Bach angles, rounds, a toast!

Something of a party on BSO’s opening night delighted the masses of music lovers with a convenient new start time of 7:30 am on Thursday nights at Symphony Hall. American pianist Awadagin Pratt made his BSO debut in the work of American composer Jessie Montgomery Sleeves wrote for him, and he oriented Bach according to his own muse. Music director Andris Nelsons started with the music, celebrating it late with a fanfare from BSO favorite John Williams. The closest, Holst’s popular Interplanetary Orchestral Expedition, once again reminded us of the music from the Star Trek movie.

Especially for the brass, the three minutes of Williams A toast! (2014) would add little to the band’s repertoire. Being a marching band, if the brass had been standing rather than seated, that, at least, would have given some visual satisfaction. The brilliance of the BSO’s horns contrasted refreshingly with a small contingent of strings, though this section of the orchestra, by comparison, sounded surprisingly bland for the most part. Attention has therefore focused primarily on soloist Awadagin Pratt in JS Bach’s Piano Concerto in A major, BWV 1055.

More precisely, as is often the case with JS Bach, the approaches offer us an immense range of understandings, from period recreations to escapes, from harpsichord to piano. Although the 56-year-old Pratt has traveled extensively, performing several times in Boston, he is likely a newcomer to many.

Jessie Montgomery and pianist Awadagin Pratt (photo Aram Boghosian))

What brings this pianist to so many places, from the White House to Sesame Street, could very well be an American artist following his own muse. Some might quarrel with details; others might find Pratt’s muse taking longer, deeper breaths. The heaviest BSO strings would ultimately shine a light on Pratt’s formidable, seasoned, individualized and brooding playing. If the string section lacked effect, it allowed Pratt to have even more emotional reach. Towards the end of the Larghetto, his phrasing tugged at the heartstrings. Other “investigations” like this have brought a personal and inspiring perspective to Bach, expanding our own.

Appearing onstage, Jessie Montgomery introduced Sleeves, which she wrote for two years in collaboration with Pratt. Montgomery dedicated the performance of this true musical offering to his late mother who “lived just down the street for 15 years.”

Montgomery further compared his work to Row, Row, Row Your Boat, drawing grateful laughs. Or, she continued, you could follow along thinking of the migration of birds, their departure and their return. Pratt joined a full set of BSO strings, now colorized, responding to this finely and imaginatively created 15-minute work. Departing from the timid, mental calculations of so much new music these days, Montgomery and Pratt clung to our human nature – away from that overthinking! Instead, we encountered a natural admitting both genuine benevolence and generous optimism. Together, composer and pianist deeply touched a nerve long numbed by the contemporary music scene.

Nelsons utterly amazed with an array of gestures meshed with The Planets countless movements. In good spirits, Nelsons turned to English composer Gustav Holst, initially appearing somewhat like the Hulk. Bent over, the BSO conductor unleashed a veritable Bringer of War—Mars. When was the last time we heard our venerable orchestra in such extremes? Deafening explosions near the ear in Mars and Jupiter, and later to a real pianissimo on the way out.

In Neptune, the Mystic, the mute chorus of a dozen sopranos and altos from the Lorelei Ensemble (Beth Willer, artistic director), could be heard from somewhere outside the hall. But from where? Finally, their ethereal voices drift incredibly towards silence.

David Patterson, music teacher and former chair of the performing arts department at UMass Boston, received a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a doctorate from Harvard University. He is the author of 20 small piano pieces from around the world (G. Schirmer).

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