Youth and experience shared the stage of Symphony Hall last night as Julian Kuerti made his conducting debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra on a program that featured the veteran pianist Leon Fleisher performing Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto. The back stories of both musicians are compelling; the artistic results were more mixed.
James Levine appointed Kuerti last year as an assistant conductor of the BSO, a position he had held with Ivan Fischer's Budapest Festival Orchestra. At 31, he is a polished and graceful conductor with solid musical instincts - that much was made clear by an incisive performance he led of a challenging work by Manuel de Falla on a Boston Symphony Chamber Players program that took place earlier this season. He also has wide-ranging interests in contemporary music and opened last night's program by leading a vivid performance of Oliver Knussen's "The Way to Castle Yonder" - a brief suite of imaginative music culled from Knussen's opera "Higglety Pigglety Pop!" Kuerti and the orchestra did justice to the music's dense bursts of color and its sense of compressed drama.
Dvorak's Seventh Symphony followed, a work intriguingly suspended between Czech and German traditions, and full of its own idiosyncratic charms. Here Kuerti's reading succeeded less well in conveying his evident strengths as a young conductor; it could have been more persuasive in its expressive profile, its formal rigor, and its attention to detail. His instincts again appeared to be all there, but his conducting often gave the impression of gliding above the orchestra rather than driving a distinctive interpretation from within. The pacing at times had a slightly breathless quality, and opportunities to bring out the music's inner lines, its dynamic contrasts, or other subtleties were not always exploited to maximum effect.
Typically soloists appear on the first half of the program, but here, as if to add emphasis, Fleisher and the "Emperor" Concerto were placed last. The situation is not an easy one. Fleisher's right hand had been silenced for decades thanks to a neurological condition known as focal dystonia, but in recent years he has made a sensational return to two-handed playing. The story of his dramatic recovery now follows him everywhere, and surely brings with it tremendous pressure to continually re-prove himself.
Last night, Fleisher gave a moving performance of the "Emperor" though he clearly struggled to maintain his own high standards of clarity and accuracy in the fast-paced outer movements. The finale had flashes of the forceful rhythmic drive he can marshal so persuasively, but it was the lyrical slow movement that allowed him to make the strongest impression. He brought a lovely singing quality to its lines and a sense of accumulated musical wisdom to its overall conception. Kuerti and the orchestra met him at every turn.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com.