UPDATE: Vladimir Jurowski has been forced to withdraw from this week's Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts because of a visa problem rising from a miscommunication with his management team. Stefan Asbury, who led the world premiere of the Harrison Birtwistle piece with Pierre-Laurent Aimard, will replace Jurowski for Birtwistle. BSO Assistant Conductor Ken-David Masur will conduct the remainder of the program.
The single most gripping Boston Symphony Orchestra performance since the departure of James Levine was the 42-year-old Russian conductor Vladimir Jurowski, Principal Conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, leading the massive, knotty and (hence) rarely performed Shostakovich Fourth Symphony, in October of 2012. The following summer, at Tanglewood, he led the BSO in a revelatory Brahms First Symphony. There seems to have been a lot of interest in Jurowski as Levine’s possible successor, but one story has been that he was not interested in moving to Boston. As the principal conductor of the London Phil, he has no major obligations beyond conducting the orchestra and making recordings—no fundraising, no administrative duties. And he evidently didn’t want to move his young family.
Russian music was supposed to predominate in Jurowski’s return to the BSO (Symphony Hall, Feb. 12-14), but instead of the originally announced four short tone poems by Anatoli Liadov—whose orchestral works have been on many BSO programs in Boston and Tanglewood between 1911 and 1989, but not lately—we’re getting only one. “From the Apocalypse” (1912) was new music—only 13 years old—when Serge Koussevitzky first led it in 1925. He must have liked it a lot, having played it 17 times, for the last time in 1943. No one else has scheduled it until now.
The other Russian work on the program is much more familiar: but the originally scheduled complete version of Stravinsky’s “The Firebird” ballet (1910), which according to the orchestra’s website the BSO has played only 44 times, has been exchanged for the far more frequently heard "Suite" (228 times). Still, it’s one of the most colorful pieces of music ever written, and I’m not sure there’s anyone else I’d rather hear conduct these Russian pieces than Jurowski.
The new addition to this concert is another chestnut, the BSO’s most popular Debussy piece (340 performances since 1904): “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.” I trust (and hope) the BSO’s stellar principal flutist, Elizabeth Rowe, will be playing the hauntingly seductive flute solo.
But the most intriguing part of the original program that’s still on the current one isn’t Russian at all. It’s the American premiere of an important co-commission of the BSO, the London Phil, and two other European orchestras (Jurowski led the British premiere last December in London), a new work by the 80-year-old British composer Harrison Birtwistle, who is not heard around these parts as often as he should be (the BSO has played only two other pieces of his). Birtwistle is a quirky, even eccentric composer in the ways he plays around with sound and time. He’s also composed at least 10 operas.
This new piece is called “Responses: Of sweet disorder and the carefully careless,” and the title, as the BSO’s website informs us, refers to “an essay collection by the British architect/historian Robert Maxwell, Emeritus Professor of Architecture at Princeton University.” The phrase “sweet disorder” comes from the first line of Robert Herrick’s enchanting lyric, “Delight in Disorder,” which is about the greater attraction of the natural rather than the refined. I’m certainly curious about the relationship Birtwistle finds between architecture and music. The piano soloist will be the esteemed French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who also played the world premiere.
What a sweetly disordered balance this program is between the gloriously Romantic and the challenging Modern.
A free panel about this program in the BSO's Insight Series, moderated by Harvard Professor of Music Thomas Forrest Kelly with conductor Stefan Asbury, composer Sir Harrison Birtwistle and pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, takes place at Symphony Hall on Tuesday, Feb. 10 at 7 p.m. Weather permitting.
Lloyd Schwartz is the music critic for NPR’s “Fresh Air” and senior editor of classical music for “New York Arts” (www.newyorkarts.net). Longtime classical music editor of The Boston Phoenix, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1994. He is the Frederick S. Troy Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Follow him on Twitter @LloydSchwartz.