The bare trees lining the streets of Boston may have been shivering in a chill winter wind, but the calendar had flipped ahead a few pages within the capaciously cozy confines of Symphony Hall Thursday evening, February 18th. Conductor James Levine treated a sold-out audience to his realizations of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68 (“Pastoral”) and Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92 as part of his postponed exploration of the great composer’s symphonic output. Last fall, with Levine on the disabled list, a series of guest conductors pinch-hit on the podium during the originally scheduled concert series. Thus, the intriguing aspect of this program was its performance by the BSO just 111 days earlier under the capable baton of Maestro Lorin Maazel. This gave concertgoers who attended last fall’s concert a rare and fascinating juxtaposition: identical orchestra and program under the guidance of two equally accomplished but markedly different conductors. I was fortunate enough to be one of those concertgoers; click here for my review of the Maazel rendition.
At the end of a protracted New England winter, one of the traditional treats has long been the annual Flower Show (which, as you may have heard, has been reincarnated this year). As the lush strings and sweet woodwinds tickled my eardrums during Beethoven’s sixth, I was reminded of the uplifting sensation of leaving the cold, monochromatic landscape of late winter and entering that warm, colorful, and fragrant space. Beethoven’s great tribute to the natural world wraps listeners in a soft blanket of sound. Water flows in a lilting triple meter; delicate ornamentation ripples through the strings. Though consciously attempting to avoid the cliché, van B. blatantly includes such programmatic elements as murmuring brook, twittering birds, frolicking peasants, and a gutsy, growly, full-bodied, tempestuous, take-no-prisoners t-storm. The throbbing music pulsates in thoroughly organic fashion, seamlessly ebbing and flowing as melodic snippets bob and weave through the orchestra. Early nineteenth-century minimalism at its best. Maestro Levine’s broad-brush conducting style, featuring sweeping motions and a wide-ranging repertoire of expressive, coaxing gestures with the left hand, is perfectly suited for the impressionistic effect Beethoven was striving for. (Am I the only one who worries that the Maestro might inadvertently swivel himself right out of his chair?) As the storm fades into the distance, the listener once again basks in bucolic tranquility. From the knit-picking department: final note of the symphony seemed, to this pair of ears at least, to be just a tad on the abrupt side.
While there’s certainly nothing programmatic about Beethoven’s 7th, his musical genius somehow manages to convey the entire kaleidoscope of human emotion through the abstract medium of sound. Noble, emphatic, passionate, forceful, poignant, percussive, explosive, frenetic: this music is nothing less than the aural expression of the human soul. Levine deftly navigated this microcosm of life as he guided the orchestra through a dramatic series of musical exclamation points and yin/yang contrasts; tension rapidly building and receding. The players were more than up to the task, with the exception of a couple of jarring clams from the brass section in the first movement. The energy level builds through the penultimate Presto; by the opening of the final Allegro the listener feels as if he’s clinging for dear life to the neck of a galloping steed. With the final note still reverberating in the hall, the audience made a little music of its own, rewarding orchestra and conductor with an enthusiastic standing ovation. Found myself gazing up at the glowing BEETHOVEN proscenium in pure, unadulterated awe.
BSO, Beethoven 6 and 7, Lorin Maazel vs. James Levine: quite the contrast in conducting styles. Maazel: micromanagerial, hyperprecise, calculating, serious. Levine: expansive, loose, big-picture, warm. Maestro Maazel seemed focused on controlling every note; Levine appeared to be actually inside the music, feeling it with every quark of his being. Given these differences, the end results were actually remarkably similar. Both conductors opted for pleasingly brisk tempi and the well-oiled machine that is the Boston Symphony Orchestra responded energetically to each, with unparalleled precision and musicality. One world-class orchestra, one genius composer, two gifted and experienced conductors = two stellar performances. Had this been an Olympic competition, it’s hard to say who would have won gold. The real winner was the audience.
Michael Rocha is a self-described “long-ago” music teacher, a long-time music enthusiast and pianist, and a short-time Web designer: http://www.cobaltocumulus.com. He has an M.S. in Meteorology from MIT.