Bland in Boston. That, for me at least, sums up Seiji Ozawa’s 29 years as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a tenure that was beginning to look endless. Having grown up hearing the BSO live under Koussevitzky and Munch, perhaps I was more disturbed by the faceless character of Ozawa’s music-making than some, but a change was certainly long overdue. Next fall, James Levine takes charge, expectations are running high, and going to symphony (as Bostonians quaintly put it) is bound to get a lot livelier.
While waiting for Jimmy, the BSO is fortunate to have the caretaking services of its principal guest conductor, Bernard Haitink, who recently led the orchestra in three concerts at Carnegie Hall. The hot ticket was definitely the complete performance of Debussy’s luminous Pelléas et Mélisande, and no one could have been disappointed. Haitink presided over an interpretation that combined many of the best qualities of the Pelléas performances I’ve admired over the years—precise articulation (Boulez), instrumental virtuosity (Levine), structural clarity (Inghelbrecht), symphonic depth (Karajan), lyrical intensity (Monteux), emotional commitment (Désormière), and the music’s sheer humanity (Ansermet)—while encouraging the Boston musicians to explore the full expressive potential of the music.
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Simon Keenlyside were both spellbinding in the title roles. Each note from this Mélisande placed her precisely in that strange, misty world from which she comes and never truly leaves, hovering somewhere between the real and unreal. Keenlyside’s exquisitely sung Pelléas came pulsing to life whenever he is drawn into the orbit of this enigmatic creature—their scenes together were positively magical. Gerald Finley’s soft-grained baritone made him a less aggressive Golaud than usual, but in this context, his restraint and command of delicate vocal colors seemed wholly appropriate. John Tomlinson’s frayed bass served Arkel’s music less successfully, and Nathalie Stutzmann’s fruity contralto was several layers too thick for Geneviève. No matter. Passing reservations became irrelevant in the face of Debussy’s eloquent masterpiece, nobly served by this memorable performance.