as warm and rounded as a slowly awakening Lava lamp, a subtle preview of the pinball-machine psychedelia to come in the next piece.


The concerto for organ and orchestra “At the Royal Majestic” is the first work of Terry Riley’s to be performed by the BSO. The title teases a spectacular show, and the music delivered one. As Tovey pointed out before beginning the piece, the instrumentation was esoteric in its balance, including no oboes but boasting a “surfeit of bassoons,” more piccolos than flutes, and enough percussion to fill three lines of text in the program. Yet these choices never felt gimmicky. In the first movement, resplendent, galumphing swing rhythms from the organ evoked a dream of a wild revel, and a pair of bass clarinets slinked past a smooth buzzing trumpet. If it were a photograph, its saturation would have been turned up to 100. Three soft chords bursting with delicious dissonance tied off the chaotic energy of the second movement, and a massive organ outburst followed by an exalting flute chorale began the finale.

The pastiche of phrases here was at times unfocused, timbre and theme sometimes melting into indistinguishable ether, but Carpenter’s control of his instrument was unmatched. He played with subtle changes in register and volume, holding back the full potential, so when he (literally) pulled out all the stops, we truly felt it. After our bones had been rattled, the piece faded away with a hum from one keyboard and a warble from another, quiet enough to hear a cough drop unwrap across the hall.


Of course, this was followed by some of Carpenter’s calling-card encores, his own zooming arrangement of the Gigue from Bach’s French Suite No. 5 and a joyous, goofy “Fly Me to the Moon.” The man doesn’t end a star turn with subtle.

The harmonic language of Elgar’s “Enigma Variations” always keeps the piece’s posture upright, but Tovey and the BSO illustrated how “upright” does not necessarily mean “stiff.” Conducting from memory, he emphasized understated sweetness in the two most romantic variations, which were addressed to the composer’s wife and an unidentified lady. The quirky personalities of many variations’ dedicatees jumped out of the instruments: flourishes and bellows to represent a high-flown squire, a pleased fanfare for a dog’s triumphant bark, insistent timpani against warring strings and brass for an incompetent pianist. Tovey lent graceful manipulation of color and crescendo to the ninth movement, the British funeral standard “Nimrod,” inducing a deep shiver. Juxtaposed with so many jests and jokes, the brief moment in twilight was all the more moving.


Boston Symphony Orchestra

At Symphony Hall, Jan. 12 (repeats Jan. 14). 888-266-1200, www.bso.org

Zoë Madonna can be reached at zoe.madonna@globe.com. 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.