Tonight’s Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) concert featured a full program of interesting selections, including Johannes Brahms’ Tragic Overture, John Adams’ Doctor Atomic Symphony, Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2, and Béla Bartók’s Suite from the Miraculous Mandarin. Guest conducting tonight from the St Louis Symphony was David Robertson.
Of course the unfortunate story of tonight’s concert was not that of the musicians on stage but the absolutely awful audience. Truly, on behalf of the audience, I apologize to the BSO for our collective behavior tonight. Now, the somewhat expected cacophony of coughing and seat cushions are excusable at the beginning of what will surely be a long cold season. It could be a good time to suggest that coughing should be suppressed, if at all possible, until the loud parts, but even then we should not feel open to pretending like there aren’t 2,000 other people who are trying to listen and enjoy the music. Also not particularly at fault are the Falling Chairs, which I’ve written about before as a metric to gauge attendance on any given night. Tonight’s Falling Chairs were plentiful, though I didn’t need them to know that the two nearly completely empty rows around me were indicative of a more sparse attendance that usual. However it was none of these usual things that were particularly prevalent tonight that bothered me.
Rather, it started with the incessant whispering behind me in the middle orchestra section. Several other, loud distractions were also audible, including what sounded like a dropped box of wood from a balcony and the distinct sound of a glass bottle hitting the floor and rolling for a few seconds. The worst offenses of the evening were the no fewer than two cell phone rings that went off at various points. This is the beginning of my third season of attending concerts at Symphony Hall, and in that time, this might be the first time I can recall a single cell phone going off, let alone two. Overall, the noises were distracting and mostly avoidable, and it’s by far the worst experience at Symphony Hall I’ve ever had in this regard.
Musically I’m ashamed to admit that it was difficult to concentrate or relax fully. Coming in, I was most familiar with the Brahms, since I love his music. I would not say that I am so well versed in the progression of the relatively short Tragic Overture, but I would need to hear the BSO performance again in order to make a judgment. There was an element of seriousness that I was not feeling, though it’s unclear if this was a byproduct of my overall experience or whether or not a starker contrast in dynamics, for instance, might have helped.
Perhaps most anticipated was the Doctor Atomic Symphony. My college degree is in physics, so it’s not a terrible surprise that anything called “Doctor Atomic” might pique my curiosity. In this piece, Adams has adapted his opera into a symphonic form. It lends itself well to this setting, arranged in three parts: The Laboratory, Panic, and Trinity. Since I’m not familiar with the opera, I was most intrigued by the idea of Trinity being the third movement. The line demarcating peace and fright was unclear, and I’m not sure that my one experience alone was able to resolve this. I enjoyed Adams’ use of solo horns to create a sense of urgency. The frenetic tempo throughout The Laboratory and Panic were well suited for the task of engaging a nervous energy. Generally speaking, pieces like this are tough for me to appreciate, I think in part because I don’t ever understand the back story. But here, it was easy to envision a story for this piece, while knowing something however abstract about its background. Perhaps my only regret for this piece is that its title inevitably reminds me of some kind of 40s-era Marvin the Martian cartoon, where Doctor Atomic tries to take over the planet and the Duck Dodgers of the 21-1/2 century try to save the day.
Following the intermission, pianist Nicolas Hodges performed Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2. This is a frenetic piece that looked like it would challenge any soloist, but Mr Hodges performed it admirably. I appreciate Prokofiev’s ballets and much of his other music, but between the Tragic Overture and Doctor Atomic, it was difficult for me to wrap my head around this piece.
Finally on the concert program was Bartók’s Suite from Miraculous Mandarin, a ballet. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, and my general impression of Bartók is not particularly favorable but also not particularly memorable. My friend DA enjoyed this piece and the Brahms the most, and while I’m glad I heard the Bartók, I won’t likely reach for a recording any time soon.
This concert in particular got me thinking about the difficulty of programming a concert. By this I am referring to the process of selecting music that will be played together at any given concert. In many ways, it’s similar to creating track lists for a standard length 74 to 80 minute CD, especially considering that a concert is around 120 minutes with the intermission. Sometimes the themes are obvious, such as All-Mozart or Romantic Symphonies. But often times the themes are more subtle. I think that there might have been a reason to include four intensely dramatic pieces together, but like the symphonic musical form, I’d often appreciate a break of sorts that introduces lighter material thematically. Regardless, one of my favorite aspects of the BSO is its ability to introduce me to new music and challenge my pre-conceived notions. I’m grateful that tonight’s concert succeeded in both regards.