Boston Symphony!

In the spring 2013, my longtime dream of hearing the world-famous Boston Symphony Orchestra live in a concert setting came finally true. In 2008 and 2010, my research fellowships at Harvard fell on such unfortunate dates that the orchestra had already begun (around the start of May, as they always do) their summer season without regular concerts at the Symphony Hall. This year, however, I was happy enough to attend three of them!

Friday March 1

Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, conductor
Lang Lang, piano

HINDEMITH Konzertmusik for Strings and Brass
RACHMANINOFF Piano Concerto No. 2
BARTÓK Concerto for Orchestra

The very second day after arriving in Cambridge, I figured the best way to get settled into Boston would be to see if the BSO had something like a concert to offer. And they did the young (infamous no less than famous) Chinese virtuoso pianist Lang Lang playing Sergey Rachmaninoff’s beloved 2nd Piano Concerto. I didn’t know much about the pianist except for the fact that he was outrageously popular, and not just within classical music circles.

The young man’s playing was extraordinary: he rendered impeccably not only the quick cadenzas of the Concerto but also its slower, more lyrical textures which make up much of the Rachmaninoff piece’s charm. In particular, I was moved (and even more so than on the recordings of the same Concerto by the same artist) by his free treatmenf ot rhythm which lended the performance a distinctive poetry of its own. To be sure, Lang Lang’s reception was just as ecstatic than that of a rockstar, with fanatic screaming and incessant smartphone snapshots from the relatively young audience.

As regards the musical personality of Lang Lang, I have to note I find one phenomenon – by no means his own fault – particularly disturbing. Adorned by certain circles, he is shunned by others in ways that would be virtually unimaginable in the case of a pop/rock artist. Just google “Lang Lang” or type his name in YouTube, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Lang Lang himself carries out important work in overcoming precisely such stereotypes that do serious harm to the very reception of classical music – and it is doubly disconcerting that such blackmailing falls on an artist doing so much to advance more easygoing reception of the classical repertoire.

Saturday April 27

Daniele Gatti, conductor
Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo-soprano
Women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (John Oliver, conductor)
Boys of PALS Children’s Chorus (Andy Icochea, conductor)

MAHLER Symphony No. 3

I’m much too young to write an overview of all of the Mahler Symphonies, or even just one of them. Giant of Viennese Neoclassicism, the grandmaster of fin-de-siècle decadence in proto-contemporary music, Gustav Mahler dedicated the bulk of his working energies to composing massive symphonies, many of which last longer than an hour and are too long to fit on a single CD. As a general trend, I find that his symphonies are relatively easily digestible from the First to the Fifth, after which his symphonic oeuvre adopts increasingly vast and increasingly difficult-to-digest ambitions.

That is not the whole truth, however. Among the early symphonies, the Third shows massive scale, with a half-an-hour introduction lasting longer than the entire Seventh Symphony by Sibelius, and with vocal parts performed not only by the mezzo-soprano soloist but also by a large choir, in the BSO concert made up of women’s and boys’ choirs. For a philosophical listener like myself, the climax of the Symphony is to be found in a solemn mezzo-soprano solo adopting a text from Nietzsche‘s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, from “The Second Dance-Song,” the penultimate chapter in Part III of the book:

O Mensch! Gib acht!
Was spricht, die tiefe Mitternacht?
"Ich schlief, ich schlief -,
Aus tiefem Traum bin ich erwacht: -
Die Welt ist tief,
Und tiefer als der Tag gedacht.
Tief ist ihr Weh -,
Lust - tiefer noch als Herzeleid:
Weh spricht: Vergeh!
Doch alle Lust will Ewigkeit -,
- Will tiefe, tiefe Ewigkeit!"

Allow me to confine my remarks on the piece to the humble observation that Mahler no less than Nietzsche succeeds in capturing the experience of the sheer depth of life: be it of life’s joys or sorrows, their work craves to give expression to the sheer interiority of experiencing life. In a concert setting, receiving such introspective music is of course no easy task, and to my dismay the audience had to witness certain listeners leaving the Hall right before the entrance of the soloist… (The Symphony was played without an intermission.) This is Mahler’s music curse and its blessing: that it is charged with exaggerated emotion, extreme joy and extreme sadness.

Friday April 26

Bernard Haitink, conductor
Camilla Tilling, soprano

SCHUBERT Symphony No. 5
MAHLER Symphony No. 4

“I like the Fourth, because it’s not as overplayed as the First, not as religious as the Second, not as long as the Third, and not as self-absorbed as the Fifth…”

These were the words by which one of the violinists of the Boston Symphony introduced Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, what she was naming “a jewel among Mahler’s symphonies”… To be sure, she had something bad to say of the latter symphonies as well, but I’m just as incapable of recalling those wordings as I am her name. My last BSO concert for the spring was only two weeks after the Boston Bombings (in the Boston Marathon) which certainly leave an abiding trace on the cultural life of the city. Between the lines, the violinist seemed to be saying that playing Mahler’s Fourth could be part of the “Boston resurgence” after the terror of the bombings.

Among the Mahler symphonies, I count myself among those who like less the grandiose drama of the Fifth than the modest beauty of the Fourth. If I had to name some of the most beautiful themes in classical music – or even some of the most beautiful movements  I would not hesitate to name from Mahler’s Fourth the first and the last movements. The main theme of the first movement stands for me for one of the most moving expressions of beauty of life in music, and in the piece’s finale we find ourselves in heaven. If those remarks sound stale, I mean them in earnest.

Often on a CD, proto-contemporary works such as Mahler’s Fourth come across as more neoclassical than they do in a concert setting. Playing the works at a typically moderate volume at home, one pays perhaps more attention to the power of the themes than to the intricacies of the orchestration. Only in a concert setting, however, did I realize how Mahler’s orchestration in the Fourth is not only highly sophisticated (as it always is) but occasionally markedly modernist. He can take a theme and carry its nuances over to the most unexpected instrumental arrangements, such as the silent hissing of the percussions, the dark growls of the bassoon or the fragile delicacies of the harp. I was fortunate to have concluded my forays into the BSO repertoire with such a tranquil Mahler performance.

Thank you, Boston Symphony Orchestra, for all the music!

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