Before heading home, the BSO joyously plays the Proms
LONDON - The Boston Symphony Orchestra concluded its European tour and its 126th season on Friday evening with a memorably festive Proms concert here before a large crowd packed into the Royal Albert Hall. The night ended with warm applause and bursts of foot-stomping from the audience, until music director James Levine finally, once again, pulled concertmaster Malcolm Lowe off the stage as a signal that it was time to go home.
There is no American equivalent to the BBC Proms. What makes this enviable summer festival unique is the atmosphere of Royal Albert Hall, with its enormous auditorium that routinely seats some 6,000 people. On a full night, that number includes 900 "promenaders," who are packed into the open floor at the very center of the hall. They pay just 5 pounds to stand for the evening with a great view of the action, and more to the point, they bring a boisterous youthful energy to the whole affair, and an array of local traditions like crowd-singing at intermission. The entire spectacle called to mind a comment once made by the great Yiddish actress Bessie Thomashefsky to her young grandson, the future-conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. Referring to the cheap gallery seats in a theater, she apparently said, "Those are for the people who pay the least, but who love the show the most."
The program featured Elliott Carter's "Three Illusions," Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra and Brahms's First Symphony. But it was also, more generally, one last chance for the BSO to showcase the achievements and the renovated sound of the Levine era. That has been the essential purpose of the entire tour, and for this reason, Levine and the orchestra waited almost three full years before embarking overseas together, enough time for the changes to solidify. Levine may have also wished to put some distance between himself and his last experience in Europe as the conductor of the Munich Philharmonic, a relationship that yielded a mixed critical reception.
Regarding the Levine era at the BSO, most of the European critics, like their American counterparts, claimed to hear a big difference. One writer commented that the sound was "fresher, more European" than the orchestra's sound in the Ozawa era. Two other critics sensed a throwback to the weighty, luxurious sound that European orchestras used to cultivate in the 1980s - this coming at a time when many orchestras have now shifted in the other direction, toward a trimmer and more sculpted sound that reflects the mainstreaming of insights from the early music movement.
The critics in London seemed generally less impressed with the first of the two Proms concerts the BSO gave on Thursday night. The program was Berlioz's "Damnation of Faust." Pavarotti coverage unfortunately prevented me from attending this concert, but several London-based writers noted a lack of overarching drama in the Berlioz despite some glorious individual moments. "A curiously muted affair," summarized Tim Ashley in the Guardian.
The same could not be said for the following night's performance of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, the work of an ailing composer, movement by movement, reclaiming a will to live. Some may prefer a more eruptive or folk-flavored reading of this score, but under Levine's baton, the orchestra displayed superb finesse. The glossy surface to the sound was seldom broken, yet there was a smoldering core beneath the clean facades. Noteworthy solo contributions were too many to list but John Ferrillo on oboe, Cynthia Meyers on piccolo, and Thomas Rolfs on trumpet were among the standouts. Prior to the Bartok, the orchestra and Levine gave a rather loose-limbed final whirl to Carter's "Three Illusions," a trinity of reflections on misguided utopian dreams. Carter returns to the BSO schedule next season, with a premiere of his Horn Concerto.
Friday's formal program ended with a stirring and deeply felt reading of Brahms's First Symphony, a performance that seemed equal parts autumn and spring. A wistful tenderness infused the second movement, distilled into the dark honeyed tone of the strings, and the finale sang with a full-throated optimism, building with a heightened emotional intensity in the final pages. Two dances followed as encores, one Slavonic (by Dvorak) and one Hungarian (by Brahms). As the foot-stomping began, even some of the religiously straight-faced musicians in the orchestra could be seen looking slightly gleeful. Levine could be seen joining in the applause.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com.
(Correction: Because of an editing error, a photo caption accompanying a review of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Monday's Living/Arts section misstated the name of Royal Albert Hall in London.)