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Boston Symphony Orchestra

200th Anniversary of Robert Schumann

November 19, 2010

On November 19, the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) performed an all-Schumann concert featuring the composer’s first and fourth symphonies and piano concerto, with soloist Nelson Freire and guest conductor Kurt Masur.

Arriving at Symphony Hall with ten minutes to spare, my friend Sarah and I were disappointed to find that our BSO College Card tickets situated us at the rear of the hall on the first floor. Then about five minutes into the first movement of Schumann’s Symphony No. 1, I was dozing.

It wasn’t entirely the orchestra’s fault. Thanks to a deluge of schoolwork, I’d been sleeping no more than five hours a night for over a week, so my state of mind was one that could transform this symphony, intended to depict scenes of springtime, into bedtime music. Still, the first five minutes of the performance failed to dazzle. The strings weren’t tightly together in sixteenth-note runs; the trumpets sounded like flat blats. Furthermore, the orchestra seemed to be playing within a limited dynamic range: everything was muted, hovering between mezzo-piano to mezzo-forte.

The quality of what I heard may have been an unfortunate consequence of our location, as it turns out. Sarah remarked during the applause that the BSO usually sounds better, and that we might be in an acoustical dead spot. The woman to our right, perhaps overhearing this, stood up, squeezed past us, and darted to an open seat about twenty-five rows closer to the stage. Sarah and I stayed in our seats, a little dejectedly.

Luckily, we were about to be saved by Nelson Freire. Friere, who was born in Brazil and studied in his home country and in Vienna, began his international career in 1959, but this was the first time I’d heard of him or heard him play.

Right from the opening theme of the Schumann piano concerto, I was captivated by Freire’s phrasing. He took the theme a bit more slowly than several other renditions I’ve heard of this piece, and it was more romantic and endearing. The phrasing felt unhurried, though he sometimes rushed musically up to a climax, then lingered on that point of inflection. Most of all, it struck me that Freire consistently ended his phrases with care.

It’s a bit strange to say this, but I trusted him to deliver a thoroughly enjoyable performance. I felt I could sit back and enjoy the ride without having to worry about any stray ugliness, because he played with such natural musical intuition. And surprisingly, from where we were sitting, the piano’s notes carried clearly, as did melodies in the oboes and clarinets. While the strings still sounded muted, this was less of an issue in this piano concerto. The orchestra also played better during the concerto than during the symphony. When they echoed the soloist, the phrasings mirrored Freire’s sensitive ones.

In the calm second movement, as the melody was passed smoothly from the celli to the violins, moving and stalling, stretching and contracting in accordance to Freire’s playing, the orchestra breathed as one living organism, with Freire as its heart. The movement continued attacca —meaning, without pause—into the lively third movement. Despite the vigor of the piece, Freire played cleanly, with a tone that was elegant, never banging.

Freire was a dignified figure at the keyboard, sitting pertly, with just the right amount of expressive movement. No fancy Lang-Lang-esque showmanship, just his hands and fingers moving most of the time, with an occasional swift swipe of the air with an arm to punctuate the end of a passage or to emphasize particularly accented notes, accompanied sometimes by a smart jerk of his head.

The audience rose for a standing ovation at the end of performance. As I clapped, I hoped he’d return to the BSO again next year. Indeed, he’s soloed with the BSO several times since 1999, so chances are good.

Sarah and I left after the piano concerto, missing Schumann’s Fourth Symphony. We thought it wouldn’t be worth it to stay for an orchestra piece, with the off-putting muted sound. Besides, I had to finish a few assignments and sleep... and I knew I’d rather not do either in Symphony Hall.