Mozart and Richard Strauss shouldn’t be a controversial programming choice, even if the orchestra is digging a little deeper into each composer’s catalog. Apparently there’s a Strauss recording project afoot because we have more of it on the docket for next week. This time around the audience was treated first to the Love Scene from Strauss’s relatively obscure one-act opera/”sung poem” Feuersnot (“famine of fire”, but make your own alternate translation). Lasting about five minutes it’s over before it really gets going, taken out of the context of the larger work. Strauss isn’t known for brevity in his tone poems, but since it hasn’t been performed by the BSO since 1911 it was worth hearing.

Slightly earlier in the Strauss canon is Tod und Verklarung, aka Death and Transfiguration, a much more significant work but surprisingly not performed here since 1999. This was one of my go-to record albums in my younger days (I think it was Karajan/Berlin Phil) with the Metamorphosen on the other side also getting played a lot, but I’m not sure I’ve ever heard it live before. Nelsons didn’t over-sentimentalize the opening or the first brass invocation of the main tonal theme, keeping things in check so that the last third or so could be taken at a slower pace with bigger climaxes, there are several in this piece so it’s a challenge to gauge them relative to one another. Hearing it live you could hear all the inner parts, the texture was more transparent even with the horns blasting away, and a few less than perfect entrances or intonations but all in all it lived up to its expectations and the audience was enthusiastic.

For some reason this program put the Mozart Two Piano Concerto K. 365 by itself after intermission, normally you’d only see that for Rocky 3 or Brahms 2. The Jussen brothers were supposed to be the soloists but apparently couldn’t get into the country in time, so stepping in on short notice were sisters Christina and Michelle Naughton, who were obviously very familiar with this piece and gave a sparkling performance. No phrase was left untouched, with enough shifts in color from one idea to the next to give you whiplash, a style for Mozart that isn’t to everyone’s taste but seems to be the thing these days and makes for a lively and engaging rendition of what is not exactly top drawer Mozart. The interplay between the keyboards is constant, with multiple opportunities to get out of sync with each other, but the Naughtons had no difficulty in keeping steady. Since the fall concerts only clock in at 90 minutes there was plenty of time for an encore, so the soloists completely changed the mood with a rousing one piano four hand performance of what I believe was “Boogie”, from Paul Schoenfeld’s 5 Days from the Life of a Manic Depressive, a jazzy percussive tour de force that looks as hard as it sounds.

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Thursday was my first ever attendance at the BSO’s opening night. In years past it was a gala occasion with a special program and special prices to match, outside of the subscription series and really only for donors and benefactors although still available to the public. In the last decade or so they scaled it back to just be another performance, albeit with some speeches and keeping the special prices. But this year’s edition was going to be an opening night to remember after an 18 month hiatus, so it was worth the extra to be there to see it in person, and it did not disappoint.

It’s rare to hear a live performance of Beethoven’s overture to Consecration of the House, and even more rare to be moved to tears by it, but that’s how it felt as the first piece on the program, the first live symphonic music I’d heard in nearly two years (I missed out on Jan and Feb 2020 somehow). This is a late work contemporaneous with the Missa Solemnis and Ninth Symphony, and you could catch a few glimpses of both in the music. This overture was first work of the first program ever presented by the BSO, and has been revived a few times since to commemorate a special occasion, such as their 100th anniversary.

John Williams is 89 and looking pretty spry, he had no trouble navigating his lengthy second Violin Concerto through to the end, with Anne-Sophie Mutter also looking spry and also sounding great, particularly in the quieter lyric passages. There was a substantial harp part, with the harpist placed prominently within the strings rather than way in the back against the wall. Williams concert music doesn’t sound much like his film scores, I expect that’s on purpose, as he uses the opportunity to explore themes, instrumentation and sonorities that probably would be hard to fit into the standard Hollywood movie. The BSO gave the premiere this summer at Tanglewood, it’s definitely a work that would benefit from multiple hearings, particularly given its 40 minute or so length. He gave a short speech at the end, and then led Ms. Mutter again in his own violin transcription of music from the movie “The Long Goodbye”, written in 1972, he said, “when I was twelve”.

Andris Nelsons is looking a little older and heavier than the last time I saw him, but it didn’t stand in the way of a great rendition of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, written for the BSO in 1944 and played here every two or three years. I remember having to transcribe the opening theme in “aural skills” class in college by ear, my first exposure to the piece, and though I’ve heard it several times there are always parts of it that are unfamiliar to me. It’s a great piece to watch performed live, with all the combinations of instruments, particularly winds and trumpets, having their soloistic moments, the whole thing goes by in a whirl, very much tonal for Bartok, maybe still one of the most frequently programmed symphonic works from that period. Nelsons also gave a short speech about being back in front of an audience, comparing the orchestra to a 5-five star restaurant that had prepared a meal with no one to eat it. He seemed genuinely surprised that so many people were in attendance, it wasn’t packed but it was pretty full. The new president Gail Samuel also spoke, welcoming everyone back and thanking them for their support through 568 days of no live performances in Symphony Hall. It was a great occasion, looking forward to the continuing season.

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