Harrison Birtwistle’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra is the 18th work to receive its world premiere by the Boston Symphony Orchestra during James Levine’s tenure as music director. And it will be the last. Begrudging acceptance by conductor and management alike that disruption caused by Levine’s health problems cannot continue led to his resignation as music director (effective September 1) shortly after he withdrew, because of back troubles, from the Birtwistle programme and other regular season engagements.
Making something of the Birtwistle, and the works scheduled with it, fell to two young musicians, one of whom, violinist Christian Tetzlaff, had already accepted the daunting assignment of playing in all three compositions; the other, Marcelo Lehninger, a BSO assistant conductor, had the challenge of replacing Levine thrust upon him.
Under the circumstances, the Birtwistle came off very well. Tetzlaff shone in a solo part full of sustained high tones, bursts of staccato notes, jagged leaps, and double stops often combined with tremolos. Birtwistle’s orchestral writing is likewise craggy and highly concentrated. A notable structural component is supplied by five duets that intermittently occur between the soloist and different orchestral instruments. Yet the effect does not supply the textural variety one might expect, since the orchestra itself is also active to a degree that sometimes prevents the orchestral solos from standing out.
The Violin Concerto is typically Birtwistle in its severity, meticulous craftsmanship and underlying energy. Lehninger performed heroically in traversing the score’s thickets, with its many tempo changes and other rhythmic complexities.
Coupled with the Birtwistle, Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2, a work plenty modernistic in its own right, found itself in the unusual position of representing tradition. The works do often share a common syntax, but where Bartók sometimes alludes to Hungarian folk song, that kind of common touch is foreign to Birtwistle. Tetzlaff’s virtuosity did not disappoint and Lehninger accompanied proficiently, but the Birtwistle surely got the bulk of rehearsal time. The concert opened with Mozart’s Rondo in C for Violin and Orchestra, K. 373, a graceful foil to what followed.