Jordan Hall was only partially full for one of the season’s most exciting concerts, “Concert for the Cure” on Sunday night, Dec. 5. Although the concert featured two superstars, conductor Sir Simon Rattle and pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin, and had plenty of pre-concert press coverage, people might have stayed away because of the ticket prices ($100 and $150). The brainchild of flutist Julie Scolnik, who had breast cancer five years ago, this concert, presented by the Susan G. Komen organization, was meant “to raise funds and awareness in the fight against breast cancer.” Skolnick spoke eloquently about her time in the chemo chair, accompanied by music on her Ipod, which gave her hope through this ordeal.
If less than lucky in health, she was extremely lucky with her choice of friends, many of whom played in the orchestra. (Everyone involved, from Marc-André Hamelin to Sir Simon, volunteered their services). While subbing at BSO, she had befriended Sir Simon in the coffee room at Symphony Hall and renewed their friendship a few years later. When she mentioned her dream of this concert, he jumped at the opportunity to help out, but had only one day free, which was yesterday. For no fee, he drove up from NYC, conducted a three-hour rehearsal and a two-hour concert, then drove back for a 9:30 A.M. rehearsal at the Metropolitan Opera Monday. Sir Simon is an unusually easy and expressive conductor to follow. Both before and after the concert, the players seemed ecstatic about the chance to work with him. It’s not often one sees so many seasoned players this elated. Sir Simon was the evening’s hero before he conducted a note.
The evening opened with one of Boston’s beloved new musicians, Marc-Andre Hamelin, playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto in G major, K. 543, a favorite of Leonard Bernstein. There is, as those who know Mr. Hamelin’s playing and repertoire, nothing he cannot play brilliantly. For those who know him “merely” as a player of monstrously difficult repertoire, the surprise here was that he was a stellar player of Mozart — a model of clarity, intelligence, and beautiful scale work and voicing. It is always a privilege to hear this thoughtful pianist. Sir Simon, especially in the third movement with its catchy tunes and horn calls, seemed to be having a terrific time. It was a great collaboration.
Mahler’s gorgeous Adagietto from Symphony No. 5 for harp and strings has different meanings for many people. To harpists, it’s an audition piece; it is the heartbeat of the movement, and rhythmically tricky. Last night’s harpist, Boston Symphony’s Jessica Zhou, is another wonderful new musical citizen. She was placed towards the rear of the stage, but every note she played came through with poignancy and elegance. This was music for anyone’s Ipod, and aptly chosen for this program.
The Brahms Symphony No. 2 received a spectacular performance. The four horns, the BSO’s James Sommerville, Richard Sebring, Jason Snider and Eric Ruske, gave stunning performances. Sommerville’s solos were, as always, simply perfection. The trombones, Stephen Lange (of the BSO), Ross Holcombe and Gabriel Langfur, were also excellent. (One wanted to know where the others usually played). The strings, especially the first violins,played beautifully, and BSO oboist John Ferillo was his customary superb self. Throughout the winds had impeccable intonation and the strings played with real beauty. For those who love Brahms 2, this was a performance not to be missed. I do not expect to hear a better one, ever.
Each of these pieces were played by pros or people about to be pros. I think the very rare opportunity to play for Sir Simon was surely an incentive to play unusually well. It seems unlikely he will soon be returning to the BSO, and this seemed extra sad given the response he elicited from these players. Conducting is far more than hand gestures and facial expressions and a good baton technique. The charismatic Sir Simon, whose conducting doesn’t draw attention to itself, had the orchestra produce breathtaking crescendos and playing of memorable musicianship. He produced amazing results, and his players certainly loved him last night. It was one of those concerts that both the too-small audience and the players will not soon, if ever, forget.
Besides the exorbitantly-priced tickets, there were a few things that could have been easily remedied. The “Concert for the Cure Orchestra” was filled with people from orchestras and chamber ensembles besides the BSO, and without adding a page to the program book, it would have been very helpful to know where many of these musicians play. Also, knowing (yesterday, for example) that attendance at this concert would be low, it would have been great to have made tickets available — to students, to anyone! — so that more than the center section would be filled. That so few people experienced this great concert is a real shame.