Andris Nelsons and Boston Symphony Happily Return to Symphony Hall

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Monday October 4, 2021

A bit after 8 pm on September 30, members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra quietly took their place on the Symphony Hall stage; as they did, the audience rose and cheered in a prolonged ovation. That enthusiasm carried over when the BSO's music director, Andris Nelsons,†consecrated (literally) the hall with a spirited performance of Beethoven's "Consecration of the House Overture" that made it clear that there is nothing like hearing an orchestra live, especially one as fine as this one. The overture also had a special place in the orchestra's history, having been performed at the orchestra's first performance in 1881, and at various occasions over its history.

And this concert was an occasion, if only for logistics of reopening the nearly 3000-seat auditorium to a sold-out audience under COVID guidelines. With the will-call line running down Massachusetts Avenue just minutes prior to the concert's start, kudos to the staff for insuring a prompt start to the concert, whose length was largely padded with the frequent ovations and a longish intermission in which many audience members showed off their pandemic-era fashions, which was great fun to see.

Nelson left the stage after the Beethoven, and was replaced by soloist Anne-Sophie Mutter (stunning in a lemon yellow gown) and composer/conductor John Williams for the evening's main event: A performance of Williams' Violin Concerto No. 2, which he composed for Mutter and which had its world premiere at Tanglewood this past summer.

Williams, of course, has a long history on the Symphony Hall podium, having conducted the Boston Pops for 13 seasons; but those expecting the Williams they know from his movie scores, which has made him the most famous living composer in the world, were likely taken aback by the dense modernity of his score. Williams' musical language is rooted in mid-20th century serialism, not film music rooted in late 19th century Romanticism. Think Alban Berg, not Indiana Jones.

The work did, nonetheless, exhibit his masterful skills at orchestral sonics, echoing the big sound of his film scores at crucial moments. It is an inventive work — what other concerto can boast a conversation between the soloist and the tympanist? And has a generously written solo part, with what appears to be two cadenzas for Mutter to exhibit her prodigious skills. But, in some ways, it is difficult to evaluate such a thorny work on one hearing. What stays in the memory Mutter's furious playing in the second movement that acted as a counterpoint to orchestra's long phrases, and the work's conclusion, which appeared to bring it back to the mysterious sounds of its onset. But the work seemed to wander, and, aside from giving Mutter a most challenging solo part, never quite connected emotionally — most unusual for Williams, who has built his career on scores that do precisely that.

There was a touch of his film music when Mutter joined him for an encore — the lush love theme to the Robert Altman's Neo-noir "The Long Goodbye," which only left one wanting more.

The concert's second half offered a precise, dynamic performance of another work with a long association with the BSO — Béla Bartók's "Concerto for Orchestra." It was commissioned by Sergei Koussevitzky who conducted its premiere in 1945, and may be one of the most performed pieces in the orchestra repertoire. Bartok's point was to show off the virtuosity of the modern symphony orchestra, and the BSO delivered with measured, passionate performance that made one happy to again hear this first-rate orchestra in one of the most acoustically sound auditoriums in the world. The long evening was made even longer with the prolonged standing ovation at the conclusion, in which Nelsons shared his enthusiasm for the orchestra with the enthusiastic nearly full house.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].