REVIEW: BSO in fine fettle under Asst. Conductor Ken-David Masur

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By Friday, Jul 22 Arts & Entertainment
Hilary Scott
Soprano Renée Fleming performs Richard Strauss's 'Four Last Songs' with Ken-David Masur and The BSO.

LenoxKen-David Masur is having a good month indeed. As Assistant Conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Masur must always be prepared to step onto the podium in the event a scheduled conductor can’t make an appearance. So, when complications from cataract surgery forced Christoph von Dohnányi to withdraw from his Saturday-night and Monday-night (July 16 and 18) appearances with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, Masur became man of the hour.

Of course, assistant conductors are expected to perform at the same professional level as the maestros they fill in for, and it’s hardly a surprise when Mr. Masur meets this expectation. But sometimes he does the unexpected. For example, his performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 on Saturday raised more than a few eyebrows.

Ken-David Masur leads the BSO at Tanglewood on July 16. Photo: Hilary Scott

Ken-David Masur leads the BSO at Tanglewood on July 16. Photo: Hilary Scott

Ken-David Masur studied conducting with his father Kurt Masur, but his style on the podium is entirely his own. He strikes a balance between the authoritarian style of his father’s generation and the more egalitarian approach taken by so many conductors of recent vintage (as well as — let’s be fair — by the old-timers who’ve been training all these young Turks for the past half century). While eschewing authoritarian airs, Masur nevertheless commands all the authority enjoyed by famous tyrant-conductors like Toscanini. Why? Because he earns the players’ respect through old-fashioned preparation. And once he has it, he keeps earning it, over and over. This is obviously true of many other young conductors, people like Andris Nelsons (current music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra) and dozens of former Tanglewood Music Center conducting fellows  like Sean Newhouse, Shi-Yeon Sung, Ruth Reinhardt, and Ludovic Morlot. Regardless of age or personal demeanor, a conductor’s authority is based on musicianship: If it’s outstanding, then it commands the respect of outstanding musicians. It has no substitute, and it can’t be faked.

On the evening of Saturday, July 16, Ken-David Masur conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Ives’ “The Unanswered Question,” Strauss’s “Four Last Songs,” and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, “Pathétique.” The Ives was unexpectedly lush and hypnotically engaging. But it doesn’t always sound quite as good as it did on Saturday. The BSO made it sound easy, but it’s a tricky piece requiring two conductors. (Don’t try this at home.)

BSO associate principal horn Richard Sebring. Photo: Hilary Scott

BSO associate principal horn Richard Sebring. Photo: Hilary Scott

A wonderful young soprano by the name of Renée Fleming joined the BSO on Saturday in a splendid performance of Richard Strauss’s “Four Last Songs.” (A recently discovered fifth song served as an encore.) Fleming was at the absolute top of her game on Saturday: She was relaxed, comfortably in voice, had memorized all of Strauss’s texts, and (as is her wont) remained in character throughout the performance, much to the delight of folks watching the video screens from the lawn and from the back of the Shed.

After Intermission came Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6. It’s a popular piece and frequently programmed, but there was something peculiar about the orchestra’s treatment of it under Ken-David Masur’s direction.

If a conductor doesn’t share Tchaikovsky’s penchant for the shamelessly bombastic, then a “classier” or more reserved composer might be a better choice. But Masur is fearless of Tchaikovsky’s over-the-top grandiloquence, and he knows how to pull out the stops and damn the torpedoes at appropriate times.

Don’t all conductors do this when the score calls for it?

It may appear that they do. But under Masur’s direction on Saturday, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 crackled with such vitality and force that past performances of the work now seem pale and tentative by comparison. The crowd was ready to explode long before the piece ended. And when it did, they stood and roared.

Monday night’s concert in Ozawa Hall featured the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra performing pieces by Wagner, Strauss, and Beethoven.

Christian Reif conducted Wagner’s “Dawn and Rhine Journey” from memory. His deep familiarity with the piece put the orchestra on firm footing, and he gave the players everything they needed to confidently play their hearts out. Which they did. Their performance was precise, characteristically vibrant, and utterly satisfying.

BSO associate principal horn Richard Sebring turned in a brilliant performance of Richard Strauss’s first horn concerto. This was a special treat for folks who barely get to see the top of Sebring’s head when he sits with the orchestra near the back of the Shed stage. His playing on Monday evening was warm, smoothly phrased, and well tuned. Which means it was the kind of horn performance that gets kids into trouble: They hear it played this well, and the next thing you know, they’re begging for horn lessons, not realizing that the instrument is practically impossible to play. Conductor Nuno Coelho collaborated expertly with Sebring to deliver a seamless performance of this treacherous piece.

Closing Monday’s program was Ken-David Masur conducting Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat, Opus 55, “Eroica.” This wasn’t the routine exercise it could have been. For one thing, Masur hardly glanced at his score throughout the performance. He knows the piece very well indeed and has an unerring sense not only of how it ought to sound at every point in the score but also of how to articulate his musical vision most effectively during its performance. The result was a wonderfully fresh and compelling account of Beethoven’s third symphony.


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