Gustavo Dudamel, the most famous face of classical music’s younger generation, is a tough act to follow — and, it turns out, an even harder one to replace. The Venezuelan conductor had to withdraw from this week’s engagements with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (the second of a scheduled two-week stint) after aggravating a hand and arm injury. BSO associate conductor Ken-David Masur and choral director James Burton stepped into the fray and rose to the occasion with a very respectable showing Thursday evening, bolstered by the dependably impressive orchestra.
Fans of modern music had to have been disappointed by Dudamel’s absence. For his second of two planned programs, the vibrant conductor had charted a journey to his home continent, introducing two Venezuelan composers to the BSO, with Ginastera’s brash Piano Concerto No. 1 to round it all out. However, change in personnel prompted major shifts, with practicality demanding the familiar replace the foreign. Contemporary composer Paul Desenne’s “Hipnosis Mariposa” was replaced by Berlioz’s “Roman Carnival” Overture; the Ginastera concerto, which the BSO had not played since Erich Leinsdorf conducted it in 1968, was swapped out for Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major.
Though Masur lit up the podium with élan, the “Roman Carnival” Overture lacked fire. The best performances often sound a hair’s breadth away of spinning out of control; Thursday’s rendition was comparatively sober. The concerto, however, was something else. Through the lushness of the orchestra, pianist Sergio Tiempo’s phrases glistened with a pearly sheen, manifesting with nonchalant loveliness. The slower second movement took a prayerful, introspective tack. The mournful elongated lines of Robert Sheena’s English horn made a wonderful partner for the piano, which wandered with the inquisitive spirit of a restless soul.
From there, it was an all-out gymnastic Presto to the end, and Ginastera’s roaring “Danza del gaucho matrero” came as an encore in lieu of the canceled concerto. With luck, Symphony Hall will see Tiempo again, for the Ginastera concerto or not.
In the second half, Antonio Estévez’s “Cantata Criolla” was performed as scheduled. Burton, who had been preparing the Tanglewood Festival Chorus since early March, had two days with the orchestra to rehearse the cantata, a preeminent Venezuelan nationalistic composition dating from 1954. With a popular poem by Alberto Arvelo Torrealba as text, it tells the story of a heroic “coplero” (an improvising folk balladeer) who bests the devil in a fast-paced duel of words.
Dudamel has been a fervent advocate for South American music, and “Cantata Criolla” in particular; he conducted it with the Los Angeles Philharmonic shortly after he began his tenure as music director. The myth of the omnipotent genius maestro is dying, as it well should. However, performances of under-represented repertoire are largely dependent on the passion (and good health) of individual conductors who stand up for it.
I was glad that this piece remained on the program, and that Burton was prepared to step in. Estévez, a choral specialist, drew on the musical traditions of the Venezuelan plains, in particular the “joropo,” a fleet-footed dance that lent its thrilling rhythms to the climactic showdown. The cantata deploys a slew of effects to illustrate the desolation of the landscape, brilliantly carried off by the orchestra. The low strings and winds, rustling up a hellish storm, were particularly potent; the same goes for the dry, lonesome song of piccolo player Cynthia Meyers and clarinetist William Hudgins. Tenor Aquiles Machado and baritone Gustavo Castillo, both Venezuelans making their BSO debuts, brought incandescent tension to the duel. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus could have added more nuance to its pacing of the long first scene, but in unity and intonation, the singers sounded the best I’ve heard them all season.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall, April 11. Repeats April 13. 888-266-1200, www.bso.orgZoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.