Nelsons, BSO play it cool in decorous Mozart, celestial Bruckner

April 8, 2016 at 3:45 pm

By David Wright

Malcolm Lowe and Steven Ansell performed Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante Thursday night with Andris Nelsons and the BSO. Photo: Winslow Townson

Malcolm Lowe and Steven Ansell performed Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante Thursday night with Andris Nelsons and the BSO. Photo: Winslow Townson

Andris Nelsons kept his cool Thursday night, and the result was luminous performances by the Boston Symphony Orchestra of  Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante and Bruckner’s Third Symphony.

The usually highly active conductor was a picture of calm command as he steered his orchestra through the two scores—one an intimate conversation for solo violin and viola and orchestra, the other a grand, almost astronomical vision of themes in their orbits.

With majestic music by Bruckner to come, Nelsons de-emphasized Mozart’s marking of “maestoso” in the Sinfonia’s first movement, opting instead for an understated, decorous approach, confirmed by the collegial playing of two BSO principals in the solo roles, concertmaster Malcolm Lowe and violist Steven Ansell.

The solo parts were often written in imitative style, each phrase passing from one player to the other, and soon Lowe and Ansell had established a pattern, with Lowe stating the phrase straight with his silvery-toned violin, then Ansell sliding in underneath with a differently inflected, maybe slightly subversive version. However, the two played as one in the movement’s capricious cadenza.

Mention must be made of the orchestra’s four wind players—Keisuke Wakao and Mark McEwen, oboes, and Richard Sebring and Rachel Childers, horns—for stylish and graceful phrasing that nicely complemented the strings.

Lowe modified his tone to something rounder and perhaps a little hollow (and closer to Ansell’s contralto-like viola) for the dark-hued Andante that suddenly deepens this entertaining piece. The music needed no exaggerated gestures to be deeply touching, and received none.  The soloists stretched their phrases just enough, and Nelsons made the forte climax just dramatic enough as he moved the music steadily to its conclusion.

Mozart marked the finale Presto, and Jan Swafford’s program note described it as “a darting and laughing romp,” but in Thursday’s performance the reflective mood of the Andante seemed to linger, rendering the music more delicate and thoughtful than brilliant.  The emphasis was more on expressive phrasing than on speed, and the brief excursions into minor keys took on greater-than-usual importance.  The warm-toned horns reinforced the mood.

Looking back, one realized that the Andante’s influence had extended to the first movement as well, and that the whole performance appeared to be aimed at bringing this work’s disparate parts together in one expressive arc. Although the result was a rather understated performance overall, the unity achieved was worth the effort.

Unity of character was certainly the watchword in the splendid performance of Bruckner’s Third that followed. In a Boston Classical Review interview earlier in the season, Nelsons spoke of himself as “subjectively” discerning a composer’s intentions, but on Thursday he seemed to find little that was subjective or psychological about Bruckner’s score.

Instead, Nelsons traded his hortatory gesticulations for more businesslike management of the proceedings, trusting his players to build Bruckner’s great edifice of sound without frantic urgings on his part.

And build it they did, in that lapidary way of Bruckner the organist, adding stops as he approached the fortissimo, topping it off with what organists call the “big reeds”—in orchestral terms, the massed brass. It even seemed, at these moments, that the BSO brass players gave their section an organ-like, piercingly reedy tone, emphasizing brilliance over heft.

In the Adagio, on the other hand, the brass warmed up to meet the strings halfway, as the latter went from a velvety sound at the opening to deeper bows and a more assertive tone. It was this kind of attention to sound chemistry that gave each room in the edifice, including the smaller ones, its own wealth of color and detail.

One felt grateful for such pleasures, in the absence of the usual “subjective” routes into a symphonic piece. Nelsons’s architectural approach ruled out creating much suspense in the first movement’s pianissimo opening bars, or romantic ardor in the lyrical second theme, or nervous excitement in the loud coda.  This performance was not a narrative, but a magnificent object.

The Adagio (further marked “like an Andante”) was not so much a building as a seascape, its slow waves of sound building and breaking inexorably, transparent even at their peaks.  The comparatively brief Scherzo captured that alternately muscular and airy quality typical of Bruckner in this genre, which carried over, maybe a little too much, into the rustic, fiddle-style trio.

It seemed as though the unfettered energy released in the scherzo echoed in the finale, which started objectively enough but acquired a folk-dance swing in the second theme that had even the CEO-maestro shaking a leg on the podium.  The movement’s distinctive staggered-octaves theme was both weighty and bold, and the climactic final statement of the symphony’s trumpet motto lifted the audience out of its seats.

*          *          *

Thursday’s concert marked the first time in this listener’s experience that a BSO concert was interrupted by applause between every movement. It was just a smattering, and the conductor simply waited it out, neither acknowledging it nor trying to stifle it.

This violation of the old taboo didn’t seem to disrupt the performance any more than applauding a solo in a jazz club does.  An “amen” now and then helps the preacher get fired up. 

Still, one wondered what it signified on this occasion. Is Nelsons’s star quality bringing more of the “uninitiated” into Symphony Hall?  Did people, having clapped for the first movement of the Mozart, feel obliged to clap for every other movement after that?  Or did they just not feel like waiting an hour to express how they felt?

One has to admit, there is something impressive about the collective discipline it takes for everybody in a packed Symphony Hall, knowing there’s one more movement coming, to greet the thrilling finish of the scherzo in Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony with total silence.

How much longer can that custom survive?  It may be that the old prohibition on applause between movements—not so old really in historical terms, just a century or so—is going the way of the five-minute pause that Mahler specified after the first movement of his Second Symphony. Something that feels that artificial is hard to sustain in an increasingly unzipped world.

The clapping in Symphony Hall Thursday night seemed to be taking one more brick out of what some people consider the rigid, church-like atmosphere in a concert hall. Church isn’t what it used to be, either.  People clap there too.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday and Tuesday.; 617-266-1200.

Posted in Performances

4 Responses to “Nelsons, BSO play it cool in decorous Mozart, celestial Bruckner”

  1. Posted Apr 09, 2016 at 10:28 am by Bill

    The applause after every movement was pretty much confined to the high school students scattered in groups in the second balcony. This happens occasionally, but usually they pick up on the idea that we don’t applaud after every movement and don’t persist throughout the concert. Don’t know why these kids — attentive and engaged — didn’t take a clue from the rest of the audience.

  2. Posted Apr 09, 2016 at 12:03 pm by jim

    The fact that applause between movements was once commonplace is interesting, but not necessarily a good reason for making it commonplace again. There are many things that were once common practice which I don’t think anyone would like to see reinstated. People use to come and go, hold conversations, eat and drink during performances. Performances of only single movements of symphonies and performances with the movements broken up by other unrelated pieces of music were also once commonplace. Obviously there are times when it is absolutely against nature not to spontaneously react to a performance, but most of the time applause during the performance simply distracts and breaks the focus on the music.

    The lack of applause between movements is not the reason for classical’s declining audience. Every genre, every venue has it’s own etiquette whether it’s a classical concert or a hip-hop concert and it shouldn’t be that difficult for anyone with a brain in a new situation to observe the behavior of others and act accordingly. The lack of education and the general dumbing down of our culture are the culprits, not the generally accepted rules of concert going decorum.

  3. Posted Apr 10, 2016 at 8:23 am by Brucknerliebhaber

    BSO management also bused in loads of Highschoolers for Saturday evening’s repeat but this time the youngsters were well prepared by their teachers and hardly any applause in between movements. Thursday night I saw many students either falling asleep or chitchatting ( both quietly!)in their seats.:))

  4. Posted Apr 10, 2016 at 12:54 pm by Rich

    I can imagine a concert hall outfitted with a jumbotron or electronic ticker providing information about pieces as they’re played. Please, not at Symphony Hall, though.

    A few years ago, James Levine wheeled around in his chair in exasperation after the first two movements of a Schumann symphony were followed by sustained applause. The audience laughed nervously, and Levine adapted by using quick segues between movements for the rest of the evening.

    As Bill suggested, the culprits were probably mostly high school and/or college students brought in as part of a BSO outreach program. They probably should receive viewing tips along with their ticket envelopes.

    Fans at a tennis match know they need to quiet down when either player is ready to serve. At a football game, though, it’s expected that the home crowd will yell in unison to try to disrupt the visiting team’s offense. Every sport and activity has its own etiquette; that’s part of the experience.

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