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Currier, Beethoven, and Brahms

Boston Symphony Orchestra

Symphony Hall

October 8, 2015

The Boston Symphony Orchestra moves from strength to strength, following its successful season opener with another exceptional program — putting together a new composition by Sebastian Currier, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, and a particularly spellbinding rendition of Brahms’ Symphony No. 2.

Currier’s Divisions was co-commissioned by the BSO, the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, and the National Orchestra of Belgium in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of World War I. It premiered in April 2015 in Seattle and made its Boston debut last Thursday as the first Currier work to be performed by the BSO. As suggested by the title, Currier’s intention was to explore how the division between people — represented by the fragmentation of the orchestra by instruments, melody, rhythm, and so on — can lead to war, but also to human ingenuity and altruism.

The result was a beautifully thoughtful depiction of the nature of conflict. Sections of the orchestra started with distinctly separate melodies, which then began to overlap, then retreat, then overlap again, as if stumbling into misunderstandings that they were unsure how to proceed from. Soon these occasional conflicts erupted into an orchestra-wide cacophony, which then transitioned into one of the most rhythmic and uniform segments of the piece — perhaps mirroring the unfortunate rhythm humanity finds in seeking an eye for an eye.

Amidst this, a distinctly elegiac phrase soared over the rest of the orchestra, which then became the foundation of the piece’s melancholic second half. Again, it transitioned from isolated melodies to a unified one, but this time conjuring a shared mourning rather than anger. This ended with a series of sevenths leading to ephemeral eighths, highlighting an impending chaos underlying the tenuous peace. Poignantly, the piece finished without ever finding resolution.

The next piece was Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3, played by guest artist Lars Vogt. Vogt and conductor Andris Nelsons produced an interesting contrast of styles — Vogt is far more energetic where Nelsons is fluid — which in the first movement, proved somewhat problematic. The piano was in large part interwoven beautifully with the orchestra, but there were moments of asynchrony, where the melodies competed instead of enhancing one another. However the ensuing movements were flawless — with the second forcing both together into more languid territory, and the third, more spirited. The piece concluded with an enthusiastic standing ovation.

The final gem of the night was Brahms’ Symphony No. 2, which was an incredible display of Nelsons’ virtuosity as a conductor. The piece is one of Brahms’ more pastoral and positive works, but which he apparently wrote with a great deal of irony, referencing an idyll that has been lost or soon will be. Consequently, the symphony is much less a description of joy than it is a story of its triumph, which Nelsons carried his captive audience through. He has a unique way of structuring the music such that it is not so much the assembly of individual parts, but rather a continuous whole which he gently molds to expose different textures. The resulting experience is profoundly immersive, such that as the piece ended on its final triumphant measures, I released a breath I had not realized I was holding, and with it, tears of joy.