James Levine’s lamentably long and continuing absence from public performances gave New Yorkers an opportunity to hear Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons at work with the Boston Symphony at Carnegie Hall, conducting the Mahler Ninth Symphony. Nelsons recently led the New York Philharmonic in the Shostakovich Fifth, and is now conducting Tchaikovsky’s “Pique Dame” at the Met, which institution prefers the title “Queen of Spades” – a possibly confusing moniker in this multi-faceted town.
A New York Times critic found the Boston Symphony during the concert “for the most part … not … sounding its best”, and experienced the performance as “almost a touch too loud”. Toward the end of the 80-plus-minute symphony, “in contrast to the general hubbub, the strings produced moments of glorious quietude, which fades from quieter to quietest. … But in moments of comparative stillness in the first movement, where other instruments were playing around the strings, those instruments stole attention,” much the way ill-chosen words can spoil an otherwise fine passage of writing.
More than (not “over”) 20 years ago, I attended a rehearsal and performance of the same piece in the same hall, in the company of the same critic (both of us were then in other jobs). Herbert von Karajan was leading “his” Berlin Philharmonic. I’d wager that The Critic, like me, was thinking of those performances the other night, while the Boston Symphony played. I enjoyed the Nelsons performance more than The Critic did, not least because of many of the effects Nelsons elicited (or did the orchestra offer them on its own?) by using beautifully delicate finger-gestures. Of course The Critic is paid to criticize, and I (a non-professional) pay to attend (and enjoy, or not) the concert, as well as to read his review. In this case I enjoyed a great deal about the performance of this long and complicated piece, which Mahler himself, alas, never heard; I’ve heard perhaps 25 times in my life and count this as one of the fine ones. Lucky me.