Tetzlaff returns to BSO with Mozart, Bartok, and Birtwistle

BSO Assistant conductor Marcelo Lehninger led violinist Christian Tetzlaff and the BSO last night in its premiere of the new Violin Concerto by Harrison Birtwistle. (Michael J. Lutch/Boston Symphony Orchestra)
By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / March 4, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

The story had been playing out for months and even years, but the news — that James Levine was stepping down from his post — came suddenly when it came. This week’s program book still has the customary greeting letter from Levine, waxing ebullient about the music in store. An insert tells only of his withdrawal from these four performances.

But the ring of the words is now weightier. Levine, of course, will not be returning to Symphony Hall as the BSO’s music director, and the orchestra must now begin scrambling to find his successor.

A few concertgoers encountered in the hall last night still seemed slightly stunned by the news. Meanwhile, the orchestra soldiered through another challenging program with a leader it had not anticipated.

A week after assistant conductor Sean Newhouse stepped in to lead his very first performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, Marcelo Lehninger, the BSO’s other assistant conductor, was tapped to lead this week’s program, which includes the only world premiere this season — a formidable new Violin Concerto by Harrison Birtwistle.

Fortunately, the soloist for the evening did not withdraw, as Maurizio Pollini has already done for next week, pleading the flu (he’ll be replaced by Peter Serkin in a different repertoire).

This week BSO audiences have the good fortune of again hearing German violinist Christian Tetzlaff in a program that keeps him on stage from the first note to the last. The night opens with Mozart’s brief but charming Rondo (K. 373) and closes with Bartok’s mighty Violin Concerto No. 2. In between comes the new Birtwistle work, commissioned by the BSO at Levine’s request.

Cast in one large 25-minute movement, it is a thorny and densely packed work, the kind of piece that takes several hearings to reveal its secrets. Robert Kirzinger’s program note identifies a debt to classical Greek drama, with “the violin soloist as protagonist and the orchestra as chorus.’’ That’s a helpful frame, though it’s clear that Birtwistle’s chorus is of the fractured, shape-shifting variety. Soloist and orchestra seem to be constantly renegotiating the terms of their highly theatrical dialogue.

Brass and percussion heckle in small tightly rhythmic figures. An angular, dissonant brass fanfare gives way to hushed string chords over which the violin floats back in. The writing for the soloist is highly athletic, compacted, and gestural. Last night, Tetzlaff played with fierce commitment and technical brilliance, though the piece drew more respect than wonderment.

Wonderment would, however, be the right word for what Tetzlaff’s playing in Bartok’s Second Violin Concerto produced. The violinist seemed totally in his element, bringing a blistering intensity to the earthy, folk-inflected opening of this work, a subtle coloristic imagination to its slow movement, and a charismatic sense of freedom throughout.

There were, as always with Tetzlaff, some daringly soft pianissimos that nonetheless seemed to carry into the hall.

Lehninger conducted capably throughout the night, though in the Bartok he was too often slightly behind the soloist, and allowed the orchestra to come across as more of a responsive accompanist than a co-participant in the creation of the evolving drama.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at

BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA Marcelo Lehninger, conductor

At: Symphony Hall, last night (repeats today, tomorrow, and Tuesday)