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Boston Symphony Orchestra
Tanglewood: Koussevitzky Music Shed
July 17, 2009

During the summer, the Boston Symphony Orchestra performs in bucolic western Massachusetts in the Tanglewood Music Festival — essentially a concert series on steroids of mostly classical music. A couple of weeks ago, I made the pilgrimage for a night of Mozart and Mahler. I was shaken.

The program, conducted by Music Director James Levine, consisted of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, featuring Leon Fleisher, and Mahler’s Symphony No. 6, dubbed the “Tragic.” The two pieces could hardly differ more: celebratory Mozart in stark contrast with brooding, death-centric Mahler. Fleisher convincingly performed the piano concerto, beautifully phrasing its aria-like melodies, though occasionally, I found myself wishing for more nuance. Perhaps the partially outdoor concert hall and stormy weather were to blame. For instance, the beginning of the cadenza in the first movement sounded rushed rather than lively, and at times, the last movement could have benefitted from more sprightliness and further contrast in dynamics.

Fleisher has built his sterling reputation mostly on his teaching after focal dystonia cut short his promising performance career in the 1950s. The neurological condition took over his right hand, causing involuntary muscular contractions and twisting. In his thirties at the time, he had already made several recordings that are still considered benchmark interpretations to this day. Recent medical technology has given Fleisher use of his right hand again, and his Mozart rendition showed he could still charm the audience despite a decades-long hiatus from two-handed playing. The orchestra, as usual, provided sensitive support, especially when it echoed or doubled the pianist’s lines.

Whereas Mozart rejoices, Mahler broods. The ominous march in the opening of his Symphony No. 6 indicated it would wrestle with complex matters, those of life and death, and particularly, fate. It is the only Mahler symphony to end in minor, and throughout the final movement, a total of three hammer strikes occur, which according to Mahler, represent “the blows of fate.”

Levine led the orchestra in a relentless performance, one that sounded as if unknown forces were immediately in our presence. Transitions between emotions were masterful, as demonstrated in the first movement when heavy treading, quiet contemplation, and an outburst of strings, was handled with aplomb in the span of less than two minutes.

My only qualm about the concert regards the decision to play these two pieces back-to-back, a decision I found had an unsettling. Perhaps Levine meant to provoke insight, or to underscore the relative merits of the pieces by contrasting pieces of such varying natures.