Tonight’s Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) performance led by James Levine featured music from three distinct eras of Western art music. On the program was Wolfgang Amadé Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 performed by Nikolaj Znaider, John Harbison’s Symphony No. 2, and Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 in C Major. This was an eclectic combination in my estimation, from three distinct musical periods, so an interesting bit of programming from the BSO. My friend DG (not Deutsche Grammophon) saw her first BSO performance tonight, and we ran into my friends VA and JA on the latter’s first evening back in Boston from a short sabbatical.
I believe that it is uncharacteristic for the featured soloist’s piece to be performed first on the concert program, but the Mozart was first. I heard Mr Znaider perform the Elgar Violin Concerto last season, which I enjoyed very much. I noticed again that Mr Znaider’s towering figure almost equaled Mr Levine’s podium-assisted height. I have played and am particularly familiar with Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3, written in 1775. Strangely enough, it sounded nothing like my interpretation, and this is greatly to Mr Znaider and the BSO’s credit. I do not listen to recordings of the piece very often, so hearing the solo violin part with the full orchestra is something of a treat. I know the first movement well, and the little touches, trills, turns, and staccato peppered throughout were delightful.
I recall in high school, a friend JB was learning this piece, and there was something particularly wooden about her early attempts. It is such a lively, youthful affair, very bright, and I recall wanting to hear that out of her performance. It’s a particular quality of much of Mozart’s lighter music that I’m particularly critical of, as I was with Richard Goode’s Mozart piano concerto performance last season. Here, however, I felt that it was captured brilliantly.
The cleanness of the piece was also nearly flawless, which is difficult in some of the chord-laden passages and those involving rapid string transitions. I was somewhat underwhelmed by the cadenzas, as they were fairly short and not quite as intricate as I would have liked. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the piece very much and was delighted to hear it for the first time live with the always excellent BSO and Mr Znaider.
The second piece was Mr Harbison’s Symphony No. 2, which was written in 1987. I’m not completely clear on this programming choice to be bookended by the Mozart and the Schumann, but it provided true variety tonight, which I enjoyed. My experience with Harbison is short and easily summarized: I enjoyed his Double Concerto premiere very much but have not enjoyed Symphony Nos. 1 or 3. I admit that I arrived tonight with more than a little bit of skepticism about my reaction to Symphony No. 2, but I was determined to give it a chance. I have some more general reactions to the content of this music, since it was my first listening, but I must admit that I liked the piece, though I think DG did not. Perhaps somewhat disingenuously, I imagined it as a score to a modern film, and that helped me understand transitions between its parts a bit better. I admit that I was unaware of the transitions between the movements in this piece, and I do not believe they were immediately obvious with big breaks or grand exits and entrances.
Generally, I wonder how true it is that the meter in modern classical music is more unusual than what one might find in older music from earlier eras. By this I am referring to the difficulty in the rhythmic structure: everything appears syncopated, which gives immense difficulty for getting the timing right, and it almost sounds disorganized until this is accepted and then appreciated. I feel like out of the modern pieces I’ve heard at the BSO, including this one, this has often been the case rhythmically. I almost feel like, if all these things are true and not just my misperception, then it could be that this technique is almost over-employed. In the same way that silence is a powerful tool to convey emotion when used appropriately, I think that certain rhythmic structures and polyrhythmic structures should be used with a great deal of understanding about the responsibility of doing so. Of course, much more musically inclined persons than I, such as these modern composers, have undoubtedly considered this issue.
The final piece on the program following the intermission tonight was Schumann’s Symphony No. 2, written in 1841, the third separate musical era on the program this evening. I have heard the BSO’s performances of Symphony Nos. 1, 3, and 4 this season, and this was the completion of the Schumann symphonic cycle! Give this man a cookie! (I missed the Beethoven cycle last season, I believe, by one or perhaps two symphonies because of work conflicts. The Schumann cycle is far easier to be in attendance for.) I greatly prefer Nos. 4 and 1 to No. 3, but I would have to rank No. 2 above No. 1 (if that makes any sense at all, you can have my cookie). The 2nd starts off a bit hesitantly but soon builds to a climactic ending … of just the first movement! The Scherzo is feverish in its pace, a torrent of strings, the third movement, sweet. And the symphony just gets better and better as it continues, with the fourth and final movement being my favorite. It caps off a rather larger-than-life symphonic experience and was rendered expertly by the BSO.
Perhaps one of the strangest concerts I’ve attended at the BSO, the audience made it reminiscent of a high school orchestra performance with their clear lack of symphony etiquette on full display. The end of every movement of the Mozart and Schumann were met with hesitant applause from about a quarter of the audience. It almost seemed fitting after Mr Znaider’s performance in the first movement of the violin concerto, but even this prompted a thankfully patient glance from a swiveled Mr Levine directed toward an unsettled audience. Thankfully Mr Levine was able to suppress further applause at the end of the Adagio expressivo of the Schumann symphony, which had started in my mind to kill the mood created by the beautiful music. The applause was completely and utterly out of place when it was tendered prematurely to a dramatic pause in the final movement of the Schumann far from the end of the piece. It’s one thing to applause between movements, which I find would be best reserved for only the right circumstances and only for a particularly moving performance (such as I very much felt like doing during Joshua Bell’s Brahms but nevertheless refrained), but it’s entirely another to clap perhaps just to hear the sound of one’s own clapping, since the person or persons clearly did not know when the end of the piece was. I suspect it is this same individual who clapped nearly with the final note of the piece as well, akin to cheering during the national anthem during “O’er the land of the free” and not after the “home of the brave”. (Actually in the anthem example, this is becoming more and more commonplace.) But here this person should realize that he or she is not the only patron listening to the music, and even persons on stage were noticeably agitated by the perceived rudeness. Naturally the irony here is that clapping is a gesture of appreciation that was proffered inappropriately and lost some of its meaning.
It’s all inconsequential at the end of the day, though this marks the second performance this season with an admittedly bizarre audience participation. Overall I enjoyed the evening with DG and all of the music performed here tonight, spanning three distinct musical time periods as if they were somehow meant to be played together. It’s a truly unique experience to put a concert like this together, and the more I think about it, the more I appreciate it and want to understand (from first principles of the music) if a rationale exists behind it.