I recently had the pleasure of attending three performances of Mozart by the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO). Perhaps Mozart is the most well known composer in the history of the world, and BSO Music Director James Levine tackled three different performances of Mozart symphonies, some of which had not ever been performed by the BSO in its 128 year history.
In three years in Boston, I had not attended a single BSO performance, a statistic that I remedied quickly in a week. I utilized the BSO CollegeCard program and got an amazing first orchestra seat that ranked among the best seats I’ve ever been in. (It would be the best except for the Houston Symphony performance of Handel’s Messiah that I attended in the winter. Beautiful performance, orchestra seats.) Acoustically speaking, the perspective of that opening performance of some of Mozart’s early symphonies (1, 13, 14, 18, and Lambach) was probably the best, with the most open and honest soundstage. The orchestra was at half-mass, however, being divided into two for the first and second programs of the Mozart symphony mini-festival. I don’t believe I had heard any of those five symphonies but fell in love with that orchestral sound once again. Though all attention for Mozart symphonies often falls onto 40 and 41, it was clear that his musical gift was in full force even early on. (Mozart was eight when he composed No. 1.)
Interestingly, Levine chose to place the second violins stage right, where the cellists normally sit. Handel’s Messiah was performed in the same way, and I thought at the time that it was brilliant because the first and second violins too often are difficult to hear, since they occupy the same timbre and are spatially indistinct in a traditional orchestral arrangement. But the spatial separation of violins allowed one to easily discern the melody from the harmony in the violin parts, which added a considerable depth to my experience from the perspective of a violinist.
I was fortunate enough to attend a second performance of the same program of early symphonies the next day, for free, since additional seats had opened up and were being offered. My seat this time was third row center orchestra, which is technically a “worse” seat than I had been in. However, while the soundstage was considerably smaller, I was slightly right of center, which meant that I could hear the second violins even better than I had been able to the previous evening. It made me wonder to what extent Levine listens to the orchestra’s performance from his seat (arguably the best in the house) as opposed to the perspective of the audience. If I had any criticism of Levine and the BSO, it might be that their dynamic range was often imbalanced. While it is notoriously difficult to balance high pitched harmonies in quiet passages, I think that, like heavy stage makeup on ballerinas, the audience’s perspective must be keenly noted.
I think the second performance sounded more polished than the first. Particularly, some of the entrances to movements, which were rougher in the first performance, were notably tighter in the second. It was the first time I had ever had the luxury of attending two professional performances of the same music back to back, and I’m grateful for having had the experience.
Firmly addicted to the riches of the BSO, I stood in line briefly for rush tickets for the second program of Mozart’s symphonies, in which they performed Symphonies 19, 20, 21, and 25. I did not realize that I knew the opening movement to No. 25 so well, but of course it is very popular and I merely did not know it by name, like so many other instrumental pieces (it’s a major failing of mine musically, despite being my elementary school’s Music Memory champ!). Again it was the first of only two performances for this program, so naturally some varnish was to be expected, especially considering the ambitiousness of their program. My seats were third row again but considerably stage right and therefore surprisingly far less appealing than the other perspectives. But at $9 it’s impossible to be dissatisfied, and again, there really doesn’t appear to be a bad seat in the house at Symphony Hall.
Unfortunately, I was about 10 minutes too late in securing tickets for the final program, which featured the most well known Mozart symphonies, 39-41. While I suspect (unconfirmed) that the orchestra came together combined for the final performance, and I’m sad to have missed it, I know that there will be several chances within my lifetime to hear these oft-performed pieces.
This was a wonderful introduction to the BSO, and while in three years I failed to attend a single performance until now, I think three performances in a week primed me for many future seasons of BSO wonderment. To have a world class orchestra affordably in one’s backyard is really something I won’t be taking for granted any longer. Of course, my next goal is to hear the BSO perform something that is not Mozart ….