Bell, Beethoven, and the BSO
Saturday, December 16th, 2023
In an encore broadcast, American violinist Joshua Bell returns to the Boston Symphony as the soloist in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, and Alan Gilbert conducts the world premiere of a work by Bernard Rands and Debussy’s "La Mer."
Alan Gilbert, conductor
Joshua Bell, violin
Bernard RANDS Symphonic Fantasy (world premiere; BSO co-commission)
Claude DEBUSSY La Mer
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN Violin Concerto
This concert was originally broadcasted on April 16th, 2022 and is no longer available on demand.
Hear a preview of this concert with conductor Alan Gilbert with the audio player above, and read the transcript below.
Brian McCreath I'm Brian McCreath at Symphony Hall with Alan Gilbert, who is back here in Boston to lead the BSO in a program, a fascinating program of three very different pieces. But I don't know, maybe not as different as I'm thinking. Alan, thanks for a little bit of your time today.
Alan Gilbert It's a pleasure to be here. Nice to chat.
Brian McCreath So we're talking right after your first rehearsal for the week, and I guess I only bring that up because what fascinated me is, looking at the rehearsal and hearing the rehearsal, you had two very different situations. You started with a piece that the BSO knows as well as anything they do. They eat, live, and breathe Debussy when they want to...
Alan Gilbert Which is why I wanted to do it.
Brian McCreath There you go, spoiler alert. And then you had the first read through of a brand new piece that nobody's heard before by Bernard Rands. So let me ask you about Debussy first. When you do a first read through like this for an orchestra that, like I said, lives and eats and breathes this music, what's going through your mind about where you take things from there? You're going to do a lot, but how do you take in the sounds that you're hearing and what you're seeing and go from there?
Alan Gilbert Well, it's an interesting question, and I have to say that, as I've become older, which we're all doing, I must say, or I must admit, or we must all admit...
Brian McCreath I'm in the same camp, too, by the way.
Alan Gilbert Yeah, I know, it's the way it goes. But I think less about the fact that the orchestra knows these pieces really well. And certainly when I was starting out, I always felt intimidated by an orchestra such as the Boston Symphony, coming in to do a piece that they have done many times, and they have a history of incredible performances in their memory banks. And that was daunting.
But both because I think I've learned some things since then, and I feel a little more confident, hopefully, and because, you know, I've done the pieces more, and also because I realize that it's not so helpful to go in feeling intimidated, you have to bring your point of view about a piece, whether it's a piece that the orchestra knows or is reading for the first time, because that's really what they look for. And I used to think to myself, I remember consciously thinking, like, if I would do a Brahms symphony with, you know, an orchestra, say the orchestra I'm conducting now, you know, my Hamburg Elbphilharmonie Orchestra. Of course, they have a wonderful tradition with Brahms, and I would think, How do they do it, and how do they want it to be done? Or do they have expectations? And both because I figured out that they actually don't necessarily have expectations about how it should go, and also because, even if they do, very often, what makes them excited about a performance is finding something new and different.
And so, trying to be right or trying to fit into the tradition of performances of, say, La Mer at the Boston Symphony is not necessarily the right way to go about it. It's not what they're looking for even. And it's certainly not, it shouldn't be what I'm looking for, because I have to find my personal take on the piece.
That having been said, it would be stupid not to use the wealth of experience that the orchestra has, and they bring so much, they know it, they have such a point of view about the piece. And that's what makes a great orchestra different from a merely good orchestra. And doing a piece like La Mer, which is their, I don't know if it's their bread and butter, it's their pan et beurre. But the Boston Symphony has long had a very, very special way with French music, and obviously they have the tradition going back to [former Music Director Charles] Munch.
But I remember the first time I conducted the orchestra was Respighi's Pines of Rome and Fountains of Rome, which is very much in the French tradition. And it was just dazzling, the colors and the sort of imagination of sound that they have. And it's a pleasure, and I've been very fortunate to do different French pieces with them over the years. I did Debussy's Jeux some years ago, which was, you know, it's the hardest piece in the orchestral repertoire for any orchestra. And it didn't feel that way here. And it was such a pleasure. And I think that's why I specifically requested a crack at La Mer for this visit.
Brian McCreath There you go. Well, and it should be said that once you did start rehearsing, differences came out almost immediately, too. You made a suggestion to the brass section at one point about the way they attack one part of the phrase, and then they attack the note a different way for the next part of the phrase to get the right effect. And it was just instantly there. And it was, all of a sudden, this thing just kind of bloomed into full color in a way that it wasn't quite there before.
Alan Gilbert Well, it's nice to feel that you can make a difference, because it's very easy for an orchestra like the Boston Symphony to dial in a, you know, a merely good enough performance. And the challenge and the idea is obviously to bring something more. And it's a piece I know well, I've done it a lot, and I'm sure there are differences between the way I do it and the way they've done it, but that's OK. And that's because, you know, as I always say, great music can withstand interpretation.
Brian McCreath I like that saying, that's good. Well, so then we take our story of this first rehearsal, and we flip it on the other side. When you pull out Bernard Rands's Symphonic Fantasy, it's a BSO co-commission that's being performed for the very first time this week, and this was the first day the orchestra played it together. Again, you're reading it through, and this was interesting, too, you chose to read the entire piece through, and what's going on in your mind about where you go from there with this piece, in a way that might be different from what you were thinking with the Debussy?
Alan Gilbert Well, the thing is, again, I really can't praise the Boston Symphony highly enough, not only because I'm here and it feels like the right thing to do, but it's actually the way I feel about it. It's really impressive. It's amazing actually how skilled and how competent and how masterful the orchestra is, whether it's with a piece that they know or a piece of the reading for the first time, as with the Rands. The first read-through obviously had little things that we will sort out in the next rehearsals and will come together. But frankly, they play it so well. They read so well, and it's very impressive. Obviously, they're prepared because you can't sight-read like this. It means that they've looked at it, and that really is the difference.
You know, I used to sub as a violinist with the Philadelphia Orchestra. And it's funny because, you know, I grew up around great orchestras. My parents are violinists, were violinists in the New York Philharmonic. So, you know, if anybody's had contact with this kind of top level orchestra, it's me. But even then, I was surprised when, one of the early weeks I played with the Philadelphia Orchestra was Dvorak's New World Symphony, a piece that they have literally played hundreds of times and it's as standard as standard repertoire gets. And I went to the library to find a part to practice. You know, the subs all sat at the back of the second violin section. And there were no parts. They had all been checked out by the musicians to practice. And I thought, Wow, Philadelphia Orchestra, New World Symphony, they practice. And you'd think that with, one might think, Oh, great orchestra, they don't need to practice anymore.
But what I found is that with less impressive orchestras, they actually practice less. They somehow often have the attitude, Oh, why do we need to practice? We can do this. And it's exactly the other way around in a place like this. People are so professional, in the best sense, and so serious.
I was very happy with the read-through of the Rands. I thought it went very well. The way it's written, it's important to sort out some of the details of ensemble. It's not the most fun thing to talk about. Oh, let's make sure this is together. This is, you know, basic sort of rudimentary things. I try to do rehearsals that are more about the spirit of the music and the character in the atmosphere, because that's more fun and that's what makes music come alive. But in this piece, it's specifically written in a way where the harp will have something together with the bases and the trombones. And just practically speaking, because the harp is sitting over on one side of the stage and the trombones are way at the back and the basses over here, just getting it together is a trick, or it's a challenge. And it's worth it because that's specifically how it's written. He uses groups of instruments as units, and just finding our way through that, but it will come together beautifully. I think it's a nice piece and there's no question that the Boston Symphony will really master it.
Brian McCreath And the rewards of that really come through because this piece is, I'm listening to it, I don't know Bernard Rands's music too terribly well, but there's so much color and texture in these combinations of instruments that you're describing. So, taking that time, even if it's sort of like the rudimentary, like this happening at the same time as that and getting all that together, the rewards just blossom.
Alan Gilbert I think so. It's really worth fixing those things. I've had a long experience with Bernard's music, actually, because I was, well, I went to Harvard, and he had a long association at Harvard. And also he was Composer-in-Residence at the Philadelphia Orchestra when I was at Curtis and studying there and subbing in the Philadelphia Orchestra. So I've actually played a lot of his music when I was, you know, working with the Philadelphia Orchestra back then, and he was always around. And so it feels kind of like homecoming.
Brian McCreath Yeah. And so with that deep knowledge and even acquaintance with Bernard himself, does this piece strike you as like, Ah yes, this is Bernard Rands. This is vintage Bernard Rands. Or is there something that he's doing in this piece that maybe takes you in a different direction that you didn't expect?
Alan Gilbert I, you know, it's very much Bernard Rands. There's no question about it because he has a very subtle way with color and harmony. In a way, he uses traditional chords and harmonies, but in his very personal way. The colors, it's very French sounding, so it actually works very well in combination with Debussy. And I have to say, though, there's a kind of clarity and simplicity and wisdom, if I may say, that I feel in this piece that's so lovely because it doesn't, it's not overwritten. It's quite spare, in fact, in the textures very often. And he writes, you know, I don't want to get too much inside his head because I wouldn't presume to know what's going on in anybody's head. But he writes like someone who has nothing to prove, and there's something very honest about it. I really enjoy doing a piece like this that speaks for itself, and I think represents, you know, a lifetime of, you know, super high level music making in composition.
Brian McCreath I think it was written or commissioned to commemorate his 85th birthday. Is it 85?
Alan Gilbert Something like that, it's yeah, it's been sitting in the vault waiting for a first performance for a few years, and he's I think he's 88 or 89. Yeah, he's an amazing shape. It's so nice to see him. I hadn't seen him in in several years.
Brian McCreath That's great. When you were working with the BSO on setting up this program and you learned that Joshua Bell was in the mix, what was your reaction? You must you must have done concerts with Josh on any number of occasions.
Alan Gilbert Josh and I are actually close friends and close collaborators. We've done countless things together, including a tour recently in Europe, that was, despite everything, kind of a normal tour. You know, nine cities, you know, bam, bam, bam, one city to the next, and hanging out and going to post-concert dinners and traveling together and wrestling with suitcases. And it was like life as it always has been, which we haven't done so much recently. It was nice.
Anyway, it's always a pleasure to be with Josh, and it's always great to hear. I mean, he's such an amazing violinist and musician, and he's really someone I admire because I feel like he's always searching for more. He's never resting on his laurels. He's never stopping the process of practicing and relearning pieces. And I think he's getting better and better. I mean, he's always been a genius and an amazing, amazing player. But if anything, it's greater than it ever has been. And it's really a pleasure to do the Beethoven Concerto, which is, you know, the pinnacle of the violin repertoire. Obviously it's a great privilege.
Brian McCreath Wonderful. Alan Gilbert, welcome back to Boston. It's great to have you here, and thanks for your time today.
Alan Gilbert My pleasure. Thanks.