Ticket holders who arrived at Symphony Hall for last night's Boston Symphony Orchestra performance were greeted with a highly unusual announcement tucked into a program insert, stating that Gennady Rozhdestvensky, this week's guest conductor, was "unable to conduct this performance as planned."
The news raised eyebrows and had audience members buzzing at intermission, especially because there had been no mention of illness or other medical reasons that typically force conductors to pull out. The full story is not yet clear. A press spokeswoman could not even say whether Rozhdestvensky would be conducting the remaining performances. Stay tuned for more.
Meanwhile, as is often the case in the orchestral world, one conductor's absence is another's opportunity. For last night's concert, the BSO's assistant conductor, Julian Kuerti, bravely stepped in on very short notice. He had only one rehearsal with the orchestra and, despite a lengthy and decidedly nonstandard program - Brahms's Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Elgar's Cello Concerto, and Tchaikovsky's hefty "Manfred" Symphony - Kuerti rose to the occasion and pulled off a triumphant concert. This was easily his finest hour - or two-and-a-half - with the orchestra thus far.
The Brahms Variations (orchestrated by Edmund Rubbra) were vividly characterized. But the first half really belonged to cellist Lynn Harrell, who gave a robust and deeply felt account of the Elgar Concerto. Seldom has any work been so closely associated with a single revered soloist as this piece is with the cellist Jacqueline du Pre. Soloists today must still implicitly contend with her interpretation, one that is surely emblazoned in the memories of most serious fans of this work.
For his part, Harrell approached the work with less swooning hyper-Romanticism than du Pre, but his forceful and intensely committed playing proved completely absorbing. The slow movement was touching in its lyricism, and the finale boasted a lot of big-hearted and gutsy music-making. Kuerti and the orchestra stuck with Harrell throughout, and afterward the cellist wrapped the young conductor in something approaching a bear hug.
Tchaikovsky's "Manfred" is a work of massive proportions, and Kuerti navigated it well and courageously. The second movement was light on its feet; the finale had a powerful expressive arc.
The BSO also rose to the occasion and played brilliantly when it counted. Kuerti deserves a lot of credit, but there were also a few poignant moments when you sensed an orchestra taking care of one of its own.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com.