Review: Beethoven and Brahms, Boston Symphony Orchestra

Tuesday, October 20 2015
Carnegie Hall, New York, NY

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Andris Nelsons, conductor
Lars Vogt, piano

Sebastian Currier, Divisions (2014)
Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 3 (1800)
Brahms, Symphony No. 2 (1877)

Ah, Andris Nelsons.  The mythical savior of classical music.  As busy as these days have been for me, and as many amazing concerts as this autumn is bringing, how can I pass up the chance to see and hear for myself what the savior is like in the flesh?

Hearing, there was plenty of.  Seeing, not so much.  I’ve been to Carnegie Hall about ten times and have purchased so-called “partially obstructed view” tickets at least half of those times.  Every single time until today, the obstruction has been a railing here or a column there–all one has to do is to lean slightly, if that, to see the entire stage unobstructed.  Well, today my luck ran out.  Sitting in the leftmost Balcony section, I had to basically lean on top of the person in front of me to see the conductor, hover above my seat to see the pianist, and there was no chance of seeing the violinists.  I did my best to keep an eye on Nelsons, but that made for an uncomfortable experience and many passages of music flowed past me instead of through me.  That is of course neither Nelsons’s nor the BSO’s fault.  I do wonder if not being able to see the musicians contributed to my perceived disjointedness of the orchestra’s playing at junctures when the melody switches instruments.  This was the BSO’s only flaw as far as I could hear, and perhaps therein lies the cause, that hearing was as far as I got.  I don’t even recall the concertmaster tuning the orchestra–did he do it and I just missed it because I couldn’t see him?  Incidentally, among the musicians I could see, BSO looked like a somewhat better dressed version of the software engineering team of a tech startup–nearly all male and white.  Not judging, just saying.

As is probably in Carnegie Hall’s charter, every visiting orchestra must bring a piece of music composed after WWII.  I imagine this was true even when Carnegie Hall opened in 1891, because not being ahead of its times is for amateurs, obvs.  While reviewing the Philadelphia Orchestra last week for the New York Times, this David Allen fellow wrote, and I quote: “Rather than treating its Carnegie appearances as a platform for invention that might be thought risky on home turf, the orchestra’s four programs this season are so nostalgic they would make Leopold Stokowski blush: Just 12 minutes of those concerts will be devoted to music written after that magician left Philadelphia in 1941”.  So long as we are measuring an orchestra’s worth by the amount of programming it devotes to post-1941 music, I’m going to save Mr. Allen some time and report that the BSO, in its three Carnegie Hall concerts this week, is also playing exactly 12 minutes of such music.  As far as post-1941 music goes, Divisions is actually pretty tolerable.  Commissioned to commemorate the WWI centennial, the piece shifts from one definition of divisions to another, and as the composer explains in the program notes, “this movement towards wholeness proves ephemeral.  The drumbeat of war is never far off.”  Fascinating stuff.

The rest of the nearly 2.5 hour concert was devoted to the standard German repertoire, as is the Elektra concert tomorrow; the final concert on Thursday, featuring Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff, will miss Mr. Allen’s 1941 cutoff by a hair–what was Nelsons thinking?  Oh right, he’s thinking that he wasn’t appointed the Gewandhauskapellmeister of Gewandhausorchester for post-1941 music.  He may also be thinking that he has five years or so to audition for the Berlin job.  Who knows.  I will say that he appears to be a classy guy–walking a distance behind the soloist, calling out the wind principals before taking a bow himself–and that his conducting style appears fluid and expressive but controlled and organic.

Beethoven has a high batting average when it comes to piano concertos and everything else he composed.  He is also far and away the King of Second Movements.  The second movements of his 1st and 5th Piano Concertos, 7th Symphony, and 8th Piano Sonata are pretty darn close to my favorite 45 minutes of music.  I listened to the 3rd Piano Concerto in its entirety for the first time this afternoon and nearly melted during the second movement.  To me the 1st Concerto is tender, the 5th is contemplative, and the 3rd…it conjures up subconscious emotions that I can’t even describe.  Like reflecting on youth with hard-won wisdom of old age, wistful yet content, holding on but also letting go.  Much of my emotions are triggered by a simple yet sweeping E-D sharp-C sharp, C sharp-B-A progression.  Against the achingly mellow orchestra, I felt a chill at those notes.  The pianist, on the other hand, sounded a bit dull.  I couldn’t see him, but on the part of the stage that I could see, the violists, cellists, and bassists all seemed disinterested during the solo piano passages, particularly the first-movement cadenza.  There was no tension in their posture, instead one could hear and feel a palpable break of focus.  Then again, the version I had listened to this afternoon featured Krystian Zimerman, the gold standard in bringing subtle and refined emotion out of every note, and every pianist in the world would probably pale in comparison to him on this piece.

Brahms’s 2nd Symphony, described as idyll with a touch of threat of storm that dissolves into joy, is a great showcase for the BSO.  Its strings sounded amazing, and there were no weaknesses in the winds.  Nelsons gently guided the orchestra and the audience through the first two movements of pastoral serenity with hints of fate’s shadow before the music switches gears, bursting into a charming scherzo and finally building up to an unforgettably triumphant blaze of the trombones.  The larger-than-life score reverberated throughout the hall, and I thought that the final five minutes of the symphony were about as thrilling as any performance I have ever attended.  A few years ago, after a Philadelphia Orchestra concert that featured this piece, I wrote on Facebook, “Dear Mr. Nézet-Séguin, it should be possible to conduct Brahms without breaking into a modern dance routine.”  I’ve grown to be quite fond of Yannick since then, but still the point stands, and tonight Nelsons proved it to be so.
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