Dazzled by the BSO in Disney Hall

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Richard S. Ginell - From Out of the The WestBy Richard S. Ginell: From Out of the West
The Boston Symphony Orchestra as caught in its incomparable native habitat, Symphony Hall.(c) Stu Rosner

The Boston Symphony Orchestra doesn’t come out to the West Coast very often; indeed, “the Aristocrat of Orchestras,” as they were marketed in the Erich Leinsdorf era, hadn’t been to Los Angeles in 20 years. So when they do make it here, you go – especially since it was their first time playing in Walt Disney Concert Hall Dec. 10.

True, I wish that James Levine’s original program had been retained, for Bartok’s “Miraculous Mandarin” Suite and Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod from “Tristan” had been swapped for yet another Brahms Violin Concerto, with Gil Shaham officiating routinely. Why the switch – to sell tickets? (which it did). Fortunately, John Harbison’s fascinating, multi-faceted, at-times jazzy Symphony No. 4 and Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloé” Suite No. 2 – a BSO showpiece dating all the way back to the days of Karl Muck, when it was genuinely new music – remained in place. Ludovic Morlot, the new man in Seattle and Levine’s replacement for the BSO’s California tour, also struck up a generous encore – Berlioz’s “Roman Carnival” Overture.

There was no contest between what I heard that night and what memory recalls of the disappointing BSO performance 20 years before, when it was apparent even then that Seiji Ozawa had stayed too long at the fair. From the first note of the Brahms, the dark, distinctive timbre of the Boston strings and the smooth, seamless legato phrasings took ahold of the senses.  “Daphnis” positively vibrated – the winds bubbling with an endless variety of nuance, everything balanced perfectly.  Too often, visiting brass sections with little or no experience in the hi-def acoustics of Disney Hall tend to overblow, perhaps falling back on old habits compensating for their own imperfect halls.  But not the Boston brasses; they held their power in check until it was needed, like the rapier-like chromatic run in the Danse générale of “Daphnis” that ripped down our spines.  I cannot imagine a better-played, better-paced “Roman Carnival” Overture – another BSO specialty that I first heard, like “Daphnis,” from a Charles Munch/BSO LP as a child.  Clearly Levine left the BSO in terrific shape, and Morlot knows how to drive this high-performance vehicle.