Big Jimmy Stands Up for the Sforzandos

Submitted by Andy on Thu, 02/08/2007 - 10:32

Tonight will be the first Thursday in a month that I won't be attending a BSO concert. (For free at least, a gentleman friend of mine is coming in for the weekend and we might go student rush.) They were good concerts both, clearly, and the Globe would do a better job of summarizing them for journalistic consumption. I will go the more bloggy route.


Both programs featured an even-numbered Beethoven symphony, oft numerologically maligned in the same manner as odd-numbered Star Trek movies. (Although one could have their opinions about Nemesis...) With such a historic bias, I'll admit that my lacking knowledge of classical symphonic works tended to skip over them. This is part of the continuing saga of my backwards musical education, I knew that Wagner wasn't down with the Eighth before I ever even heard it. The Sixth on the other hand, clearly is wuss music.

Two weeks ago was Sir Colin Davis pairing the sixth symphonies of Vaughan Williams and Ludwig van. Before I really delved into his works I often dismissed Vaughan Williams as being wuss music himself, but his sixth symphony is as close to a metal beatdown as I've ever heard traditional forces get. Beethoven's Sixth is wuss music, but after the VW it was goddamn necessary. Although the salient theme of the program fell short of revolutionary, both symphonies also played with the four movement expectation. VW had four proper movements but they were all attacca as most future minimalist onslaughts would be, but for all the smack that Beethoven 6 recieves the storm interlude is actually fiendishly clever. The program notes (written by one Jan Swafford) write off the storm as not a separate movement, retaining the four movement form and hence why I call it a interlude. I'll believe anything that man says. This subtle, or not since it might be the most bombastic Ludwig van gets, bridge is something I've totally missed when listening on CDs.

As an aside, the only recordings I have of the Beethoven symphonies is Claudio Abbado's set with Berlin from 2000. This set hits it like the Count rather than frog & dog style, so the even symphonies are placed after the more exhausting odd ones on each CD. I tend to zone out.

Last week was I my first time seeing Big Jimmy conduct, but I wasn't really sitting close enough to be able to analyze and hypothesize. Except for when he got out of his chair during the Coriolan overture. It was the penultimate concert of his Beethoven/Schoenberg throwdown, but it seemed like the program really built around Schoenberg's chilling Erwartung. As I said earlier, I have my issues with atonal song so the prospect of a one-act operatic monologue wasn't particularly appetizing. Entirely the opposite, the lack of musical memory in either direction allowed Schoenberg to employ a sort of mega-eXtreme madrigalism.

The various Beethoven was pretty good, but the audience reaction made me start to think that maybe classical music is dying. The average listener is told before going to the concert hall that they're suppose to adore Beethoven, and they are even reminded upon actually entering Symphony Hall. The BSO audience doles out encores like candy anyway, but the two callbacks after the overture were totally unneccessary. It's an overture guys, get back to the rock! The reaction following the Schoenberg was expectedly cooler, but the audience after the corresponding Beethoven scene and aria was totally rediculous. Deborah Voight clearly laid it out for the Schoenberg, "Ah! perfido" seemed a little airy and melodramatic after such a tour de force. But the people will do what they are told.

One of my friends here in Boston wrote a paper on the Eighth, and his recommendation combined with the previous week's solid case for the Sixth led me to actually look forward (!) to his oft-skipped symphony. It's a fun piece, and just as people know they are suppose to like Beethoven, they know that they don't want their Beethoven fun. The epic hallmark of great composers is the manipulation of expectation, and the defining moment (for me anyway) was a quick rainstorm of triplets in the second movement. All I wanted was a quick burst like that again, he gives us a fourth movement that is nothing but. What a jerk, no wonder everyone likes him.