in: Reviews

January 17, 2011

UnderScore Fridays Scores a Hit—Almost Home Run

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Concertgoers flocked to Boston Symphony Hall on Friday night, January 14, for the first of three concerts in the new UnderScore Fridays subscription series. This new series features an earlier start time of 7 pm, a shorter program without intermission, conductor commentary on each piece, and a complimentary post-concert reception. While the hall was not full to capacity, the new program did succeed in attracting a diverse audience of all ages, many of whom attended the post-concert reception to enjoy a glass of wine, snack on an impressive variety of both sweet and savory treats, and mingle with other BSO supporters, including conductor Sir Mark Elder and piano soloist Lars Vogt.

Delius’s symphonic poem Paris: A Nocturne (The Song of a Great City), last performed by the BSO almost 70 years ago, was inspired by the nightlife of Paris, and Sir Mark Elder appropriately described it as “Toulouse Lautrec written for orchestra.” This lesser known composition was followed by the beloved Mozart Piano Concerto No. 21 in C, K.467. Lars Vogt introduced the work, an impressive feat, considering he was moments away from his solo performance, and also informed us that since Mozart did not leave cadenzas for this concerto, he had written his own for the occasion. The second movement was sublime, supremely melancholy and beautiful at the same time. This movement alone warranted one’s attendance, and Vogt performed brilliantly. The concert ended with Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, a short symphonic poem that packs a punch. From beginning to end, the orchestra gave a solid performance.

If the goal of the UnderScore series is merely to accommodate those patrons seeking a more intimate night at the Symphony, then the concert was a success. The earlier start time and short discussion of the works by both the soloist and conductor, which helped to frame each work in an historical and aural context, created a less formal atmosphere that many audience members, polled in the after-concert reception, enjoyed. One audience member, a horn player and frequenter of BSO performances, thought that the background talk preceding each piece was necessary to connect with the music on a deeper level. Additional concert-goers agreed. Another conductor might easily have turned this lighthearted discussion into a pedantic music lesson aimed at an uneducated audience, but Sir Mark Elder proved to be a skilled speaker. The audience responded with laughter to numerous anecdotes and seemed to appreciate the lightened atmosphere in the concert hall.

But could the BSO do more in its choice and discussion of programming? The three works on this first UnderScore concert shared an obvious connection in their unique approach to texture and timbre. The Delius tone poem highlighted timbre throughout and featured a number of unusual instruments (i.e., tambourine, glockenspiel and castanets) in its portrayal of Parisian nightlife. The latter two pieces, Mozart’s Piano Concerto and Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, emphasized timbre and texture in the interplay between solo instruments and the larger orchestral group. Perhaps a more unified discussion of these works, that emphasized this common theme, would be more appropriate.

The next concert in this series features a similarly disparate collection of works. Sandwiched between symphonies by Haydn and Sibelius is the American premier of Unsuk Chin’s Cello Concerto. The final program in the series rectifies this problem, using Shakespeare’s play The Tempest as a focal point. In order to accommodate these works, however, this program reverts to the more typical two-hour format with an intermission.

For new subscription series like UnderScore Fridays, the goal is not just to attract new audience members, but also to retain them.

Sandra Fallon-Ludwig holds a Ph.D. in musicology from Brandeis University. She currently teaches at Boston College and is a member of the New Philharmonia Orchestra. Alex Ludwig holds a Ph. D. in Musicology from Brandeis University and is the Secretary of the Haydn Society of North America.

2 Comments

  1. Not having been there on Friday, I’m in no position to disagree about the execution of the concept. It strikes me as an excellent way to make audiences more comfortable with the concert experience, and I’m glad Sir Mark and Mr. Vogt seem to have carried it off well. I may well attend one of the other Underscore evenings to see what they say.

    It does call to mind my irritation with the ridiculously early starting and ending times of the regular pre-concert talks. They may not be quite as light-hearted as Sir Mark’s introductions, but I have always liked to attend them whether to get some idea of what to expect in an unfamiliar piece or to gain further insight into an old favorite. But to push them back fifteen minutes from their former time slot in order to accommodate one oboist who apparently is incapable of blowing into his reeds backstage is ludicrous.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — January 18, 2011 at 1:21 am

  2. While the starting time 7PM is annoying. The concert was wonderful in many ways. Sir Mark is always a fascinatingly brilliant conductor. His brief talk before each piece should serve as a model for the remaining Underscore Concerts. Speaking with no notes or pauses in a beautiful voice which was immediately captivating, Elder injected a bit of humor which the audience loved. Not since the days of Sir Thomas Beecham has a maestro possessed such a dry, cutting wit.
    The Delius which Elder clearly adores, was performed brilliantly. In my view it is a dreadful piece which only for brief seconds showed any interesting orchestration.
    The balance between orchestra and soloist in the Mozart was perfect but Mr. Vogt left me cold.
    The Strauss was a performance of a lifetime… brilliant, exciting and revelatory. It was like hearing this “warhorse” for the first time…
    Unfortunately due to the bad weather, I missed my Tuesday concert.

    Comment by Ed Burke — January 22, 2011 at 2:09 am

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