The Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) just finished a program of Brahms’ Concerto for Violin and Cello, Op. 102, and Bruckner’s (Marathon) Symphony No. 7, featuring guest conductor Hans Graf. I was fortunate enough to catch their first performance of this on Thursday night, but I was sitting far stage left. Though still in the orchestra section, I was about 26 rows back and right next to a rather noisy wall vent, which I’m really surprised about given the otherwise excellent acoustics in Symphony Hall. Nevertheless, violinist Janine Jansen and cellist Alisa Weilerstein gave a phenomenal performance of the Brahms. In hopes of getting closer and hearing the Brahms live for a second time, I went down to the Symphony Hall box office about 2 hours before the concert and hoped to get not a more central orchestra seat but a seat as close as possible to the soloists. Somehow the stars aligned and placed me in B18, which is the second row and slightly stage right, exactly where the soloists would be featured on stage. For the intimacy with these two performers, it was — absolutely — perfect.
I love the Brahms. It’s quickly becoming a favorite of mine, through it’s beautiful Andante to its humorous passages strewn throughout. The exchanges between the cello and violin were like quarreling lovers as their phrases overlapped and answered one another in rapid succession.
With that vantage point, my eyes admittedly were fixed upon Jansen and Weilerstein throughout the performance. It was clear that both personalities were present in this rendition of the music.
The proximity to Jansen was for me a masterclass performance, as I noted particularly her bowing technique on spiccato passages, double stops, and chords. She entered passages commandingly and left them gracefully. From Thursday’s performance, I recall feeling that the sound of the solo violin in Symphony Hall was slightly smaller than I had expected. It was unclear to me whether or not the problem was my expectation of orchestra-size sound from a single instrument. Nevertheless, being so close to Jansen on Tuesday allowed me to experience — in full — the power of the instrument.
Weilerstein is intensely passionate; she knew the music well, despite having the manuscript perched atop the simple folding stand in front of her. She made eye contact with Jansen in order to connect passages – she was not playing by prescribed rhythms in an arrangement as much as she was by an intimate knowledge of how transitions should sound. Eye contact with Graf was not as much for guidance as it was a two way communication that took place in the total absence of spoken language, yet it was clearly conversational. It freed the performance from the written music. It was an interpretation, which I’ve never quite understood in the context of European Classical music until that moment. Weilerstein also understood and probably enjoyed the humorous sections, as her eyebrows signaled acknowledgement of the curiosities. She listened intently to the orchestra as they played, and she seemed to really like the music.
From that close, the orchestra sounded phenomenal in quite a bizarre way. Spatial separation was distinct, almost unnatural, and the sound was completely enveloping. About 15 rows back, one gets a sense of the orchestra as a singular emanation with a wall of sound penetrating the space between the stage and your ears. The difference is almost akin to headphones versus speakers. In row B, I had on the most perfect headphones possible.
The recent performances of Brahms, from a recent performance of Symphony No. 4 to these performances of the Double Concerto have quickly combined in support of Brahms among my favorite music. These performances of the Double have been phenomenal, perhaps the best I’ve witnessed ever and among the best I’ve heard from the BSO, whose Tuesday performance was particularly grand. Jansen and Weilerstein were wonderful — I look forward to hearing them both again.