Arts concert review

May I direct your attention to… orchestral music

Listen, and watch the director; he’s great

Week 15: Leipzig week in Boston
Andris Nelsons, Music Director
Performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra
Music by Bach, Schumann, Sean Shepherd, and Mendelssohn
Boston Symphony Hall, 301 Massachusetts Ave, Boston, MA 02115
Feb. 8, 2018

Is the average age of the orchestral audience increasing? It definitely doesn’t seem to be decreasing. When you’re the youngest member in the audience, it’s hard but to notice that the sea of heads in the audience are mostly white or graying. I wonder how long it will be before orchestral music disappears entirely from the front of live musical performance, and then all we’ll be left with are rave-like pop concerts with obnoxious blasting music and flashing lights.

At MIT, I imagine only a fraction of us care a thing about orchestral music; and then, a tinier fraction of those actually would actually go see an orchestra concert. I would like to guess that many audience members of such a performance have previous experience playing an orchestral instrument. (All those I asked during the concert responded in the affirmative — but I’ll admit my sample size was a mediocre three people.)

I’ll admit, I personally don’t rave about orchestra music. This was my first BSO concert, and I spent most of the performance fixated on the director — who goes by the extremely sophisticated appellation, Andris Nelsons — rather than on the actual music. Don’t get me wrong, the music was quite excellent. At least, in my limited understanding of musical excellence: performed with an air of officiality and regality, consummate in technical skill and precision, perfect along any dimension of measurement. I really couldn’t find fault with it. But rather than prattling on about how excellent something was that I really don’t understand, I’ll chat a bit instead about Mr. Nelsons, who quite stole the show with his captivating conducting.

He begins a piece softly petting a dog; his left hand low, stroking gently at the fluffy pelt of air. The dog then transforms before his eyes into a dementor — and Mr. Nelsons must wield his wand of a baton to fend it off! Expecto Patronus! Expelliarmus! AVADA KEDAVRA!! The tip of his wand darts back and forth, an insect alighting on thorns and thistles and springing back up into flight.

When Schumann swells into ocean waves and static-filled thunderclouds, Mr. Nelsons contorts his whole body in an arc of pain. He’s an actor, portraying a tragic scene in a tragic play. He staggers backwards on the conductor’s platform, clutching at the wooden banister behind him for support. (Gosh, did he portray that scene effectively — he may very well have collapsed over the edge if that banister wasn’t there to catch him.) As the waves die down, his drama is replaced by a calm indignance — solemnly, he jabs his batons at the English horns and prods at the violins to quiet down.

Then, a trickle of notes transforms Mr. Nelsons into a thief — back crouched, shoulders hunched, wrists cocked like a velociraptor clutching a prize of a hairy rodent snack. Almost as quickly he transforms into an automaton as rigid as a stork; he clutches the edge of his full dress tailcoat with one hand, drawing out sharp jagged movements with the other: down, side, up, down, side, up. Next he is a fencer, pointing and jabbing here, there, here at an unseen enemy. Then he is a martial artist — waving and stirring at the air with long, sweeping movements of his entire body, as if feeling for the energy currents circulating around him. Finally, a light, fluttery motif transforms the baton into a large paintbrush, and he skillfully begins applying deliberate strokes, wide arcs, splatters and dabs and dots, to a blank canvas.
And that’s the performance. It all revolved around the director — with his animated movements and the commanding authority of that insect-like baton, an excellent clothwork of music unfolds from the sea of brass and strings for an audience’s enjoyment. The applause goes on for eons afterwards; I clap a few times before my hands get tired, and then I just sit and indulge in the sounds of the sea of applause. It’s almost as pleasant as the music.