I cannot remember the last time I heard the Boston Symphony Orchestra live, but it must have been while I was still at Harvard. It stagnated for three decades under Seiji Ozawa and James Levine who succeeded Ozawa simply was not in good enough health to do anything about it but lingered for seven years before finally stepping down. So the appointment of the dynamic young Latvian Andris Nelsons at the start of the last season marked a hopeful turn. Nelsons has rightfully reached star status in his visits to Vienna, so can he achieve the same in Boston to restore this orchestra?
I must say the jury (I suppose I am the jury here) is still out, from an unrepresentative sample: Mahler’s Sixth Symphony in Salzburg’s Large Festival House tonight. Historically, this orchestra has been the smallest of the US “Big Five” orchestras, and therefore excelled more at the smaller symphonic works. This is a big work: how could a normally smaller orchestra handle it? The orchestra pulled Mahlerian forces on stage for it, so the sound was big enough. But it lacked warmth and fullness. The playing was of a high quality, and quite together, but something was missing. When solo instruments had exposed lines, they played them well, but a certain virtuosity lacked. While symphony orchestras need to blend, the best ones blend individuals – thinking of how the principals of the Philadelphia Orchestra, for example, overwhelm the listener with their skill when presented the chance. Not this orchestra tonight.
Nelsons took a slightly unusual interpretation of this symphony, treating it not as disaster befalling a hero, but rather as the hero trying with all his might to enjoy life despite impending doom. So the music playfully danced, jumped, and soared, as destructive fate all the while loomed. Mahler wrote this symphony with three devastating hammer blows in the final movement, and later decided that the third one was too depressing even for him. So he suggested removing it. Nelsons followed Mahler’s second-thought recommendation, and so we only got two hammer blows tonight. The result of this was an almost optimistic conclusion by comparison. Maybe the hero will survive despite the tragedy of the world.
The orchestra responded to Nelsons, and the quite good playing drew out his interpretation yet lacked something – they played as he directed them, but did they know what they were playing? This is notoriously the most difficult of Mahler’s symphonies to understand (it took me years – I don’t think I really got it until about ten years ago). Nelsons gets it; I am not sure the BSO does – yet. Give them some more time with Nelsons.