I was late to Symphony Hall this afternoon, since I wasn’t ever really sure I was going to try to acquire one of the “very limited” rush tickets to today’s Celebrity Series performance featuring the Berliner Philharmoniker with Sir Simon Rattle at the helm. But I found myself at the end of a longish line, with cash in hand and hope diminishing. Talking with the German medical students behind me, we decided my lack of optimism was likely warranted, since an upset patron stormed out of the box office with the bad news that all rush tickets had gone. When one waits in line with some expectation of being able to see a performance, value estimations change dramatically. Waiting in line for rush tickets is our version of sniping stuff on eBay: at the last minute we’re willing to justify certain increases in price. In my own head, I was willing to go considerably higher since I felt that I’ve had a history of amazing deals in the $0 to $14 range. When the announcement came that there were no more rush tickets, we were waiting to see if perhaps limited leg room tickets would be available. After one experience in these jump seats ($14), I am far more willing to go up to the next price level, but it was very nice to hear people who wanted nothing more than to be inside Symphony Hall, at any expense, to be present for the Berliner Philharmoniker. One of the German students made the comment that she had never seen them in Berlin, and we found it funny that she would try to see an orchestra from her country during her five week stay in Boston. Almost cruelly, the caravan of luxury buses with the musicians pulled up to Symphony Hall, and a photographer snapped our photos as we waited in the line.
As people in front of and behind us started to leave the line, we moved up and waited patiently for any information on a general sell out, which would not have been surprising for this concert. For a moment it seemed that our persistence paid off in quite an unexpected way when they announced that more rush tickets had been made available. There were twenty, apparently, and approximately as many people in front of us. We were still not guaranteed a ticket but eventually prevailed in a big way — some of the medical students got T row orchestra tickets, while the others and I had C row orchestra seats.
Two hours later, we returned to Symphony Hall, and it would be my first time seeing an orchestra other than the Boston Symphony Orchestra perform there. As the musicians filtered onto the stage, applause filled the hall, which does not happen for the BSO musicians’ entrance. The concertmaster, an older, grizzly man with a goatee, came onto stage traditionally after the orchestra were seated, and he led the tuning. As Rattle appeared from the stage right door (nearly all conductors of the BSO enter stage left), I had the unique opportunity to see him quite close. The fluffs of gray hair bobbed around his expressive and appreciative face as he bowed graciously to an eager audience applause. He pretty much appeared exactly as pictured on his box sets.
My neighbor at today’s concert, a physics graduate student at MIT and amateur violinist, asked me what the best seat in the hall was. I may have mentioned before, but the best seat in my opinion is a virtual one, located some 20 feet above the middle of the orchestra level seats, dead center, with an unobstructed line to the stage and completely enveloped in pure sound pressure and reverberations. Other than that, the experience varies considerably between different seats in the hall. I always liken the closer perspective as the perfect headphones, where seats at the back of the hall are more like the perfect speakers. They are two completely legitimate experiences of the music, but they are vastly different. In row C, we were clearly in perfect headphones territory, unlike my previous experience with a Brahms symphony at the BSO. The farther away from center, the smaller the soundstage becomes, and the closer to the stage, the more “artificial” it seems at times.
I prefer grand symphonies and large orchestra works from the best seats in the house: middle orchestra, fairly far from the stage. Featured soloists playing as part of concertos are also experienced well here, of course, but I love the up close, intimate views of them from the first few rows and slightly stage right. While I’ve never been in the first balcony seats near the stage, I suspect these offer a unique visual perspective but nothing particularly unique aurally. In truth, there are only a handful of “bad” seats at Symphony Hall (jump seats and the ones behind the pole), and even these grant you access to hear the amazing music constantly being produced there live.
Today would be an afternoon of Brahms, to be sure, but an Arnold Schoenberg piece made a brief appearance between Symphonies No. 3 and 4. The Schoenberg was some sort of film music, apparently, and what I have to say of it is this: I have never been more appreciative of program notes that print the approximate duration of the piece (in this case, 8 minutes).
I have heard but cannot claim familiarity with the 3rd Symphony, but it was, in true Brahms style, intense and rich. This group of musicians were different from my beloved BSO in many ways. Cosmetically, all the men had colored ties on, where I remember them all uniform in the BSO. More substantially, I noted that their entire orchestra seemed to be comfortable allowing the music to move them. The entire orchestra almost swayed in visual concert, something that is not a part of our orchestra’s style. Once in awhile our first stand will express their absorption in the music, but it is a rather rare occurrence. On several passages, Rattle did not seem to be giving the orchestra any rhythmic or dynamic cues, leaving them to their own self-organization. Among the group of professional musicians, Rattle seemed to serve as even their confidence as he coaxed more and more sound out of them and also encouraged restraint when necessary. Between each piece, the members of the orchestra switched positions, which happens infrequently at the BSO; generally the night’s seating in a given section stays the way it is.
Symphony No. 4 is the piece that really opened my ears to Brahms, when the BSO performed it earlier this year. From the beautiful theme of the intense first movement, to the wild and dramatic finale, it’s an experience that’s difficult to match. The scope of No. 4 ranges from playful to serious, and the Berliner Philharmoniker executed it brilliantly. I must admit that there’s a special place in my heart for the BSO’s performance of it, but I also don’t know the piece well enough to really discern the differences. Both experiences were emotionally fulfilling, and I’m very grateful to have seen such an esteemed conductor and orchestra within the wonderful acoustics of Symphony Hall.