BSO offers taste of ‘Petrenko effect’

By David Weininger
Globe Correspondent / October 9, 2009

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The Boston Symphony Orchestra has a strong record of bringing in talented young guest conductors on their way up. The latest to visit Symphony Hall is Vasily Petrenko, who made his BSO debut last night. The 33-year-old Russian is chief conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, which has extended his contract to 2015. British papers like to refer to a “Petrenko effect’’ to describe the revitalizing effect he has had on that group.

His BSO program was made up entirely of music from his homeland. The first half featured two seldom-heard works that played as polar opposites of each other. Stravinsky’s early “Scherzo fantastique’’ was a study in effervescent colors, while Rachmaninoff’s tone poem “The Isle of the Dead,’’ based on a painting by Arnold Böcklin, was dark and imposing, laden with references to the “Dies Irae’’ plainchant.

Petrenko showed himself to be a serious and skilled conductor with a strong grasp of his craft. His beat was clear, his gestures loose-limbed, and he kept textures lithe and transparent. Yet there was something almost self-effacing about his presence, as if he hadn’t yet made these pieces his own. It was all very well managed, but not commanding.

The second half of the concert changed all that. Petrenko led a gripping reading of Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony that showed why he is as highly touted as he is. Here he was much more animated on the podium, crafting a performance that was both beautifully laid out and viscerally thrilling. Slow tempos were unusually slow but never sank into stasis. The brief second movement was brought off with an almost demonic fury.

Petrenko was helped by some superb playing by the BSO. Trumpets and trombones were at the top of their form, and there were several outstanding wind solos, including piccolo Cynthia Meyers, flutist Elizabeth Rowe, clarinetist William Hudgins, and bassoonist Richard Svoboda. Timpanist Timothy Genis was a thunderous presence.

The audience began its applause early, after each of the first two movements, and exploded at the end. The “Petrenko effect,’’ indeed.

BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA Vasily Petrenko, conductor

At: Symphony Hall, last night

(repeats today and tomorrow, and Tuesday under conductor Julian Kuerti)

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