Last Sunday's spectacular Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) concert on the Boston Common surprised no one. This free performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony on the genteel Boston Common was a fitting tribute to BSO conductor Seiji Ozawa, whose 25th year with the orchestra it celebrated.
Maestro Ozawa's contribution to the orchestra, to Boston, and even to the modern classical music world are unparalleled on today's music scene. In 25 years he has brought a broader symphony repertoire to a larger audience and ceaseless energy and grace to an art form many consider dead. Nothing short of Sunday's enormous concert--an outreach in itself--should have been considered to celebrate the Maestro's extraordinary contributions.
There was, of course, only one piece the orchestra could perform. Beethoven's Symphony Number Nine is everyone's favorite symphony, number one on the top classical music hits of all time, the symphony with the tune everyone hums walking down the street. The Symphony remains a universal favorite for building dedications and celebrations of every stripe. It is said that it is not only Beethoven's best work, but the height of the genre--a piece that simultaneously refined and redefined the symphony.
These words are not written sarcastically: to deny the greatness of either Seiji Ozawa or Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is both blasphemous and futile.
So it is with remarkably few expectations that one could attend Sunday's much-heralded performance. The crowd packed on the Boston Common resembled the crowd that assembles each year for the Boston Pops' Fourth of July performance at the Hatch Shell or a Red Sox game. One hundred thousand people in shorts and T-shirts stood on walkways or sprawled on lawn chairs and beach towels in the uncommonly hot and humid weather. One might have expected to see Nine Inch Nails perform on the gargantuan stage instead of the Boston Symphony.
The 4 p.m. performance of Beethoven's Ninth was preceded by two excellent performances--opening acts--that much of the crowd missed while milling around and jockeying for perfect viewing positions. The first was a spirited performance of classical favorites--Verdi's Overture to The Force of Destiny, Bach's Air from Orchestral Suite No. 3, Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet, and Beethoven's Egmont Overture--by the Greater Boston Youth Symphony Orchestras under the direction of David Commanday. The youth orchestra's performance was exuberant and technically sound; they played with a finesse one might not have expected to hear from a youth orchestra. The youth orchestra was followed by a soulful performance by the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. Their treatment of three spirituals was excellent; "Ride the Chariot" especially sparkled. As lovely as these performances were, though, they are not the reason the throngs flocked to the Common.
The fanfare began with a thoughtful and fitting video tribute to Seiji Ozawa's life and legacy Boston mayor Thomas Menino good-naturedly fumbled his tribute to the maestro, mispronouncing his name and misnaming the chorus. Finally, before the Symphony began, Boston Pops Conductor Keith Lockhart and Pops laureate conductor John Williams led the BSO in the "Star Spangled Banner" and "America the Beautiful." Their presence was not previously announced, but would have been sorely missed.
The only surprise of the afternoon was the absence of the honoree, Maestro Ozawa himself. He had been seriously ill all week--so sick that he could not conduct even conduct opening night at the Symphony on Wednesday. He would appear to conduct the fourth movement only. Brand-new assistant conductor Federico Cortese received the brunt of this surprise. Sunday's command performance was his first with the BSO, and with Beethoven's Ninth and an audience of 100,000 on the Boston Common is more than any conductor should expect in a lifetime, not to mention the first day.
Starting with the downbeat of the first movement of the symphony, though, critique becomes superfluous. Under Cortese's expert, if nervous, direction, the orchestra sailed confidently through the misty opening, the playful hints of the "Ode to Joy" theme to come, the fiery and furious scherzo, the graceful sweeping themes in the violins, the lyrical woodwind solos. The opening movements were filled with as much mystery and grandeur and promise as they ever were.
Ozawa arrived on stage early--early enough, in fact, to take the podium for the third movement as well as the fourth. The audience thundered applause, and paused the symphony for several grateful minutes. Ozawa's direction of the third "slow" movement and the final movement was much more luxurious than Cortese's probably would have been; Ozawa somehow hovered over the orchestra, distilling each phrase into crystalline clarity and infusing his boundless energy into the performers. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus and superb cast of soloists carried the "Ode to Joy" theme to breathtaking heights of expression, and the audience, riveted, thrilled in every moment.
The symphony ended, the spell broke and all of the annoying inconveniences brought upon by the confluence of large crowd in the middle of a large city sprung to reality. People grumbled that the location was horrible, the metallic stage looked suddenly gaudy and the exodus of the sweaty masses to the T squeezed the exhilaration of the afternoon into a distant, if pleasant, memory. Yet it was in the midst of this assembly of humanity at its most human that art at its most transcendent was given life. The touching imperfection of the spectacle somehow subsided in the presence of the great symphony whose unaffected beauty had never rung truer.