For me, it was destined to be a night of discovery, since I was not particularly familiar with any of the pieces on the schedule for this week’s program at the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO). The program featured Béla Bartók’s Divertimento for Strings, Bohuslav Martinů’s Violin Concerto No. 2, and Antonin Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 in G Major. I anticipated these pieces from least to greatest in this order as well, knowing nothing about any of them save Dvořák’s symphony. The BSO were led by guest conductor Christopher von Dohnányi, and Frank Peter Zimmerman was the violin soloist for the Martinů.
The relative simplicity of the Bartók Divertimento was plainly apparent in the lack of winds, brass, and percussion, giving a thin sound to the piece that here sounded relatively uninteresting. If I had closed my eyes for a moment, I might well have been listening to an advanced amateur string orchestra playing this piece just as well, since it did not appear to require the resources of our orchestra, who were at reduced strength anyhow. The second and third movements were slightly more pleasing to me, as they seemed to ease into a more comprehensible melodic structure, but I never got a grasp on the piece and was happy to quickly forget about it.
One quirk of Symphony Hall is that anyone can gauge the attendance by two metrics: one audible and one visual. The visual metric is by simply looking around for empty seats. After the intermission, I counted at least 20 seats directly in front of me, which for the BSO equates to chirping crickets. However, the arguably more amusing metric for attendance is the Sounds of the Bouncing Chairs. The seats in the hall are older, and they are joined and supported by a wooden frame that can make an unpleasant and loud noise when kicked or opened. Some of the chairs slam down, while others do this bouncing routine giving it a kind of fake reverberation. In fact it is good practice to open any collapsed chairs around you prior to the start of a piece, so they aren’t apt to be disturbed during the performance. Otherwise, you may as well yell, “Timber!” as the seats fall. Because the number of empty seats are limited, the number of falling chairs is probably related to the number of empty seats. In a typical performance here, which is often filled close to capacity, one usually hears no more than one falling chair during any given piece (usually the first) and no more than two throughout the evening. Tonight, during that Bartók, I counted four but may well have missed some in the later movements.
I was curious about the Martinů, since the concerto is one of my favorite musical forms (so long as it does not feature the flute, sorry). Additionally, having played the violin, there’s a certain place in my heart for violin pieces (of which there are so many). Yet my expectations were tempered by the knowledge that the Martinů was a twentieth century piece, which isn’t quite as alarming as post-1970s Miles Davis but has a greater probability of sounding like John Coltrane’s Ascension (confusing and dissonant but at least very long). I should say that Zimmerman gave a nice performance, navigating through tricky chords and double stops without making a mess of things. But there was nothing to me that was particularly compelling about the music itself, and this is another case in which I am fortunate to have the BSO expand my musical horizon but thankful that I can file Martinů away for the time being.
And finally, Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 followed the intermission, which I spent in preparation for the demands of listening to a symphony properly. It’s not that they are necessarily so dense that it requires a vast amount of preparation, but the symphonic form is so rich with its instrumentation and movement of themes that the appreciation of the piece can be heightened in the right mindset. I actually recognized Symphony No. 8 in part, which was not altogether surprising to me but certainly welcome. I’ve said it before, and I’ll reiterate that the symphonic form is where the BSO shine. With orchestra seats in KK, we heard the full extent of the symphony once again. There really is no electronically reproduced musical experience quite the same. I found the Dvořák to be pleasant; this is not to my ears a particularly great symphony, in terms of its inability to elicit a particularly interesting range of emotions. I do think that the composer was, perhaps, a gifted melodist, which endears me more toward his chamber music, which I have explored some but far from exhaustively.
I suppose that it is unreasonable to expect every night at the BSO to reveal a musical gem that to my eyes remains unpolished and undiscovered. And while I have heard other music by Bartók and Dvořák, I am not at all familiar enough with their work to claim that tonight was any more than an introduction to all three composers, one I am thankful to have experienced.