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Music review: Boston Symphony makes Disney Hall debut

December 11, 2011 |  3:36 pm

Ludovic Morlot
This has been corrected. See below for details.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra is the only major American orchestra with a home to acoustically rival Walt Disney Concert Hall. Still, the Brahmins brought more than Brahms with them Saturday night, when they made their first appearance in Disney and their much anticipated first return to Los Angeles in two decades. They carried their own quaint podium from Symphony Hall in Boston.

Perhaps the orchestra felt a talisman was needed for its short California tour, which began Tuesday in San Francisco with two programs and ended in Los Angeles with a single one. When originally announced early in the year, James Levine was to have conducted. But ill health forced his resignation as BSO music director in the spring, and the orchestra arrived here on a day of discouraging news. Having suffered a debilitating fall in September, Levine has now announced the cancellation of all engagements for the next 18 months.

Levine’s replacement for the tour was Ludovic Morlot, a former assistant conductor of the BSO who got plenty of practice filling in for canceled Levine dates. Morlot is now the new music director of the Seattle Symphony. He’s French, 37, has a snappy style and a strong sense of the sophisticated and lively Boston sound. Reports from Seattle are that he is rejuvenating the city’s musical life. This made those reports credible.

Gil ShahamEven so, Levine’s shadow loomed large over the BSO tour in the programming. In Boston, he advocated big time for the American composers he admires, including Elliott Carter and John Harbison. Unfortunately, Carter’s recent Flute Concerto, which was played in San Francisco on Tuesday, wasn’t heard Saturday –- the day before the still-composing Carter’s 103rd birthday. Instead, Brahms’ Violin Concerto, with Gil Shaham as soloist, opened the program. Harbison’s Fourth Symphony, however, happily made the Disney cut.

Under Morlot, the BSO sounded mellow and delectable, which has been a characteristic it has maintained under any number of different types of music director over the years. This is also a very American orchestra, long a champion of new and American music. In fact, Serge Koussevitzky’s 1939 BSO recording of Roy Harris’ Third Symphony is the only classical inductee for 2012 in the Grammy Hall of Fame.

What Levine brought to Boston was a sumptuousness of texture, a fullness that was, if not new (Leonard Bernstein got a very sexy sound from this refined orchestra as well), certainly remarkable. That kind of intensity is what the Brahms concerto needed. The orchestra was creamy, and Shaham, his tone pure honey, had the violin solo passages slipping and sliding through all that Bostonian smoothness. But the lack of weight made the concerto feel like a musical oyster slithering down the throat with no beer to wash it down.

After intermission, Harbison’s symphony and Ravel’s “Daphnis and Chloé” Suite No. 2 better showed just what a splendid ensemble this is. Harbison wrote his Fourth, which is dated 2003, directly after his  opera, “The Great Gatsby.” A rhythmically spicy first of five movements begins in the jazz-remembered age where “Gatsby” left off. In an Intermezzo that follows, mellow metal and wood percussion begin a new journey. The deepest movement is a Threnody, which begins with sentimental strings but soon achieves a suitably tortured nature. The Finale returns to the “Gatsby”-ish opening -- transformed, Harbison wrote in a program note, into something “somewhat callous.”

It is a satisfying symphony. Harbison doesn’t let old forms (there are hints even of waltz and march) work in old ways. The makeovers are subtle and disconcerting. What makes Harbison’s music moving is that familiar ground is not necessarily stable ground.

Morlot conducted a crack performance. The BSO’s long intimacy with Stravinsky (it gave the U.S. premiere of “Rite of Spring” and commissioned “Symphony of Psalms”), Bartók (it commissioned the Concerto for Orchestra), Copland and Bernstein was evident in a crisp yet colorful alertness that signaled not just professionalism but also a sense that this is music that means something.

The “Daphnis” suite dazzled. The winds, chirping like birds and providing the splashing sounds of nymphs in frolic, were extraordinary. The suave strings were more French than the French. The Boston brass presented a magical power of boldness in containment.

Levine, who recorded the complete Ravel ballet with the BSO, went for something heady and orgiastic. Morlot didn’t go there, seeming content with sparkle and sizzle. It’s a tradeoff, if an impressive and honest one.

The encore was Berlioz’s “Roman Carnival” Overture, played with all the winning verve in the world. But it was the wrong encore. This was the perfect time for one of the orchestra’s Carter specialties -- say the three-minute “A Celebration of Some 100 x 150 Notes” -- two hours before a historic American birthday barely noticed outside New York and Boston. 

[For the record, 10:35 a.m.: An earlier version of this review said that Ludovic Morlot was making his local debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In fact he conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Los Angeles in December 2007.]

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New conductor leads Boston Symphony Orchestra on tour

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-- Mark Swed

Photo: (Above) Ludovic Morlot conducts the Boston Symphony at Walt Disney Concert Hall. (Below)  Violinist Gil Shaham. Credit: Anne Cusack/ Los Angeles Times.

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