An Enjoyable Combination of Education and Classical MusicBy Roy Esaki
Last weekend, artistic connoisseurs and children of all ages had their hearts warmed and souls lifted with an absolutely magical display of creative vision and artistic greatness. But Harry Potter is reviewed elsewhere, so consider those who attended one of the three Boston Philharmonic concerts and enjoyed a more edifying experience.
The concert featured Bach’s Cantata No 150, accompanied by the New England Conservatory Chamber Singers, Alan Berg’s Sieben frÜhe Lieder (Seven early Songs) featuring soprano soloist Margaret O’Keefe, and Brahms’ Fourth Symphony, as well pre-concert lectures by the conductor.
The eighty-seven member Boston Philharmonic was founded in 1979 by an assortment of students, amateurs, and professional musicians, along with the current director, Benjamin Zander, well-known as a Mahler conductor. What makes the Boston Philharmonic unique, in addition to its highly eclectic composition of professional and semi-professional members, is its mission to make its performances and classical music more accessible to the general public. With tickets starting from $16, the Philharmonic strives to enable anyone to attend its performances, and often redistributes unused tickets to local charities.
One of the most unique features of the Philharmonic is its Discovery Series, which feature Zander’s pre-concert lectures. During the performance, the conductor also explains each piece extensively to the audience before performing the piece. Although he seeks to educate the common layman, some familiarity with the basic concepts and terminology of music theory are necessary to fully understand his lectures.
Zander provided some historical and biographical context to the work, and pointed out similarities between pieces, such as the fact that Bach and Berg were both 22 years old when they composed their respective pieces, and Berg treated natural subjects as Bach had religious ones. Zander also explained some of the main musical devices and themes that the audience should be aware of. He explained that the theme of the final movement of the Brahms piece was taken from the passcaglia theme of Bach’s cantata, for example, and told the audience to hum the theme out loud, and had the orchestra play assorted fragments of the piece where the motif occurs. “I have a dream,” Zander mused before the Brahms symphony while talking about a particular passage, “I have a dream that when we get to that moment in the concert, everyone will say ‘aaahhh.’” I don’t think the audience groaned with pleasure, as far as one could tell.
For concertgoers desiring only to listen to music without distractions academic details, the often long-winded lectures may be aggravating. Less than half of the three-hour concert was spent listening to music performed, a disconcerting ratio for a time-conscious student (especially considering that the program notes often reiterated the points made during the lectures). Being told exactly what to listen to in the piece and why one should enjoy it also tended to make the concert seem more like a professor’s lecture during a music class than a recreational concert.
As for the quality of the performance itself, it was enjoyable. Margaret O’Keefe, the soprano who sung Berg’s leids, did have a powerfully emotional delivery, and the Bach cantata was sung with great control by the Conservatory singers. Of the three works, the orchestra treated the Brahms with greatest attention and finesse, appropriately corresponding to Zander’s claim that the Brahms’ Fourth Symphony was one of his top five favorite works.
The Boston Philharmonic’s next Discovery Series performances will take place February 21, 2002, and April 25, 2002. If you’ve always wanted to cultivate a more in-depth appreciation and understanding of classical concerts, these concerts are the perfect opportunity to do so, as long as you’re willing to embrace the lectures as an educational process.