Arts concert review

Copland conductorless, and Stravinsky interrupted

BSO features individual sections in a conductorless first half of program; stunning performance of The Rite of Spring cut short on its final night

Boston Symphony Orchestra

Featuring Maestro Giancarlo Guerrero

January 24, 2012

With all of the drama and lack of a permanent conductor at the BSO, the orchestra found an opportunity to do something completely out of the ordinary for their concert series from January 21–24. The entire first half of the program consisted of different sections of the orchestra performing pieces for chamber-size groups — without a conductor. A conductor was eventually contracted for the second half of the concert and worked with the orchestra for the week leading up to the first performance. The second half of the concert featured Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, one of the most controversial yet brilliant pieces of repertoire in classical music.

The decision to feature individual sections in the first half of the concert proved to be amazing. The program began with Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. The hall immediately filled with the pure tones of the brass section, leading to an overwhelming feeling of triumph and power. In many ways, it reminded me of that moment in a film when the winners take their victory lap (I later realized that this composition has been used and rearranged for a variety of purposes, from films and television to the NHL Blackhawks’ entrance song to Obama’s inauguration).

The first half of the concert concluded with a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade in C for Strings. A common piece played by chamber groups of all levels, the string sections of the BSO showed the audience how the piece should actually be performed. After seeing this piece on the program, I figured that the musicians would find a conductor, or perhaps have a fellow musician sit in as conductor for the piece, as this piece is most commonly performed with one. However, as they started setting the stage for the performance I realized that not only would the group perform it in its entirety without a conductor, but they would be standing. The effects of this curious arrangement were immediately apparent: The musicians, with more freedom to add physical expression, moved in unity from start to finish.

As a flute player myself, I often think that strings get too much show-off time in orchestral pieces and performances. Concertgoers often swoon over the concertmaster, or how beautiful the cellos sounded. The first half of the program for this concert successfully featured each section of the orchestra individually. Each group allowed all instruments to shine. Particularly in the first two pieces for the brass and percussion sections, the audience was able to see how much work goes into playing those instruments. Between the bright red faces and clear lack of breathing time, it was apparent that the brass and percussion sections do much more than hide in the back of the stage on a more traditional concert night.

After intermission, the audience quickly shuffled to their seats in anticipation of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. The performance began with the famous bassoon solo, pure in sound and full of melancholy and sorrow. Symphony Hall quickly filled with the piece’s characteristic asymmetrical rhythms and dissonant chords. The conductor was perhaps the biggest indication of the hard work and emotion thrown into the performance. Maestro Giancarlo Guerrero gave one of the most sensual performances I have ever seen — absolutely full of movement. At certain points, it was as if he was listening to a rock band, shacking his head back and forth. He transitioned from flowing continuous movements to strict beats, communicating with the entire stage and spreading his energy throughout the entire audience. Maestro Guerrero not only led the orchestra through the extremely difficult piece (both mentally and physically), but also took the audience on a roller coaster ride through the vast and diverse emotions of the composition.

About 10 minutes into the performance, a chime — out of character, even for The Rite of Spring — interrupted the performance. I looked around to quickly realize that the fire alarm lights were flashing, and soon the entire hall, including the orchestra, sat and listened to the announcement instructing us to evacuate. Maestro Guerrero gracefully stopped the orchestra, although the perplexity was clear from the faces of him and all orchestra members. Within the crowd of concertgoers, I could feel a sense of urgency and nervousness, and in many ways, it was complete chaos before we were told that the concert would not resume.

It was a frustrating end to the BSO’s final performance of The Rite of Spring for the season. The abrupt disruption by the fire alarm, however, was strangely ironic: The premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in 1913 is often remembered for the utter chaos and rioting both inside and outside of the Paris Opera House. While the fire alarm was a more modern and tame version of this, it reminded me of what it must have been like to have such a masterpiece so abruptly arrested. Just as the orchestra had no power over the situation at the premiere, the musicians at this performance were forced to follow instructions and leave the stage, with no chance of winning the fight. As the musicians began to file out one by one, I couldn’t help but think: What was it really like at the inauspicious premiere of The Rite of Spring almost a century ago? In any case, Stravinsky’s masterpiece is certainly more understood and respected, and looked at as something that transformed the raw meaning of classical music. The Boston Symphony Orchestra made a brilliant effort at bringing the piece to life, and despite the rude interruption — or perhaps because of it — the performance strengthened my appreciation for it.

EE over 12 years ago

To be precise the premiere was held at Thtre des Champs-lyses.

Laurence Glavin over 12 years ago

It's odd that so far, the web sites for the two Boston papers have not reported on this occurrence.