in: Reviews

February 25, 2012

Strength From Adversity at the BSO


It is no secret that the Boston Symphony Orchestra has been plagued with conductor issues in recent years.  Maestro James Levine’s fragmented tenure seems almost to have put their “karma” into a strange place, and cancellations, replacements, and substitutions have become commonplace.

This week, their work already cut out for them with Beethoven’s crowning choral work, the Missa Solemnis in D Major, op. 123, the BSO and Tanglewood Festival Chorus and soloists found themselves yet again in the position of looking for a conductor, and this time with fewer than 24 hours before the concert. The ailing Kurt Masur had already run several rehearsals when he realized he would be unable to fulfill his commitment. With so little time to replace him, management made a sensible and pragmatic decision and asked chorusmaster John Oliver to take the podium. This was one more star in Artistic Administrator Anthony Fogg’s crown.

Although no one would want to fault anyone for such brave and generous efforts, it is not mere politeness to say the performance I heard on Thursday night had many satisfying elements, and Oliver mostly made sense of this demanding and complex score. The work unfurled efficiently; the few slightly hesitant transitions will doubtless improve with each subsequent performance.  Oliver’s tempos were, on the whole, convincing, and his pacing was able to bring out the telling drama of this astounding music, particularly in the Gloria.

The stars of the evening were the members of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, who sang with energy, commitment and brilliance.  It’s hard to say who should be prouder here: the chorus of its conductor or the conductor of his chorus. The legendary vocal demands of this late masterpiece of Beethoven can and do intimidate most choirs, but the TFC met every challenge.  The hushed dynamics at the “crucifixus” in the Credo were among the most beautiful moments of the evening, and several of the fugues, notably the “Et vitam venturi saeculi,” also in the Credo, were also highlights.  The chorus sang from memory, as is their impressive custom.

Malcolm Lowe’s violin solo in the Benedictus was sublime, perfectly capturing the sense of the text “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord”; the melody floated down as on a cloud, from heaven.

The vocal soloists, soprano Christine Brewer, mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, tenor Simon O’Neill, and bass-baritone Eric Owens, were well matched and each impressive in his or her own way, with DeYoung a slight standout, both vocally and in her presence onstage.

Oliver deserves great credit for pulling together all these magnificent musicians and for making sense of this searching and masterful work on such short notice. One wished only that he could have seemed to enjoy himself more, but perhaps he had too important an assignment simply making the music work, which it did. The great Beethoven, himself having faced so many daunting health challenges near the end of his life when he wrote the Missa, would have been unusually pleased at the strength from adversity which this evening represented.

Brian Jones is Emeritus Director of Music and Organist at Trinity Church, Copley Square, Boston, where he directed an acclaimed program from 1984-2004. Active as organ solo artist and guest conductor, he has performed widely in the United States, Canada, England, Mexico, and Bermuda. His website is



  1. I didn’t notice anything specifically wrong with the performance on Thursday evening, although Eric Owens did not come through very clearly. But it did not live up to my hope and expectation that it would be exalting. It just seemed pedestrian. At each moment, it was fine, but afterwards I wished it had been better. And BTW, I never felt that the fugues were at the breakneck speeds the Globe’s reviewer observed.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — February 25, 2012 at 5:55 pm

  2. Given the attention being paid to these performances, the reviewer might be doing himself a favor if he reported whether he was at Thursday’s or Friday’s performance. It might determine the force with which the brickbats are thrown. 

    Comment by Bill — February 25, 2012 at 6:45 pm

  3. Brian Jones reviewed the Thursday performance.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — February 25, 2012 at 11:41 pm

  4. My seat was too ‘good’ and I was close enough to see the wrinkles of the cello players. The sound was loud and off balance.

    I thought it was an ok performance. John Oliver conducted like a metronome (I am not saying he is precise). He sticked to his slaggish 4 beat gesture without much change even when the music mood shifted. But it still does not sound too terribly bad.

    I wish I could get a ‘better’ seat and observe the performance again, just to verify if Dave (in another related post) got it right or not. He thought it was utterly terrible.

    Comment by Thorsten Zhu — February 26, 2012 at 11:03 am

  5. Readers might wish to read the other numerous comments on this concert, in what Mr. Zhu (above) refers to as “another related post”: the article, “Another Conductor Cancels at BSO.”

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — February 26, 2012 at 11:36 am

  6. I was excited about attending the Missa Solemnis on Friday evening. While John Oliver may be a gifted choral director, he is sadly lacking as an orchestra conductor. The BSO musicians did not respond to Oliver’s metronomic, time beating. The chorus, except for the Sopranos, sang fairly well  The soloists were a mixed bag. The highlight to me was Malcolm Lowe’s breathtakingly beautiful solo violin passages. Symphony Hall was almost full: the audience was attentive and enthusiastic.

    Generally the Friday evening series has no intermission..often there is one piece omitted except if a single work is scheduled.  it’s always noted in advance and listed in the future BSO concerts at the back of the program book for those who care to investigate.

    Unfortunately there are far too many rumors of the he said, they said variety. The hideous, unsightly, enormous speaker system was gone on Tuesday night.  I thought finally the management had realized that Symphony Hall’s superb acoustics did not need augmentation.  Alas.. the speakers are back!

    Comment by Ed Burke — February 26, 2012 at 5:46 pm

  7. I found the performance as broadcast more than passable and by the end very fine indeed. I just wonder what makes this “one more star in Artistic Administrator Anthony Fogg’s crown.” He made the obvious move and it’s his job to have a conductor on standby.
    Next season’s programming will show us if he’s an Artistic Administrator or just an Administrator.

    Comment by Jeremy — February 26, 2012 at 5:47 pm

  8. Another thorn in Fogg’s artistic crown would be more apt.

    Comment by de novo — February 26, 2012 at 6:02 pm

  9. de novo: “Another thorn in Fogg’s artistic crown would be more apt.”

    No it wouldn’t. Mr. Fogg has been an extraordinary Artistic Administrator, and Boston is incredibly lucky to have him. His is one of the most musically vast minds I’ve ever encountered, and in no way can his stewardship be blamed for the BSO’s recent misfortunes.

    Comment by nimitta — February 26, 2012 at 6:57 pm

  10. Ed Burke —

    I was also disappointed to see the eyesore speakers back last Thursday. Hopefully they aren’t actually using them during BSO performances. But they aesthetic vandalism: so ugly that they show that management is totally lacking in good taste and consideration for the patrons — a point they also clearly demonstrated in the “redo” of the Hatch Room and the combining of the two coffee/espresso/cappuccino stands into one and their banishment to the coat room in the corridor.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — February 27, 2012 at 2:10 am

  11. The earlier multi-horn array, which hung below Beethovewn, was also used mostly for announcements. But it could also be lowered for soloist reinforcement or for the occasional movie. But neither that system, which had been in place since the early 50s or the current one (which ought to be painted beige, is ever used during BSO playing.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — February 27, 2012 at 8:22 am

  12. The “eyesores” wreck the proscenium’s appearance.  Painting them would not help.  The management might try to explain when and why they’re hung, but did not answer a letter of complaint and inquiry.   The speakers  were absent for the Friday, 17 February, concert.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — February 27, 2012 at 12:33 pm

    Lee, that multi horn array system was put up and used during the last years of the Ozawa regime…it didn’t exist before that time.  Previously permanent speakers were on the proscenium columns: dating from the 1930?s the sound quality was primative.  Those speakers were replaced in the same location about a decade ago? and have superior sound compared to the big ugly black monsters.

    Martin, speakers were absent on the 21st but back again on Friday evening.. The management can’t be bothered to answer letters of complaint or inquiry relating to this subject… They think everything re: the BSO and Symphony Hall is perfect!

    Comment by Ed Burke — February 28, 2012 at 2:07 am

  14. Regarding loudspeakers the BSO’s  Director of Public Relations responded thus:

    While we respect the feelings of our Boston Symphony patrons about the speakers that were installed in the hall this past year, we have to balance those concerns with the need to provide effective amplification for events that include speaking from the stage. Our goal is to remove the equipment for as many BSO concerts as possible throughout the season, though they are needed for the orchestra’s Underscore Friday series as those concerts feature people speaking from the stage.  Since the equipment also needs to be in place for a few other non-BSO concerts during the season, such as the Boston Speaker Series, there are also times when the speakers need to remain in place because of the time involved in removal and re-installation between events, as well as the cost involved in doing so. 

    Comment by Bernadette Horgan — March 2, 2012 at 12:52 pm

  15. Bernadette Horgan —

    Thanks for getting and posting a response from the BSO. One would have thought that in this day and age, something far less massive could have sufficed. But at least we have their explanation, for what it’s worth.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — March 2, 2012 at 10:07 pm

  16. The BSO could save both money and inconvenience by using the fine quality speakers located on the proscenium columns.
    There have been occasions during the past two seasons when they were used for announcements and no one had trouble hearing.
    At two underscore Friday concerts, maestros Tovey weeks ago and Sir Mark Elder (last season) turned off the microphone and thus used no amplification.. there was a good deal of humor in the talk and the audience laughter showed that their voices projected perfectly.

    Comment by Ed Burke — March 4, 2012 at 1:13 am

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