Tuesday, November 15, 2011
Boston Symphony Orchestra – Myung-Whun Chung, Conductor; Garrick Ohlsson, Pianist. November 12, 2011.
Symphony Hall, Boston, First Balcony (Seat E37, $51.25)
Overture to the Opera “Der Freischutz” (1820) by Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826).
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 39 (1962) by Samuel Barber (1910-1981).
Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 “Pathetique” (1893) by Tchaikovsky (1840-1893).
We are in the Boston area for several days to babysit our son’s dog while he and Jess go on a short trip to Madrid. We looked around and found there were tickets available for this concert (both Friday and Saturday.) They were discounting Friday’s tickets, but we were a bit too tired (from driving around the area) to make the 7 pm start time. The $45 seats (plus $6.25 fee) we ended up getting actually had a good view of the stage. I wish we had brought our binoculars, though.
We didn’t want to pay for parking, last time we went to Symphony Hall we parked a couple of blocks away. This time we were a good 15-minute away, but it was a nice fall evening.
If you look at the BSO roster, for conductor they list only two: Bernard Haitnik as Conductor Emeritus, and Seiji Ozawa as Music Director Laureate. James Levine actually resigned at the beginning of the season due to health reasons. I still find it interesting that there is no mention of him that I could find in the rather thick program, perhaps the parting wasn’t cordial?
Weber’s opera relays the story of a “free shooter” (who shoots bullets) who sold his soul. The overture contains themes from the opera, and the horns supposedly evoke images of a forest (don’t they always?). Still, the 10 minute piece is a delight, and started the concert propitiously. The Program Notes contains a detailed description of how the piece is structured, and it is easy to follow along.
Barber is an all-American composer, born in Pennsylvania and died in New York. This concerto was written for John Browning, who would perform it nearly 150 times by 1969. It also won Barber a second Pulitzer Prize (which may or may not mean a lot; Cornell Symphony’s conductor Karel Husa also won a Pulitzer Prize for a composition that is not played much – if at all – nowadays.)
There is no doubt that this is a virtuoso piece; indeed even Vladimir Horowitz suggested simplifying a passage to make it more playable at the proper tempo. Both the pianist and the orchestra seemed to enjoy their collaboration; and Ohlsson appeared very much in his element. Nonetheless, sometimes the piano was simply overwhelmed: from where I sat I could see the pianist’s hands and fingers moving frantically, but couldn’t even make out the piano’s sound with my hands cupped behind my ears. The piece sounded great when only a limited number of orchestra members played, and there were quite a few passages of that nature. The composer himself provided a description of the music for the premiere. The three movements are (i) Allegro appassionato, Canzone, and Allegro molto. The second movement is a rework of a prior work for flute and piano, and highlights the flute. The 5/8 time of the last movement retains its firm grip even as the music goes through its many gyrations.
The “Pathetique” Symphony is very much associated with the composer’s death nine days after conducting its premiere. The second performance was part of the memorial concert for him. Various stories have Tchaikovsky suffering from severe depression because he was afraid his homosexuality would be exposed, and that he drank an untreated glass of water on purpose to contract cholera. The Symphony has four movements: (i) Adagio – Allegro non troppo; (ii) Allegro con grazia; (iii) Allegro molto vivace; and (iv) Adagio lamentoso – Andante.
Even though many of the tunes in the Symphony sounded familiar, I have heard the whole piece only a limited number of times. I was surprised how some themes (e.g., one in the second movement) were used over and over, without sounding too repetitious. The third movement has a very energetic tempo, unusual for a third movement of a Symphony; and the audience applauded afterwards. Perhaps a bit of a faux pas, but also an indication of how appreciate the audience was. Indeed it was an enjoyable performance. In any case, the triumphal sounding third movement wasn’t enough to overcome the overall pathos of the piece, punctuated by the fourth movement, which ended on pizzicato on strings against a pedal point dotted note in the bass. I wonder which Symphony is sadder, this one, or the one by Mahler (“Tragic,” also his sixth).
Myung-Whun Chung is the music director of the Seoul Philharmonic, although he has spent a lot of time in the USA (New York and Los Angeles) during his early career. He conducted the program without music, and evoked a great sound from the orchestra (except for the balance issue during the piano concerto.) I have heard the BSO several times (including at Tanglewood), and thought one of their hallmarks is how precise they are. By that measure they are a bit sloppy today, perhaps inevitable without a permanent music director? But they certainly belong in the upper echelons of ensembles, at least of the ones I have heard.