For BSO opener, Mutter’s Mozart - and no baton
Last night, for the first time in its history, the Boston Symphony Orchestra opened its new season without a conductor on the podium of Symphony Hall. Where a conductor might have stood was the German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, who performed two Mozart Violin Concertos with the orchestra.
Both violin and piano soloists frequently choose to lead and perform Mozart concertos without the participation of a conductor, and Mutter herself has done so all over the world. But for the BSO to place a conductorless program as the opener of its first season without an official music director seemed a symbolic choice as well. It was certainly visually stark, as the stage looked unusually large and open with only Mutter and a small orchestra gathered around her. The BSO’s dramatically reduced forces - a nod to the orchestras used in Mozart’s days - only added to the effect.
As public ritual, which is a big part of opening night, the concert seemed a success, with the hall bustling beforehand and a large crowd giving her a warm ovation at the evening’s close. But artistically speaking, I wish I had more positive things to say about Mutter’s Mozart interpretation. As violin concertos go, these pieces are relatively simple to play – No. 3 is often assigned to teenage students - and yet extremely difficult to play well. Truly world-class Mozart interpreters will have a carefully worked-out sound world in mind for each piece, and a profound sense of the music’s underlying rhetoric, that is, the language of tension and release that unlocks Mozart’s phrases and allows them to unfold as statements of great eloquence and often subtle but deep emotion.
Throughout the night, Mutter played warmly, accurately, and with all due brio, but often without bringing across the full dimensions of the music’s poetry and pathos, its elegance and charm. Her tone in the Concerto No. 3 at times seemed arbitrarily strident, and her choices of phrasing in the Concerto No. 5 too often imposed from above rather than drawn up through the music itself.
The best argument for playing these works without a conductor is that the soloist and orchestra can communicate directly, without an intermediary. Yet while the BSO played well, the magical moments of chamber music one might hope for with such intimate forces were few and far between.
Given the cheering that greeted her, all this was clearly a minority opinion. Mutter rounds out her survey tomorrow night, with the Concertos Nos. 1, 2, and 4.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.