Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Boston Common

December 11, 2011


The Boston Symphony Orchestra, one of America’s most storied major orchestras, is capping off an unsettled decade. Following the departure of long-time music director Seiji Ozawa in 2002 after some controversial and tumultuous years, the symphony appointed James Levine as its new music director in 2004. Unfortunately, Levine’s own plans to reinvigorate the organization were met with yet more controversy and eventually his own declining health after many cancellations led to his own resignation earlier this year. But the Boston players have soldiered on through all of it, and they arrived in Los Angeles on Saturday as part of their current tour with Levine’s substitute for the out-of-town shows, newly-minted Seattle Symphony music director Ludovic Morlot. The program on Saturday night was a fairly typical one for a contemporary American orchestra with Brahms' Violin Concerto played by Gil Shaham followed by John Harbison’s Symphony No. 4 and Ravel’s second suite from Daphnis and Chloe.

The best news is that years of turmoil at the top has not hampered the overall quality of the Boston Symphony’s sound. The strings were absolutely lovely and polished throughout the whole show Saturday. The winds were equally spectacular with a horn section to die for. The playing was always assured and confident. But whether or not all of the music director changes of the last several years are to blame, the players' polished sound was one of the few things the lackluster and frequently dull evening had going for it. Much of the performance overall was lacking a needed energy. Maybe it was just an off night for Morlot and the players, but the end result was unmistakable. From the very beginning of the Brahms’ concerto things sounded awry with a lazy and slow Allegro non troppo. When the Adagio arrived with virtually no change in tempo things continued to go downhill. Even Shaham who can usually be counted on for a spirited performance seemed sloppy in his attacks, his sound turning screechy at times. The music moved along, but Morlot appeared to be unable to pull much out of the orchestra other than competent, accurate playing.

Things didn’t improve much later on. Harbison’s 2003 Symphony No. 4 is in five movements that contain a variety of references to different musical genres. It can stop and start with little rhyme or reason. There is certainly interesting music there, and the L.A. crowd is no stranger to this strain of contemporary music. But again there was a particular lack of enthusiasm that dragged things down. I never felt that Morlot really made a case for this particular piece in this particular program, though again the playing was clean and of a high professional quality. Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe Suite seemed to connect more directly with the orchestra. At last a pulse was felt and Morlot seemed to dig in as well. But by this point, it was a bit too little too late, though the wind soloists availed themselves all quite well of this ornate score. It was tempting to wonder how different things might have been if Levine’s health had not turned out to be what it was. And for at least this one night on the road in Los Angeles, it was hard to believe that things wouldn't have turned out better.


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