Guerrero, BSO find wildness untamed in Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’: Boston Globe Review of the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood

Giancarlo Guerrero leads the BSO Friday at Tanglewood.

By Jeremy Eichler GLOBE STAFF  AUGUST 14, 2017
LENOX — True, you still don’t find Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” on many compilations with titles like “classical music for relaxation.” But in the century since this ferocious score came stomping into the world, notoriously causing a riot at its 1913 Paris premiere, it has become so thoroughly absorbed into repertoire, so completely accepted by audiences, that orchestras these days routinely place it last on the program. That’s when you know a score has been officially declawed: when no one feels the need to block the exits with Beethoven’s “Pastoral.” 

These days, in fact, the challenge in any performance of “The Rite” is to restore something of its initial ability to shock. This is a ballet, after all, about a primordial ritual in which a young girl dances herself to death. A press release for the 1913 premiere described the action depicted as the “first stammered gestures of a half-savage humanity.” 

 On Friday night at Tanglewood, the Costa Rican conductor Giancarlo Guerrero went admirably far in this direction, leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a hard-hitting performance of Stravinsky’s brutal score. Winds and brasses infused their sound with a kind of peaty ferment. Timothy Genis’s timpani put aside the Zarathustrian grandeur of orchestral cliché in favor of more ancient varieties of pounding. And the strings dug in deeply, with the violas’ earthy alto register on particularly affecting display. The score’s final bars had a distant, almost dazed quality. Then the merciless last chord sliced the air like an ax. 

The Stravinsky was easily the highlight of Friday’s concert, which had opened with Dvorak’s “Carnival” Overture. Yet even here, Guerrero did not settle for what could easily have been a glibly effervescent curtain-raiser, a kind of air-kiss in sound, instead drawing from the ensemble playing of real color and vibrancy. 

Between the Dvorak and the Stravinsky came Brahms’s Double Concerto. This can be a thrillingly virtuosic score, with solo violin and solo cello holding forth in heroic statements, or dispatching tumbling give-and-take runs that demand pinpoint precision. But the best performances also showcase the soloists’ ability to navigate between this music’s muscular and lyric modes of address, its moments of proclamation and conversation. There’s no need for a bullhorn at the breakfast table.

Friday’s soloists — violinist Gil Shaham and cellist Alisa Weilerstein — may not have been the most obvious pairing in terms of temperament. Weilerstein tends to perform from deep within the music’s currents, while Shaham is like a cormorant, relaxing above the music’s surface and then suddenly taking his plunge. Their performance nonetheless exuded a certain rough-hewn charm, though sometimes it was just plain rough. No one seemed to mind. Between the Brahms score itself and the performance on view, enough excitement clearly translated across the footlights to bring this Shed audience rapidly to its feet. 

Giancarlo Guerrero