The performers’ parts for Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, on the Boston
Symphony Orchestra’s music stands at the Music Center on Tuesday night, were
yellowed with respectable old age. They’re entitled; this was the orchestra,
after all, that gave the work its world premiere, on November 30, 1944, before
these very ears. (They then belonged to a second-balcony usher at Boston’s
Symphony Hall.)
To those ears, however, the historic relationship between the Boston Symphony
and Bartok’s autumnal masterwork has fallen on poor days. Under Seiji Ozawa’s
flamboyant but flippant direction the other night, Bartok’s exploration into
the personality of a great symphony ended up as merely an essay on how well the
Boston Symphony can perform. It was a performance that laid bare the subtle but
crucial difference between music-making and mere playing and came down,
unfortunately, on the wrong side.
The Boston Symphony plays very well, and always has. Its strings, even in an
unfamiliar and untried acoustical setting, have a burnished lustre superior to
the sound of any other American string section. Its winds are mellow virtuosi;
its brass can blow you out of your seat. And all of this has been known to come
together, now and then during the 18 years of Ozawa’s stewardship, in some
performances beyond reproach.
But Tuesday’s concert was the work of a tired orchestra under the command of a
leader in a rampaging mood. He led the orchestra on a cold-hearted dash through
Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony, with a few moments most accurately described as
vulgar. He gave the Bartok no warmth of feeling, no regard for the rich humor
of the work. He did somewhat better with the dear, lightweight “Semiramide”
Overture of Rossini, in which the woodwinds chirped most engagingly and the
music took on something close to a sense of spirit and momentum.
But those last were exactly the qualities lacking in the rest of the concert.
It’s seldom realistic to judge any orchestra on tour, especially when the
realities of touring don’t allow for proper testing of a hall’s acoustic before
concert time. But there were signs, even so, that the Boston Symphony is not,
these days, in pristine shape — a temporary affliction, let us pray. 30.