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Boston Symphony Orchestra’s classical score gives cultural value to the past and future

The Boston Symphony Orchestra is lead by music director Andris Nelsons.

Steven Senne/AP file

The Boston Symphony Orchestra
Roy Thomson Hall
Sunday, March 05, 2017

On Saturday night in Roy Thomson Hall, we were exposed to the value of the new in classical music, as the Toronto Symphony Orchestra's New Creations Festival made an auspicious and challenging start.

On Sunday, thanks to the Boston Symphony Orchestra, its music director, Andris Nelsons, and pianist Emanuel Ax, we were exposed to the value of the old. The world of classical music is vital and necessary to our culture, because both its past and future are equally relevant to our present.

In a way, the entire argument for the strength of our Western musical tradition can be made on the basis of Emanuel Ax's hands, and the brain and heart they're connected to. Ax was performing an early Beethoven Piano Concerto, his first, actually (although we call it No. 2 because of its publication order). It's a youthful, exuberant work, and Ax spared us nothing of the boyishness of Beethoven's early writing.

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But he did it with so much compassion, so much resigned beauty, a traversal of a classic such as an elder of another culture might perform a central tribal ritual. Ax's playing, so full of grace and understanding, is the essence of what we call a culture, a body of shared wisdom and truth that is neither flashy nor showy, but deep and full. Like that of old blues guitarists, still active and wise in their later years.

As I listened, I thought of Ax, born in the Ukraine, immigrating to Winnipeg early in life, ending up New York, knitting together a lifetime of musical and personal observations, and distilling them for us in a piece more than 200 years old, part of a tradition greater than any of us, but still alive in his hands. His art is the essence of cultural decency, and if you don't think that is a vital social attribute, turn on the TV these days to see what it looks in a society when it's no longer there. It looks desperate.

Andris Nelsons's cultural strength is of a different order. Where Ax has worn his musical objects to a fine, burnished glow, Nelsons and the Boston Symphony are about sheen, sleekness, precision and exactitude. You could hear a bit of the dissonance between the two worlds in Nelsons's accompaniment to Ax's Beethoven, but the full rush of the BSO sound and power was exhibited in ther exhilarating performance of the Symphonie fantastique by Hector Berlioz. Nelsons's power begins in his brain, with his painstaking approach to a very familiar, often overfamiliar, score. Were there 100 new things I heard in the Symphonie fantastique on Sunday afternoon? Two hundred? A thousand?

And not just novelty for its own sake – Nelsons has the gift of making every note in the score seem absolutely meaningful and absolutely necessary. And he's not afraid to let you hear every one of his discoveries. He is a wonderful conductor on the podium, acting out the music he is conducting rather than simply leading a performance of it.

At one point in the Symphonie he traced out a stuttering line that's being played by the bassoons – but he traced it out for the entire orchestra, in a great sweep. They weren't playing this music; they didn't need to be led to perform it properly. But Nelsons wanted them to know that the bassoons were the essence of the score at that juncture – he wanted them to see that in his body.

And, needless to say, the Boston players responded with sharpness and intensity to his leadership. Waves of sound, perfectly balanced, conceived and executed, radiated from the Boston musicians. We in Roy Thomson Hall heard what a first-rate orchestra can achieve with clarity of purpose, hard work and superb execution.

If there was a flaw in this streamlined perfection, it was in the sleekness itself. One ached somehow to find a middle ground, where Ax's dazzling gemutlichkeit and Nelsons's genial pyrotechnics found a perfect meeting place. Music needs heart, or else all its power is wasted. But its enduring power makes it a continuing presence in the world. The BSO concert made an argument for the old, dead, white-man school of Western musical culture, and not a bad one. At its highest level, that culture has more to offer us than we may think.

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