At BSO, assistant conductor returns under calmer circumstances
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA Sean Newhouse, conductor
At: Symphony Hall, last night
Repeats today and Tuesday
For assistant conductors, the Boston Symphony Orchestra must have been a nerve-racking and exhilarating place to be in recent seasons, as they were pressed into extraordinary service filling in for James Levine. And when it came to last-minute substitutions, no one had a story quite as dramatic as Sean Newhouse, who in February made his BSO debut leading Mahler’s Ninth Symphony on two hours’ notice.
Such occasions make great anecdotes, but they are not typically the best conditions for getting to know a conductor. Now under calmer circumstances, Newhouse, 30, is back this week on the BSO’s podium with a subscription program planned far in advance. It features Britten’s Four Sea Interludes, Sibelius’s Symphony No. 2, and Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with the formidable French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet.
For a young conductor, leading a program with such core repertoire can be a double-edged sword. Familiarity likely breeds an added degree of comfort for all parties, but at the same time, it becomes all the more difficult to make a distinctive impression. Last night things got off to a slow start with the Sea Interludes, beautifully evocative pieces drawn from Britten’s opera “Peter Grimes.’’
Technically speaking, Newhouse seemed to have all the necessary tools at his disposal. His beat was clean and clear, his podium manner streamlined and efficient. But these pieces require more than that. Specifically, last night’s performance would have benefited from a clearer sound concept, a more developed sense of atmosphere, a more nuanced feel for orchestral textures, and closer attention to dynamic subtleties. Everything was in its place but, for instance, the lighting in the “Dawn’’ movement felt florescent and flat; the “Storm’’ movement had volume without much physical immediacy, or ultimately, dramatic impact.
After intermission, the muscular Romanticism of Sibelius’s Second seemed better suited to Newhouse’s strengths, and the orchestra under his baton delivered a warm, confident performance, with moments of appealing expressive breadth. The third movement, too, had an animated and forceful driving energy. At other times though, Newhouse gave the impression of conducting above the music rather than inside of it. His sense of large-scale contouring is also a work in progress, with some moments of grand arrival getting their due but others less so.
It was a treat to hear Bavouzet, a truly first-rate pianist, in Prokofiev’s Third Concerto. Others may bring more contrast to the varied dramatic materials and his tone occasionally lacked the bite necessary to cut through the orchestra, but his passagework was astonishingly elegant, his ideas fresh, and in the third movement, his playing dazzlingly and unconventionally fast. It made you want to hear him again soon, and made you wonder why he’s around so rarely.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com.