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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.

Stepping foot inside Jordan Hall is always a treat. Its modest exterior gives no indication of the delight within, and immediately one feels somewhat nostalgic, until it hits you that the features of the stage are strikingly similar to those in Symphony Hall just up Huntington Ave. Jordan Hall is the primary performance space of the New England Conservatory (NEC), and their theatre is beautiful. From my second row balcony seat, I sat sloped toward the stage and tried to recline with the lean. In all honesty, I’m always just happy to be there for the Boston Symphony Chamber Players concerts, which only perform about four times a year on Sunday afternoons. Each concert represents a one-time program, and this afternoon’s featured Bohuslav Martinu’s Four Madrigals, the world premiere of André Previn’s Octet for Eleven, Daris Milhaud’s La Cheminée du Roi René, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Quartet in G minor. It was admittedly my first time hearing all four pieces.

This excellent program began with principal violist Steven Ansell’s announcement that Mr Previn had injured his hand in an epic battle with a door and that he would not play in the piano quartet as scheduled. Most of us in the audience it seemed were unable to catch the name of the replacement pianist, though I believe he is affiliated with NEC. Naturally, we wish Mr Previn a speedy and full recovery.

The Martinu featured oboist John Ferrillo, clarinetist William R Hudgins, and bassoonist Richard Svoboda in a trio that is strikingly different from those involving strings that I am more accustomed to. To my ears, the voices are clearly distinct but share enough commonality in timbre to be slightly transparent at times. I love the tone of the oboe and bassoon, and the clarinet provides the higher range. The Lento was particularly beautiful with the wind ensemble, though I enjoyed the entire piece.

Previn’s Octet for Eleven, written this year, had an interesting arrangement of the eleven players on the stage. Seated in their natural positions were the strings, with BSO Concertmaster Malcolm Lowe and BSO second violin principal Haldan Martinson on the audience left, and BSO cello principal Jules Eskin (one of my favorites to watch) and BSO viola principal Mr Ansell seated on the audience right. Behind the deeper strings sat BSO principal bassist Edwin Barker. In an arcing row behind them sat BSO principal flutist Elizabeth Rowe followed by Mr Hudgins, Mr Ferrillo, Mr Svoboda, and BSO principal French horn player James Sommerville and finally BSO principal trumpet Thomas Rolfs. Whew.

This piece is arranged into three movements, whose fairly straightforward names really do not leave anything to interpretation: for instance, the first movement is entitled, “♩ = 92”, signifying that each quarter note occurs at 92 beats per minute. No “Allegro moderato” is found here — clearly a composer who knows what he wants! The piece itself was unassuming, fairly straightforward through the first two movements but seemed to grow in complexity by the final movement. It was easy to hear the give and take from the winds and brass to the strings, creating a nice conversation. As always, I enjoyed Ms Rowe’s brief but memorable solo playing. I often do not know what to expect from modern compositions, but I did enjoy this one. Mr Previn was on hand tonight despite the injury and was greeted to a standing ovation for the successful premiere.

After the intermission, we heard a very pleasant piece, Milhaud’s La Cheminée du Roi René (The Fireplace of King René). This seven song wind quintet featured Ms Rowe and Mr Ferrillo, Hudgins, Svoboda, and Sommerville. It reminded me of period music such as that which one might hear at a Medieval or Renaissance festival but with modern wind instruments. I half expected to see a person skipping across the stage while playing the recorder, but for better or worse, it didn’t happen.

Finally, with apologies to our unknown pianist, the Mozart Quartet in G minor for piano and strings (K. 478) was performed by Mr Lowe, Ansell, and Eskin. I believe that Mozart is very difficult to play properly, perhaps more so than other composers. While Mozart is often serious music, it is also often times playful and carefree. This piece manages to capture the moods of both, with dark and dramatic starts and finishes but lighter throughout. Perhaps it is my narrow interpretation of Mozart, but I believe that, especially with the lighter side of Mozart, the bowing technique and attack matters enormously in effective performances. By and large, this chamber group succeeded in that heady task, with special compliments to our currently nameless pianist: the piano seems to be an instrument on which it is particularly difficult to execute properly staccato notes while maintaining the proper amount of air or space in its wake, and the pianist did marvelously in this regard.

I love small ensemble concerts at Jordan Hall for its acoustics and intimacy. Ensemble performers can never really blend into the surroundings of the orchestra and thus have to be nearly flawless in their execution, and the reliable Chamber Players certainly don’t disappoint.

In just about a week, Symphony Hall at Mass Ave and Huntington will open its doors again to welcome the 2009-2010 Symphony Season. As always, the program looks exciting and full of prominent guest artists who will grace the symphony stage. And of course, there are many ways to score inexpensive tickets to the Symphony. Here are the shows I’m looking forward to most:

Beethoven’s Complete Symphonies (!) – it will be my first Beethoven cycle with James Levine and the BSO
Berlioz’s Harold en Italy, with principal violist Steven Ansell – Ansell is an excellent violist
Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 3, Op. 60, with the BSO Chamber Players – Brahms chamber music is among my favorite
Brahms’ Symphony No. 1, conducted by Bernard Haitink
Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 – they did this for the 2008-09 season and it was phenomenal
Brahms’ Violin Concerto, with violinist Joshua Bell and conducted by Sir Andrew Davis – Bell is incredibly talented, and this is in my top three violin concertos (Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Mendelssohn)
Elgar’s Violin Concerto, with violinist Nikolaj Znaider
Harbison’s Double Concerto for violin and cello, with violinist Mira Wang and cellist Jan Vogler (World Premiere and BSO Commission) – there’s something special about the double, as the Brahms’ double is my favorite piece
Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 1, with cellist Yo-Yo Ma – my brother saw Yo-Yo Ma a couple of years ago, and we sent our parents to see him last year in Houston. It’s finally my turn!
Mendelssohn’s Elijah
Mozart’s Requiem, conducted by John Oliver
Mozart’s Symphony No. 35, with Bernard Haitink
Mozart’s Symphony No. 38, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis
Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5, with violinist Leonidas Kavakos and conductor Bernard Haitink
Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1, with violinist Hilary Hahn – Hilary Hahn has an incredibly mature sound
Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, Suite No. 2
Schubert’s Rosamunde Overture and Entr’actes
Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2

I didn’t know a lot about Brahms before 2 weeks ago, when the Boston Symphony Orchestra was set to perform his fourth and final symphony in their weekly program, along with Nielsen’s Helios Overture and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 18, featuring Richard Goode on piano. The program’s guest conductor was Herbert Blomstedt.

As usual, the program notes (freely available on the BSO website) did a great job in shedding light on the process of composing by biographical sketches that often endear the reader to the composer. The bio on Brahms particularly was appealing, as it discusses Brahms bringing his friends together to essentially pitch the idea of Symphony No. 4 to them. He garnered feedback, and in one story, he dismissed his final symphony as “a bunch of polkas and waltzes.” Reading this pre-concert, I didn’t really know what to expect from this self-deprecating characterization, and having very little familiarity with his works in general, I was far more excited by the Mozart. The Helios was also a bit foreign to me, and the pre-concert talk did not help break a feeling that it would be somewhat trite in its presentation. It was a concert program that would soon challenge all of my preconceptions, which was evident immediately and highly amusing.

The Helios traverses the activity of a day, starting off with the calm quiet of morning and following the perceived movement of the sun (helios). Until now, no piece had quite capture the fantastic dynamic range possible in Symphony Hall better than the BSO’s performance of this piece. I had a pretty phenomenal first orchestra seat, but the pianissimo of the strings alone crawled along the baseline of my audible range, and the development into the grandeur of the full orchestra was quite a powerful sound to behold. The piece moved along rather quickly, and I found Nielsen to express his musical ideas succinctly, something I have come to appreciate after having heard a recent performance of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7. I know less about Nielsen than I do Brahms, but he will surely be one for whom I keep an eye out.

Next Goode performed the piano concerto by Mozart, and perhaps like a lot of people, I have a reasonable idea of how I feel like Mozart should sound. Perhaps I am wrong, but there is an interpretive element, and when I play Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3, for instance, I am definitely going for a distinct style, marked by speed and very light movements. It’s not just a rhythmic sensibility but something of the attack, which are ideas that translate across instruments. I found some inherent quality of youthful playing, perhaps, missing from Goode’s performance. I did not enjoy it at all, and it was at the time very difficult to separate the music from the performance, which I did not feel did justice to the piece. I’ll have to listen to another rendition of it to get a sense of the actual music.

And finally, the Brahms. The Brahms. What was it? It was bold; it was brilliant. I’ve since heard a recording of the excellent New York Philharmonic with Lorin Maazel, and the difference between the recorded work and the live performance (assuming all else is quite comparable) reinforces the power of live performances. The story told by Jan Swafford in the program notes suggests that the intensity of the piece was perhaps foreboding of darker times to come in Europe, and this story, regardless of accuracy, set a mood only possible in the confines of the active imagination. It amplified the emotional content of the piece beautifully, and I could not help but notice that the BSO’s execution under Blomstedt was excellent. Of the performances I have heard at BSO this season, it was perhaps the best so far.

My preconceived notions of the program were completely backward. The Mozart for which I was most excited was disappointing in its execution, where the most dismissed piece (the Nielsen) was surprising. I came in with halfhearted expectations of the Brahms — after all, if it was so great, wouldn’t I have known it by now? — and left with a similar question: since it is so great, why haven’t I known it by now? I am happy to have discovered it now, better than never. While I certainly look forward to more Nielsen in the future, the enlightenment to Brahms was the true gem of this performance, one I will not soon forget.

I recently had the pleasure of attending three performances of Mozart by the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO). Perhaps Mozart is the most well known composer in the history of the world, and BSO Music Director James Levine tackled three different performances of Mozart symphonies, some of which had not ever been performed by the BSO in its 128 year history.

In three years in Boston, I had not attended a single BSO performance, a statistic that I remedied quickly in a week. I utilized the BSO CollegeCard program and got an amazing first orchestra seat that ranked among the best seats I’ve ever been in. (It would be the best except for the Houston Symphony performance of Handel’s Messiah that I attended in the winter. Beautiful performance, orchestra seats.) Acoustically speaking, the perspective of that opening performance of some of Mozart’s early symphonies (1, 13, 14, 18, and Lambach) was probably the best, with the most open and honest soundstage. The orchestra was at half-mass, however, being divided into two for the first and second programs of the Mozart symphony mini-festival. I don’t believe I had heard any of those five symphonies but fell in love with that orchestral sound once again. Though all attention for Mozart symphonies often falls onto 40 and 41, it was clear that his musical gift was in full force even early on. (Mozart was eight when he composed No. 1.)

Interestingly, Levine chose to place the second violins stage right, where the cellists normally sit. Handel’s Messiah was performed in the same way, and I thought at the time that it was brilliant because the first and second violins too often are difficult to hear, since they occupy the same timbre and are spatially indistinct in a traditional orchestral arrangement. But the spatial separation of violins allowed one to easily discern the melody from the harmony in the violin parts, which added a considerable depth to my experience from the perspective of a violinist.

I was fortunate enough to attend a second performance of the same program of early symphonies the next day, for free, since additional seats had opened up and were being offered. My seat this time was third row center orchestra, which is technically a “worse” seat than I had been in. However, while the soundstage was considerably smaller, I was slightly right of center, which meant that I could hear the second violins even better than I had been able to the previous evening. It made me wonder to what extent Levine listens to the orchestra’s performance from his seat (arguably the best in the house) as opposed to the perspective of the audience. If I had any criticism of Levine and the BSO, it might be that their dynamic range was often imbalanced. While it is notoriously difficult to balance high pitched harmonies in quiet passages, I think that, like heavy stage makeup on ballerinas, the audience’s perspective must be keenly noted.

I think the second performance sounded more polished than the first. Particularly, some of the entrances to movements, which were rougher in the first performance, were notably tighter in the second. It was the first time I had ever had the luxury of attending two professional performances of the same music back to back, and I’m grateful for having had the experience.

Firmly addicted to the riches of the BSO, I stood in line briefly for rush tickets for the second program of Mozart’s symphonies, in which they performed Symphonies 19, 20, 21, and 25. I did not realize that I knew the opening movement to No. 25 so well, but of course it is very popular and I merely did not know it by name, like so many other instrumental pieces (it’s a major failing of mine musically, despite being my elementary school’s Music Memory champ!). Again it was the first of only two performances for this program, so naturally some varnish was to be expected, especially considering the ambitiousness of their program. My seats were third row again but considerably stage right and therefore surprisingly far less appealing than the other perspectives. But at $9 it’s impossible to be dissatisfied, and again, there really doesn’t appear to be a bad seat in the house at Symphony Hall.

Unfortunately, I was about 10 minutes too late in securing tickets for the final program, which featured the most well known Mozart symphonies, 39-41. While I suspect (unconfirmed) that the orchestra came together combined for the final performance, and I’m sad to have missed it, I know that there will be several chances within my lifetime to hear these oft-performed pieces.

This was a wonderful introduction to the BSO, and while in three years I failed to attend a single performance until now, I think three performances in a week primed me for many future seasons of BSO wonderment. To have a world class orchestra affordably in one’s backyard is really something I won’t be taking for granted any longer. Of course, my next goal is to hear the BSO perform something that is not Mozart ….


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