BSO unveils new Harbison for husband and wife

By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / April 9, 2010

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For what would have been his final performances of the BSO subscription season, James Levine planned a pairing of Mahler’s epic Seventh Symphony with John Harbison’s new Double Concerto in its world premiere. Last night in Symphony Hall, the task of carrying off this lengthy and ambitious program fell to the Uruguayan conductor Carlos Kalmar, in his BSO debut.

The Harbison work, a polished and attractive addition to his catalog, was commissioned by the Friends of Dresden Music Foundation for violinist Mira Wang and cellist Jan Vogler, who are married. It is dedicated to Wang’s mentor, Roman Totenberg, the 99-year-old violinist who has maintained a major musical and pedagogic presence in Boston for decades.

Harbison has said he was conscious of writing for a husband-and-wife team of soloists and tried to avoid any rhetoric of aggressive musical confrontation or one-upmanship in favor of a kind of collaborative virtuosity and an interweaving of related musical narratives.

Of course, Harbison is too seasoned a composer to lean on simplistic or reductive musical programs. He has his married soloists often “mishear’’ or misquote each other. In the third movement, he has them struggle to play a theme in octaves before ultimately succeeding. The piece offers opportunities for virtuoso display, in the rhapsodic outbursts of the opening movement and the catchy upbeat riffs of the finale, with enough interest to hold the ear. The orchestral support is spare but sensitive, and it all ends gracefully, with a colorful splash of percussion and a light parting shot from the soloists, dispensed “col legno,’’ or with the stick of the bow.

Wang and Vogler played with lovely tonal warmth and focused commitment, but also with an easygoing poise, as though this piece had already entered their repertoire. Totenberg was on hand for Symphony Hall’s warm appreciation.

After intermission came Mahler’s Seventh, in a way the most enigmatic of his symphonies. Kalmar, who directs the Oregon Symphony Orchestra, led a clear and energetic account, even if there were times when one wished for a bit more spaciousness and transparency in the orchestra’s sound.

The brass and woodwind sections turned in some excellent playing, and timpanist Timothy Genis opened the final movement with ample thunder and flair.

BSO Carlos Kalmar, conductor

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