WHRB Classical Reviews Shaham's Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov at the BSO

Image Credit: Hilary Scott

Staff Member Pablo Rasmussen attended the October BSO performance of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov at Symphony Hall, where Gil Shaham and Andris Nelsons lead the orchestra through Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto, Rachmaninov's Symphony No. 2, and Arlene Sierra's Moler.

One of the blessings of our era of ubiquitous recordings is that we begin to discover and solidify our preferences without needing to listen to a work in a live performance. Often these tastes are first defined by our first exposure to a specific composer or piece. For me, that piece is Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, and I have been listening to it since before I could read. It is a rare and unique opportunity to attend a performance of a piece that has defined one’s musical taste and experience like the Violin Concerto has for me. Along with the Violin Concerto with soloist Gil Shaham, music director Andris Nelsons conducted Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 and Tanglewood composer Arlene Sierra’s Moler.

Gil Shaham began the concerto by moderately straying from convention and embedding himself between Maestro Andris Nelsons and the first violins. In the first minute or so performed by the orchestra, he stood merely an arm-length away from Nelsons, beaming with excitement and anticipation. Symphony Hall held its breath as he lifted his violin to start playing, and I was in awe that after almost twenty years of listening to the concerto it was being performed by a renowned violinist and orchestra in front of me. I have always had a special admiration and preference for concertos, especially ones where the soloist is pit in a battle of aesthetic showmanship with the orchestra. Tchaikovsky’s concertos make it almost ridiculously easy to gauge the capabilities of both, giving ample back-and- forth between them. I have heard far too many recordings of the Violin Concerto where a violinist fails to keep up with an experienced orchestra or a spectacular soloist is paired with an underwhelming orchestra. Neither of these scenarios were true on Saturday as Nelson’s leadership of the orchestra filled the hall with the nuanced emotions of the concerto, and Shaham mastered the raw power of the first and last movements. The whole performance felt incredibly cohesive and evoked more nostalgic emotions than I anticipated. It is a challenge for a performance to live up to the expectations of someone who holds the piece to such high regard and emotional weight, but I have no doubt that Shaham and the BSO far exceeded those expectations.


After intermission, Nelsons brought out the energy and prowess of the BSO to deliver a captivating performance of Rachmaninoff’s second symphony. The symphony expresses the composer’s search for redemption after broad criticism of his first symphony, and the BSO not only delivered a bold performance, but truly focused on the redemptive motifs of the piece. The particularly emphatic brass and percussion elements of the symphony were even more accentuated during the performance, often overshadowing the subtleties of the latter movements. Overall, Nelsons reminded the audience that he is particularly comfortable with the time periods of these compositions and their distinct Russian sound, in a manner similar to his powerful recordings of Shostakovich’s symphonies.

The two Romantic works were juxtaposed by the introductory piece, Sierra’s “Moler”, intending to represent the composer’s nighttime tooth-grinding habit. The piece was selected as a contemporary introduction to what would usually be a thematically- focused performance, yet in my opinion it fails to add context to the other two works. As with many contemporary pieces, it was not particularly unpleasant but it lacked something to tie it with the other works it was performed with. In a discussion with one of my fellow colleagues at WHRB Classical who attended the concert with me, Topher Colby, he highlighted the notion that a lot of contemporary works are too focused on the individual experiences of the composer and lack broader aesthetics and applicability to the listener. While most listeners can empathize to some degree with the search for redemption in the Rachmaninoff symphony or with the heartbreak of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, the broad appeal for the pains of tooth-grinding is both lacking and also not comparable to the other themes.

Saturday night’s performance filled Symphony Hall with a curious combination of seasoned symphony attendees, casual classical music listeners allured by an accessible program, and students from the area. That latter category included five members of WHRB’s classical music team ready for a night of memorable music. While I cannot speak on behalf of the other four, I can say that the concert reminded me of why I listen to and work with classical music. It is the beauty of the music, the thoughtfulness of the performances, and the appreciation of the audience that keeps me coming back.

Pablo Rasmussen is a DJ for WHRB Classical. You can hear classical music on WHRB on Mondays - Fridays 1pm - 10 pm, Saturdays 1pm - 9pm, and Sundays 2pm - midnight.