Notes on a Concert

Updated: Apr 16

The Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Andris Nelsons, Symphony Hall, Boston, January 28, 2020


1. You take the Number One bus to Symphony Hall. There are lots of empty seats.


2. Approaching on Massachusetts Avenue, you see a big illuminated sign saying 'BSO' and a tremor of excitement lights up inside you.


3. An exceedingly polite man wearing a black bow tie opens the door as you ascend the steps of the concert hall and welcomes you with a glowing smile. It doesn't seem at all affected.


4. The corridors of the hall are always studded with attractive people. Some are truly beautiful. Many you desire from afar. You either want them or want to be like them.


5. There is no rule about this, but somehow you feel obliged to dress up for the symphony. Most men wear a jacket and tie. Even students and the young look presentable.


6. A Stella Artois costs $6 at the O'Block/Kay Room Lounge on the first floor. They add an extra charge if you pay with a credit card.


7. There is a statue of Henry Lee Higginson, a bronze bust on a marble plinth. Underneath a plaque says, "Henry Lee Higginson, Founder and Sustainer of the Boston Symphony Orchestra."


8. An elderly gentleman, also dressed in a bow tie, attends to your coat at the cloakroom. This is a service provided free of charge.


9. The concert programmes are substantial and printed on fine paper with good quality ink. In other words, they don't smudge when you hold them like the Playbills do.


10. The seats are old but comfortable. They are padded with red velvet.


11. There are statues of the Greek gods lining the top of the auditorium. Fortunately sense has prevailed and, so far, the male gods have avoided being castrated or had their genitalia covered over with fig leaves.


12. With twenty minutes to go, a cellist, two violinists and a violist are warming up on stage for Shostakovich's string symphony. The double bass section is not represented. They are probably all at the players' bar back stage, discussing the NFL.


13. Lots of young people come to the symphony. There are a smattering of children, none too young, and a healthy array of adolescents. They come with their parents.


14. The venue is full to near capacity. There is always someone who arrives late and seems not to realise the affront this causes to other patrons who are more serious devotees of classical music or who just bothered to get there on time.


15. Andris Nelsons looks a great deal like Ricky Gervais.


16. Shostakovich wrote his 8th string quartet after a trip to Dreden. A compatriot called Rudolf Barshai adapted it for string orchestra. In it there are snippets of the theme from his first cello concerto.


17. The concert mistress looks like a strapping Russian or someone from the Baltic states. She probably isn't. She played a wonderful solo while the rest of the strings swelled around her. The principal cellist played a wonderful solo too.


18. Someone always rustles a sweet packet at the most inopportune moments, i.e. when there is a pianissimo passage. You would think they would at least have the gumption to time their interjection during a crescendo.


19. To their credit the stewards patrol the aisles discreetly and, like prefects granted power, tell patrons off who make a noise. Needless to say, they are seldom listened to.


20. Yefim Brofman played Beethoven's 4th Piano Concerto in G, Op. 58. He was stately, refined, static, consummate in every sense. You got the feeling he was not 'living on the edge' but then again Beethoven's 4th is not about showmanship but about textured control.


21. In 1808 Beethoven subjected his audience to a four hour concert premiering new work, including the 5th and 6th symphonies, the Choral Fantasia and the 4th piano concerto. He was nearly stone deaf. If anyone else did this, it could be considered the height of vanity, self-promotion and fecklessness. In Beethoven's case, he can arguably be excused.


21. At interval the bars are overcrowded. At the kiosk, a chocolate chip cookie costs $4. It is generous in size.


22. Subject to correction, the principal french horn player made an error in timing at the beginning of the second movement of Dvorak's New World 9th symphony. We are all human.


23. There is nothing as sublime as the full on blast of brass and timpani which blares out over the climbing winds and furious strings in the climaxes of the Dvorak. You sit there and let it wash over you and you know what glory is all about.


24. It is cold outside the concert hall at 22:30 on a January winter's night.


25. You take the Number One bus home. It is over-crowded and there are no empty seats at all.


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All original materials and texts - Neal Hovelmeier 
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