in: Reviews

January 29, 2009

Mendelssohn Would Have Lauded this BSO Celebration of his 200th Birthday

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Kurt Masur led the Boston Symphony Orchestra through an all-Mendelssohn program last Thursday in Symphony Hall. Masur, who has reached high acclaim conducting music of the Romantic period, brought the already spectacular BSO to an even higher tier of performance.

In a discussion with the BSO’s artistic director Anthony Fogg, Masur shared some telling information about the motivations behind his programming choices. When he was a young piano student in Leipzig during the Nazi regime, he recalled his piano teacher giving him Song Without Words , which he could only practice discreetly due to the banning of Mendelssohn’s music because of his Jewish heritage.

The program consisted of Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, Symphony #3 (“Scottish” Symphony), and Symphony #4 (“Italian” Symphony). The pieces chosen for the program illustrate the composer’s vast stylistic and regional influences. Interestingly, the most impressive aspect of the BSO’s performance was not of the typical Romantic interpretation, but the subtle Classical elements found in the music of Mendelssohn. The delicacy and silent intensity of the Adagio Cantabile in the “Scottish” Symphony was astounding – one of those rare moments where the sound, though painstakingly quiet, pierces through the body and clenches the spine. With an orchestra of this caliber, the real difficulty in performing Mendelssohn is in negotiating the subtle (and sometimes conflicting) stylistic differences of the Classical and the Romantic – and Kurt Masur truly delivered.

While there was much contrast between the influences within the pieces, the program followed an interestingly logical arch, which agreeably affected the experience of the music. The Hebrides Overture depicts the scene of Fingal’s Cave, found off the coast of Scotland. There is unquestionable Scottish influence in his Scottish Symphony , which begins in A-minor, and unconventionally ends in A-major. The Italian Symphony appropriately begins in A-major and ends in A-minor, while integrating regional influences in the same way as Mendelssohn’s previous symphony.

It was magnificent to hear such a fine delivery of Mendelssohn’s most celebrated works from the Boston Symphony. Symphony Hall, in fact, was modeled after the Leipzig Gewandhaus, where Mendelssohn himself was appointed conductor in the 1830s. It seems serendipitous that all of these elements contributed to a performance that Mendelssohn would have surely lauded.

Peter Van Zandt Lane is a composer and bassoonist who performs regularly in the Boston area. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D in Music Composition and Theory at Brandeis University.

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