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Adés attempts to conduct, orchestra attempts to follow

Poor conducting overshadows Boston Symphony Orchestra

Published: Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Updated: Tuesday, November 20, 2012 08:11

Conductors often seem to simply stand on the podium waving their hands as the orchestra performs. But on the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Thursday, Nov. 15 concert, Thomas Adés reminded audiences how important solid conducting is when he devastated the orchestra’s ability to perform. Both Sergei Prokofiev’s first piano concerto and Jean Sibelius’ sixth symphony suffered from his mediocre conducting, as passages were awkwardly rushed and inarticulately loud.

The evening opened with Sibelius’ “Luonnotar,” a tone poem for soprano and orchestra with Dawn Upshaw as the soloist. Although the orchestra was overpowering at times, Upshaw sang clearly and ardently. The “Luonnotar” was a simple yet enticing piece for the rest of the night.

Adés’ own “In Seven Days,” written for piano and orchestra, followed the Sibelius with Kirill Gerstein as the soloist. “In Seven Days” is a piano concerto based on the Book of Genesis’ story of creation. The programmatic spirit of the piece came as no surprise. Each of the seven movements brought in new characters as chaos became the world we know today.

Unfortunately, the piece was abstract and difficult to follow. There appeared to be a lack of coherency between orchestra and piano, although none can doubt Gerstein’s extraordinary technique. At times, it felt as if Adés was indeed simply waving his hands and expecting the orchestra to follow. It did not appear that he was keenly listening to both the orchestra and the pianist.

This premonition was confirmed by Prokofiev’s first piano concerto. Right from the start, the orchestra came in jarringly loud and fast, taking the audience aback. Rather than setting the stage for the pianist, Gerstein’s arrival felt unnecessarily rushed. A greater problem than tempo, however, was the coherency between orchestra and pianist. Sections often failed to come in together on time. This problem was amplified during the third movement when Adés decided to further increase the tempo. The result was a pianist who struggled to keep up with the orchestra and an orchestra that was falling apart at the seams. Not even Gerstein’s technique was able to save this performance.

It was unclear whether or not the lackluster performance was due to a lack of rehearsal or Adés’ conducting, but it should be pointed out that at previous performances, the orchestra performed excellently under Dutoit.

After the Prokofiev, expectations were high for the final piece of the evening. Sibelius’ sixth symphony is a gem among his more commonly performed symphonies. Once again, the piece was hopelessly rushed.

Overall, there were two unfortunate outcomes of rushing the Sibelius. First, each movement is already marked at a fast tempo and there are no true slow movements to the piece. The movements are marked “Allegro molto moderato” (very lively and moderate), “Allegretto moderato” (moderately fast), “Poco vivace” (rather fast and lively) and “Allegro molto” (very fast). Although all of these tempos are certainly fast, they are still distinctly different, and when each movement is performed in hyperbole, the movements lose their sense of singularity.

The second major flaw was the lack of development. The arc of each movement suffered as Adés recklessly swept through each nuance. Much like the Prokofiev, the woodwinds, strings and brass oftentimes failed to come in on time. Sibelius’ sixth focuses on careful thematic unfolding but in this case, the theme development felt forced.

Adés’ hyperbolic conducting failed to do Prokofiev or Sibelius justice. He can be commended as a composer but as a conductor, he has much to achieve. His careless conducting ruined the cohesiveness of the orchestra and the direction of the Sibelius. The execution of Sibelius’ sixth symphony left this reporter feeling lost and confused. There should be no qualms against the Boston Symphony welcoming Adés back as a composer, but as a conductor, the orchestra would be better off without him.

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