Review – Boston Symphony Orchestra and Seong-Jin Cho at Carnegie Hall play Ravel, Stravinsky and León

   

IN THE LAST WEEK OF JANUARY, JON JACOB EMBARKS ON A THOROUGHLY GOOD EXPEDITION TO NEW YORK AND LOS ANGELES, ATTENDING CONCERTS GIVEN BY FIVE LEADING AMERICAN ORCHESTRAS.


Tania Leon Stride (2019)
Maurice Ravel Piano Concerto for the Left Hand (1929-1930)
Igor Stravinsky The Rite of Spring (1911-1913)

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Andris Nelson conductor 
 
Carnegie Hall Monday 29 January 2024


Conductor Andris Nelsons is an unassuming presence on stage. There is a touch of the gentle giant about him as he walks thoughtfully onto stage, nodding and smiling with warm appreciation. This sets the tone for a steady, business-like performance. Nelsons’ gestures are conventional throughout (at least it seems that way looking at his back) with none of the showmanship Yannick Netzen-Seguin displayed with the Philadelphia Orchestra last week. Instead, with deliberate movements and restraint, Nelson reserves the big moves for when he really wants to open the orchestral sound up.  

This was certainly the case in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. A measured performance throughout that sometimes felt more romantically inclined than gritty, raw, or primal. His intentional approach meant some of the bigger sequences were low-powered, Nelson’s holding full power back for only really two sections. On the plus side, the silences were epic, Stravinsky’s technicolour chords ringing out. The details that surfaced were appreciated, but a little more barking in Danse des adolescents was what I was in need of.  

That said, the Boston Symphony Orchestra is a sound band. They get the job done. Nelsons gets the orchestra to play to its strengths. Balanced sounds emanate as a result. Tender string textures in places. The woodwind seems to play down, allowing the brass to shine without dominating. This was evident in Dance of the Earth with blistering punctuating chords from the brass, and some delectably dry rapid-fire articulation in the trumpets. A special mention here to the percussion whose bass drum and gong ensemble had a feel of a Radiophonic Workshop tape reversal effect that gave things a much-needed boost.  

The brass also led the way in Tania Leon’s 2019 concert opener Stride. This fifteen-minute work was inspired by the activism of Susan B. Anthony which resulted in the Nineteenth Amendment of 1920 and saw women secure the vote for the first time in American history. This was an engaging musical representation of the American spirit – what Leon herself drew from Leon’s research into women’s suffrage – full of fragmented percussion, bold sweeps from the string section, and splintering brass lines. 

In between these two works, Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand played by Seong Jin-Cho. At 29 Jin-Cho is much in demand by ensembles, concert promoters, and audiences. The Chopin Piano Competition 2015 winner sells out tickets fast. His previous Carnegie Hall gigs were sellouts. His 17th May appearance is already at capacity bar one or two back-row seats. The first South Korean to win the competition has wowed diaspora audiences the world over. Jin-Cho puts bums on seats. Young ones too. No surprise then that Carnegie’s ushers were seen trotting up and down the rows repeatedly asking audience members to stop filming the performance.  

Ravel’s work, written for war veteran pianist Paul Wittgenstein was written in 1929. Running at 18 minutes long it’s concise, peppered with thrills, spills, and flourishes. It’s packed full of cracking melodies that subvert expectations too, with a glorious expansive cadenza right after the orchestral introduction. Jazz influences a plenty. Jin-Cho took on the work with gusto, using the acoustic to create a vast sound. But it was the encore he came on to play after his third return to the stage. The work was unannounced nor immediately identifiable, but the effect he created rendering the audience silent spoke volumes about his innate ability to create small sounds that we all collectively leaned into.  

If you’re looking for a suggested listen for Stravinsky’s Rite, then Bernstein’s New York Philharmonic live recording is edge-of-the-seat stuff, just how I like it. For the Ravel Piano Concerto for the Left Hand then I defer to Apple Music’s Editors Pick – Kristian Zimmerman and Pierre Boulez with London Symphony Orchestra.