If the Boston Symphony Orchestra may not have understood Mahler’s Sixth yesterday, they certainly understood Don Quijote by Richard Strauss today. Strauss wrote the piece, but tonight Andris Nelsons was the story-teller on the podium. The Orchestra responded wonderfully, with all of the nuances missing from last night’s Mahler. Of course, it did not hurt that, portraying Don Quijote himself, Yo-Yo Ma on the cello made the title character sympathetic and tragic. The poor knight meant well, but his delusions put him into increasingly untenable situations, until he died a broken man. Ma started firmly, slowly succombing to fate, but keeping a positive outlook of the knight errant. Cervantes himself barely told it better.
After the break, the orchestra returned for Schostakowitsch’s Tenth Symphony. Once again, as for last night’s Mahler, this work was probably too big for where this orchestra is right now. But it is easier to decipher than the Mahler, and the solo lines sounded more comfortable (excellent bassoon and contrabassoon, in particular). If they follow Nelsons, they won’t get lost, and the story Nelsons told was one of the devastation wrought by Josef Stalin, and Schostakowitsch’s survival. Stalin’s legacy marched out for all to see – Schostakowitsch portrayed in music the man Osip Mandelstam so vividly displayed in poetry, and that poetry echoed through the hall tonight (“every killing was a treat, for the broad-chested Ossete”). Schostakowitsch outlived Stalin, in life and in the symphony, but the Soviet Union marched on. Nelsons, born under Russian occupation, showed the way, if not to victory then just to survival (as his hero in last night’s Mahler Sixth also appears to have survived).
The BSO is wise to continue to follow Nelsons where he leads. This is a conductor on a mission, with forceful readings and clear vision.