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Music review

At BSO, a substitute and a fresh cadenza

Violinist Joshua Bell redeemed the second half of last night’s program with a high-octane performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto. Violinist Joshua Bell redeemed the second half of last night’s program with a high-octane performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto. (Michael J. Lutch)
By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / November 25, 2009

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The Boston Symphony Orchestra is not catching many breaks these days from the podium. Sir Andrew Davis has withdrawn from this week’s set of concerts because of a family illness, and the Frenchman Yan Pascal Tortelier has stepped in, making his subscription debut last night in Symphony Hall. (He has also tweaked the program, replacing Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements with the composer’s “Firebird’’ Suite of 1945.)

There is a nice local connection in that Tortelier’s father, the cellist Paul Tortelier, once led the BSO’s cello section in the late 1930s. It is hard, however, to imagine that generated much good will among today’s players, especially after witnessing how hard they were required to work last night.

With some conductors you can hear, see, and feel the contact - the tight connection - between podium and stage, which is as it should be. On other occasions, the two can feel separated by a yawning gap. Last night’s performance fell into the latter category. The unflappable BSO players made it honorably through the Stravinsky as well as Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of the Faun,’’ but for long stretches Tortelier seemed bafflingly in his own world.

In the Debussy, during the most languid moments of this work, when the music should be drifting weightlessly off the stage, he could be seen slicing the air with sharp vertical gestures. At times he conducted far ahead of the beat, but not consistently enough that a musician could plan entrances around that fact. In the Stravinsky, he seemed more concerned with showing every beat than drawing out the magical sounds of this dazzling score. A brass cue near the end was almost comically inscrutable, and for “Firebird’’ to draw only a few notches above polite applause is a tough verdict indeed.

Violinist Joshua Bell redeemed the second half with a performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto. The most intriguing aspect of his account was Bell’s first-movement cadenza, which he wrote himself. It’s in the virtuoso tradition of Fritz Kreisler rather than the shock-and-rupture school of, say, Alfred Schnittke. But Bell dispatched its cascading runs with a preternatural smoothness and that extra bit of musical command that comes with self-authorship. More soloists should follow his lead.

BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA Yan Pascal Tortelier, conductor

At: Symphony Hall, last night (repeats Friday, Saturday, and Tuesday)

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