It’s a special treat to get a behind-the-scenes look at one of the world’s most beloved orchestras by attending one of its rehearsal sessions and listening to how its members collectively work to bring a composer’s score to life. Every summer, at the Tanglewood Music Center in Lenox, MA., (the idyllic summer home to the Boston Symphony Orchestra “BSO” www.bso.org), there are many opportunities to join enthusiastic audiences (frequently accompanied by squawking blue jays from Tanglewood’s towering pine trees) to attend an early morning rehearsal session of the BSO under the roof of their storied Koussevitzky Shed.
In one such rehearsal, held on a serene summer morning on July 23rd at Tanglewood, the BSO was joined by Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena and young German violinist, Veronika Eberle, (making her BSO debut) in a performance of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4. This prancing and delectable piece has produced many wonderful recordings. A few favorites are: Andrew Manze with The English Concert [harmonia mundi CD; www.harmoniamundi.com] (audiophile quality with a lithe, up front perspective);
Violinist Pamela Frank joined by conductor David Zinman and the Tonhalle Orchester Zurich [Arte Nova CD] (another audiophile gem with a more distant perspective and with a deeper soundstage and tonal richness to Frank’s instrument).
Mozart explores all of the danceable qualities of the solo violin in this infectious piece and at the Tanglewood rehearsal, Eberle (dressed in informal jeans and tee shirt) played her violin with her eyes closed, swaying and lifting up on her tip-toes as she danced to each of Mozart’s sweet melodies.
Sitting right under her violin (she plays the “Dragonetti” Stradivarius made in 1700) was a treat: Eberle’s tone was sweet and ethereal – soft and whispery one moment and boisterous the next. She possessed an uncanny lightness and clarity to her violin tone and she utilized this gift to mine each interstitial detail in the music. For instance, in the soft second movement, her violin produced a gentle delicacy that lit up Mozart’s soft steps along his lyrical path with crisp definition and a sureness of phrase. In the brisk singing final movement, Eberle’s playing produced relaxed playful runs in sweet and radiant fashion (as she rose up on her tip-toes at each crescendo) bursting with delicate staccato runs up to the whispering top of her instrument- all in glorious service to Mozart’s soaring melodies.
At the end of the rehearsal of the Mozart, Mena asked Eberle whether at a particular “Bar #37” in the score, an upbeat was needed to be heard more forcefully in the orchestra. The orchestra played and worked on this particular passage several times, making sure that the punctuated upbeat was given its pronounced weight (with BSO members noting this with pencils on their individual scores). At another point, Eberle and Mena discussed what they thought Mozart meant by his use of a “dot” notated in the score over a group of notes in “Bar #144.”
Eberle opinioned that Mozart meant that this group of notes should be played with elongation, as opposed to short, staccato strokes. Alexander Velinzon, (the BSO’s first violinist for this particular performance), then played the notes with Eberle in the fashion she suggested to see how this would compliment Eberle’s solo part. Their final run-through was a collective thing of beauty: Eberle’s supremely assured flow on her violin was cushioned on a layer of soft flowing violin and low string sounds, echoing each of Eberle’s lustrous steps on her singing violin.
After Eberle departed the rehearsal stage to raucous applause, the BSO and Mena rehearsed one of the great odes to Nature’s splendor – (particularly appropriate for this gorgeous summer morning at Tanglewood) Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral”. Here too, Mena and the BSO worked in rehearsal to hone their creative vision of Beethoven’s colorful canvass of sounds, melodies and harmonies.
For instance, at “Bar 479” in the first movement, Mena pointed out that he wanted “more surprise” in the strings by heightening the volume from “mezzo forte to forte” on one of Beethoven’s sunny passages. Likewise, in a later section, Mena suggested that the bass strings and cellos emphasize (with more deliberation to their bowing and slower pacing) the bellows from their deep repeating notes to conjure up Beethoven’s suggested image of a thunderstorm.
To hear a good slice of all the magnificent orchestral sweep of colors and sounds that Beethoven provides in his Sixth Symphony, I suggest a listen to the monumental vinyl recording of Bruno Walter leading the Columbia Symphony [on Columbia Masterworks; MS 6012]. This was one of my mentor, Harry Pearson’s, favorite LP’s, and it is glorious from its first groove to last. The recording delivers tremendous dynamic presence; vivid tones and textures and it captures the soundstage and sweep of a full orchestra almost to the real thing – live – if your audio system is up to the task.
Another treat at the Tanglewood summer season, (in addition to being able to attend open rehearsals at the Koussevitzky Shed), is the chance to hear ensembles of BSO members perform in “Prelude Concerts” shortly before many BSO full performances. On July 22nd, one of these fascinating Prelude Concerts involved a group of BSO woodwind members performing French composer Jean Francaix’s (1912-1997) Wind Quintet No. 1 in the confines of the quicksilver acoustic of famed Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood.
This was a live performance of great humor, frolic and lightness of spirit. Each roar of Rachel Childers’ horn; each scamper of Michael Wayne’s clarinet and fleeting flute call from Elizabeth Ostling was heard crisp and natural in Ozawa’s sterling acoustic. The final movement, (a frenzied march in cockeyed rhythmic fashion), was a comic blast: quick slicing and dicing by a flying flute, oboe and clarinet followed by horn belches and Richard Ranti’s bassoon hitting its deepest, reediest core. All of this unpredictable action ended in an upturned note, like a musical quip, hung to linger in Ozawa’s deep air.
A new recording by the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, (“Chamber Players”) [BSO Classics CD] in performance of Serenades by Brahms and Dvorak, beautifully captures this same kind of stellar musicianship and vivid emotional communication that was heard at Ozawa Hall in the Prelude Concert by BSO woodwind members. This new recording involves different BSO woodwind ensemble players (joined by BSO string players and pianist Randall Hodgkinson) and it is recorded in Symphony Hall rather than a smaller venue (an interesting recording choice that highlights a small ensemble playing in a deep and expansive airy acoustic).
From the first calls from James Sommerville’s horn (deep in the soundstage) to open Brahms’ “Serenade No. 1”, there is an outpouring of warmth and gracious sound that instills this performance. In each silence, you can hear the sprawling empty space of Symphony Hall, lending air and resonance to each individual call from Elizabeth Rowe’s soaring flute and the deep plucks of Edwin Barker’s double bass.
When the group coalesces into Brahms’ beautiful melodic surges or awaits William Hudgins’ piquant clarinet calls, the ensemble ebbs and flows as one working unit. The Brahms piece moves from the winding contemplation of the Second Movement (with beautiful sway from Steven Ansell’s viola and Haldan Martinson’s second violin) to the contemplative “Adagio” where each individual instrument is allowed its own space and time to contemplate the theme, cushioned in the embrace of its partnered instruments’ glow. The “Minuetto” reminds a little of the crispness of the Francaix, (with Richard Svoboda’s bassoon pumping crisply away in all its wooden glory) and in the final “Scherzo” and “Rondo” the ensemble is in full swing: moving in expansive dance, full of surging colors, fleet runs and big horn pronouncements. Image dimensionality on this recording is stunning: close your eyes and you should be able to follow each musician’s artistry in their natural (airy) stable position seated next to one another on the stage of Symphony Hall.
Dvorak’s Octet Serenade is performed by the Chamber Players on this new recording with equal panache and vigor, exhibiting great collective sparkle, ravishing instrumental textures and an interplay that flows with dynamic ease. Dvorak’s singing melodies in his “Tempo di Valse” are captured in full flight as they are sung first by Lowe’s expressive violin; then passed along to the other woodwinds and then ending in the reflecting pool of Hodgkinson’s shimmering piano.
The beauty here, as in the other movements of the Dvorak, is that each player combines their own animated playing with the collective in such a natural flight that one can admire the individual mastery of tone and color and yet also marvel at the overall collective spirit and architecture displayed, as each musical line flows naturally into the next. The connections that these musicians make with each other are uncannily synchronous and interwoven. From the sweet “Larghetto” (launched on solo piano and slowly winding strings and staccato woodwinds) to the final bursting “Allegro”, this is music of reinvention and renewal that is special indeed for its display of musicianship and collective spirit captured on a bracing, glowing new recording.
UPCOMING BSO CONCERT TIPS:
To get a chance to hear the BSO perform the splendor of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony in another open rehearsal session, put on your calendar March 23, 2017, when the BSO will host an Open Rehearsal at Symphony Hall where the Sixth Symphony will be rehearsed. For more information on all BSO Open Rehearsals in the upcoming concert season, check www.bso.org.
For a full schedule of the BSO’s upcoming 2016-2017 concert season at Symphony Hall, (starting with their opening night gala concert on September 24th), see www.bso.org. Highlights include upcoming concerts by cellist Yo-Yo Ma; composer Thomas Ades; Music Director Andris Nelsons conducting several Brahms programs with guest artists and an appearance by singer Renee Fleming.