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Colors Dark, Light and Thrilling

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
01/29/2024 -  & January 11, 12, 13, 2024 (Boston)
Tania León: Stride
Maurice Ravel: Piano Concerto for the Left Hand
Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

Seon-Jin Cho (Pianist)
Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons (Conductor)

A. Nelsons (© Marco Borggreve)

Writing ‘Stride’ was like seeing the marches of Martin Luther King again, and imagining the march of Susan B. Anthony. And the more that I wrote, the more that I had the vision. I don’t know how it works. I just hear this thing, I trust it, and put it on the paper.
Tania León, on composing Stride

The dream of Tania León arriving in America was to meet with Leonard Bernstein. The dream of Maurice Ravel, was to meet George Gershwin. Ms. León’s dream came true, studying with Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa in Tanglewood. Ravel’s dream came true, with Gershwin piling him in a subway and taking him to the Apollo Theater on 125th Street.

And both Tania León and Maurice Ravel rewarded their teachers splendidly last night with two of their wonderful pieces.

The prolific composer/conductor/dance director Tania León has put her innate temperament into truly dynamic music. Her Pulitzer Prize-winning Stride had the double benefit of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) with its sterling first chair players, and Andris Nelsons, who gave it all the velocity it needed.

The composer has explained the meaning of Stride many times (see the quote above), and while deeply impressed with the whole work, I didn’t quite get the title. To me it seemed like Scurrying. A feverish non‑stop scurrying, Stride was American in every measure.

True, the BSO started with hardly any movement, those strings opening a translucent curtain for shadowy pulses gathering, then breaking into an explosive 15 minutes, headlined by Principal Trumpet Thomas Rolfs with, what seemed like, Dizzy Gillespie fireworks at the top of the register.

Yet the composer eschewed any hint of jazz. This was her own voice, an orchestral palette of mighty timpani and episodes using every corner of the orchestra. It seemed only natural that the end of this ever-intriguing work was with tubular bells, Mr. Rolfs’ gymnastics and a sigh of exhaustion. From the BSO and the audience.

The composer, as spry and creative at 80 as any younger artist strode to the stage and rightly embraced the conductor.

T. León/S.-J. Cho.

To continue a program showing off the BSO colors, Mr. Nelsons produced that miracle of concertos, the Ravel Concerto for Left Hand. As everybody knows, pianist Paul Wittgenstein lost his hand in the First World War. Coming from one of the wealthiest families in Europe, he commissioned a half‑dozen composers to write for him–and he loathed most of his commission.

Ravel, though, was the exception, though rare is the artist who can do both the technical gymnastics and keep the razor‑sharp percussive solos. The young Korean virtuoso Seon‑Jin Cho emphasized both his virtuosity and his youth, whizzing over the keyboard, taking the jazzy second part in his stride and virtually leaping from the piano seat at times. The cadenza would be a Herculean challenge for two hands. Mr. Cho played with one hand, never slowing down the tempo.

It was suitably percussive, and the BSO illuminated its darkest colors.

For an encore, Mr. Cho chose a Liszt Consolation. It was hardly necessary.

If Messrs Ravel and León had dreams of meeting would‑be mentors, Igor Stravinsky doubtless was inspired by the flamboyant Mayan. Scythian and Canaanite Gods of vengeance for his Rite of Spring.

I always have a problem trying to write a critic for this. Note‑taking is impossible. Pure undistracted listening is crucial. The power of this 112‑year old piece is still more shocking, more shocking, sensational, mesmerizing, brazen, brutal and visceral than any work before or after.

So what is a good conductor, or–in Andris Nelsons’ case–great conductor, with a good orchestra–the great BSO–to do with this mightiest of scores? Any conductor with the cerebral muscles and precise beat can merely (!!) beat time rigidly, gives it the cleanest rhythm, and clear tonal balance.

Plus in Mr. Nelsons’ case, understanding. Understanding that one does not mess around with human sacrifice, which is too grand, too horrible for any personal posturing.

The conductor understood with no room for errors. Yes, the timpani boomed, the brass shouted, those gorgeous BSO strings were harsh and jarring. One felt that Mr. Nelsons not only understood it, not only disciplined his orchestra with the most rigid control, but that–as we in the audience were hit with pounding and shrieks and dipped into musical volcanos, Mr. Nelsons loved it.

And looking at a blank notebook, the only whispering word was ...“Wow!!” Sacre needs no more appropriate celebration.

Harry Rolnick



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