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Tag Archives: Symphony Hall

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.

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.

There was definitely something about the performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony by the BSO that was destined to be special. There’s always an energy in the air surrounding an eagerly anticipated live performance, and from the moment I was in line for rush tickets, an hour before the ticket sales in dreary conditions, I had a sense that it would be a special night.

I actually enjoy rush line conversations, because they have so far been invariably amusing, and I’ve had the chance to meet some very interesting people. This time, I was flanked by two beautiful women, but one was looking around eagerly for someone with earbuds in her ears, and one behind me was studying her buzz-off medical flashcards. And so I read my book. The boyfriend did arrive, and this presented a tricky etiquette situation of Rush Line Tickets. There are a limited number of tickets available — 100 per show — and clearly this was a big performance, since the line started forming well over an hour before the rush tickets are sold. If you save a place for someone, that really might mean that someone around place 100 doesn’t get a seat, despite having waited in line for such a long time. But the civility that generally marks the symphony crowd prevailed here, as the couple descended to the back of the line, advancing me one place (this is important). I ended up talking to a very nice gentleman who was a businessman from New Hampshire who traded MFA stories with me (who else can I do that with?). I also knew to be nice to the girl behind me, since she would end up sitting next to me during the concert. (It’s not that I was planning on being rude or something.)

Anyhow, while I was finding my seat later that evening, I had a funny feeling about my seat, and it never dawned on me to look on the ticket for the words “partially obstructed view.” The feeling I had was that I was sitting right behind one of the large pillars in the rear of the orchestra section! Avoid seat QQ27 at all costs. There are other, similar seats that afford a lovely view of a cylindrical stone column, on which I suggest they draw an outline of the orchestra so you don’t stare at the pole all evening. It’s a good thing I was friendly to the girl behind me, since I probably intruded slightly on her personal space trying to get a view. Actually, I think I’m the perfect patron for that seat, since I’m not inclined to complain about being there for $9 and because I am there for the aural experience far, far more than the visual one. I can be outside the hall and still have a good time.

The notable difference on the stage was that the choir rafters were set up for the 9th Symphony. It would mark the first time I heard the human voice project in Symphony Hall, and like all the other symphonies save No. 5, I was not terribly familiar with the entire piece. Of course every burgeoning violin student who plays in any youth orchestra is bound to encounter Ode To Joy, but it was nothing like this.

In sequential order, the BSO started with Symphony No. 8, and true to the observation, it was a lighthearted even numbered Beethoven symphony, with a pleasant theme. My new symphony friend KVS noted that our esteemed guest conductor, Lorin Maazel, was not too distracting in his movements, which she appreciated. I can go either way, honestly, and like seeing the variety of styles in composers. No. 8 is short, which makes for a good program partner with No. 9, which is somewhat epic in scope.

As the choir filtered on stage in single file, I got a bit excited at the prospect of hearing that instrument for the first time. The choir always looks larger than the space reserved for the group, and they would prove to be a powerful, singular voice. Four chairs were reserved in front of Maazel for the four soloists that Beethoven required. The Egg was never more a fitting crown on the stage than in this configuration of musicians on stage.

From the first choral note to the end, I could not help but grin stupidly at the magnificence of the projection of the human voice throughout the hall. It managed to find even me, in the partially obstructed seat, in glorious praise to music. I have witnessed no finer exaltation than the combination of song in Symphony Hall. While I’m always impressed with the ability of non-mechanical amplification in the form of the contrived physics of instruments such as the violin, piano, or horn, the nature-created human voice has yet to be matched note-for-note by our clever engineering. I’m singularly impressed.

At some point, during one of the more popular songs, I was secretly hoping for an audience singalong reminiscent of the scene in the film Amadeus during a performance of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. If I were ever certain it would be well received at Symphony Hall, I’d be right in the middle of that. There was an element of completeness missing from the evening since I had missed out on performances of 6 and 7, but there was also a perfect finality of witnessing the 9th for the first time live, having heard Nos. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 8 in the last few weeks. While I was very impressed and thankful for Maazel’s last minute guest appearance, I do hope that our very own James Levine is recovering well and returns to his swivel chair on stage soon.


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