March 18, Saturday | Bernard Haitink and BSO | Boston, MA


For my inaugural blog entry, I’m going to focus on the classic, and you can’t beat the “Haydn + Beethoven” combo. Coincidentally this is also the program for the concert I just came back from at the BSO. In fact, this is the first time I got to sit on the balcony, also very luckily in the center first row. Finally I was able to people-watch from above with a view of the orchestra level and the whole orchestra, especially the percussion dude sitting at the very back of the stage (hi there!). I’ve been a little perked up about today’s program, Haydn/Beethoven/Debussy with Bernard Haitink. Last season I heard Haitink’s Mahler 1 with the BSO (and Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto with the brilliant Murray Perahia). Having only relocated to Boston not for long, I was thrilled to hear Haitink’s Mahler live for the first time last spring. In my memory Haitink is most well known for his ultra-slow interpretation of the Adagietto from Mahler 5. With the Berlin Phil, Haitink managed to drag this piece out into a record-breaking 15-minute reverie. Oh my god it’s slow—but it has to be this slow! And hearing Haitink conduct one of my favorite Mahler movements—the Trauermarsch from the First—was a real treat. Anyhow, despite the remnants of Stella, I decided to trek to the other side of the Charles in the still apocalyptic-looking New England late March evening for a guaranteed delightful musical offering at the Symphony Hall.

Sitting a bit farther away from the stage than I’m used to, I felt that the sound didn’t come out as clearly for the Haydn symphony. I always have this impression that in comparison to symphonic pieces from later periods, Haydn’s symphonies tend to sound like chamber music. They were composed for a more private and intimate setting, definitely not the stage in a modern-day concert hall. It seems as if our ears are also more used to the “monstrosities” of Mahler  (probably because of his influence on Hollywood soundtracks), so when Haydn comes along, we’d find it rather tame and unexciting. Therefore, when I was listening to the Haydn No.60 tonight, I was also trying to rearrange the stage setting in my head, imagining what it would have sounded had I been inside the grand sitting room of an 18th-century aristocratic home. No, it didn’t work. The Haydn symphony was pleasant but somehow not evocative enough for my taste—maybe that’s why it’s called il distratto? Or more likely perhaps, my ears were just born for enjoying music from a different era.

Following Haydn was Debussy. The three “Nocturnes” got the impressionistic qualities like a Monet painting, and I was not wrong. The title might be borrowed from Whistler’s paintings, as the program notes suggested. Aha, that Whistler in the Fogg was actually one of my favorite paintings, which depicted a serene lake at night soaked in blue. A similar version is on display at the MFA, although much darker. Isn’t it fun to think intermedially and interdisciplinarily? I remember the Austrian writer Hermann Bahr once compared the old painter with the new one in moving towards abstraction and visual perception. Debussy’s “Nocturnes” reminded me of the psychological aspect of Impressionism in capturing the “truth of the feeling”—or whatever that means.

During the intermission I was reading a book review related to my next paper. I had a moment of thrill when I discovered the connection between the protagonist of Schnitzler’s 1908 novel The Road into the Open and Gustav Mahler. Obviously! If you don’t know already, my world kind of revolves around this man. I shall most certainly spare you from the excruciating details, but this “discovery” possessed my brain throughout the second half of the concert—Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony It’s actually been a long while since I last heard this piece performed in full. Tonight the BSO delivered their Beethoven 7 with determination and brilliance, and under Haitink’s baton, the first movement was so uplifting almost to the verge of transcendence. The eighty-eight year-old (!!) Dutch maestro really is one of the very last conductors from the “old world.” Looking at his elegant moves on the stage brought to mind the old-fashioned European pianists like Rubinstein and Michelangeli—well-balanced sentimentality and reason, neither a touch over nor a touch under, always perfectly-calculated sophistication and dignity. Different from the Haydn symphony in the first half, Beethoven 7 came out more vividly to my balcony seat. I believe Beethoven’s symphonies are a perfect fit for the modern symphony hall, and even more so after tonight’s concert. No theatricality goes unobserved here. As for the music itself, I was waiting avidly for the famous second (relatively slow) movement, but Haitink somehow reserved his urge to slow it down further to a tempo I was more familiar with, thus making the music macabre and less assertive. This is also where my Mahler fantasy encroached on the Beethoven in reality. Upon hearing the theme of the Allegretto I thought I was identifying the source of inspiration for the opening scene in Mahler’s Eighth Symphony Part 2. That is probably just my own fantasy, but I allowed myself to indulge in it a bit longer: what if Mahler really borrowed Beethoven’s famous ostinato and turned it into those eerie steps lost in the woods? After all, this A minor movement was meant to be a mournful dance, the steps of which were also wobbly-sounding and tentative, almost Dantesque. In this “epiphanic” moment, I thought I almost caught the Mahlerian tendency in Beethoven’s transition to his late style. And I knew I must be delirious. Yet my fantasy didn’t stop there. The dance-like rhythm of the Seventh was picked up also by Mahler, unmistakably. If Beethoven used dance as a rhythmic base for this piece, then Mahler’s ironic appropriation of Waltz in the Trio of his own Seventh, composed almost a century later, would turn out to be no grand invention after all. Already the Trio of Beethoven 7 was unstable, perhaps reflecting the composer’s own debilitating health at that time. I’d say the musical materials were coherent only to a certain extent, and at times they were on the edge of breaking into pieces—this fragmentary quality is definitely no stranger to Mahler’s symphonic writing.

In Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony another noticeable element was repetition. The third movement was neurotically rewinding itself, and the last movement, too, was repetitive and even more unstable than the previous one. Haitink did a marvelous job controlling the uncontrollable—the hysteria of a neurotic Beethoven, if I may. Haitink managed to keep both “allegro” and “brio” of the music with a touch of sarcasm. Premiered in 1813 for the celebration of the Congress of Vienna, this “later” Beethoven symphony  was meant to be anti-heroic and therefore ironic. As the music returned to the bright A major Haitink in all seriousness infused a sense of doubt into this militaristic and ceremonial “pomp and circumstance.” Haitink used the overly disciplined and speedy theme to turn Beethoven’s music into another extreme, making it unsettling and self-doubting. My brain wasn’t able to catch up with the fury of the last movement or to form a coherent opinion on the whole symphony at all before Haitink concluded the piece with utmost self-possession. It was well worth a standing ovation, I tell you. As for the rest of the night, I’ll sink back into my fantasy, perhaps in the old Schnitzlerian fashion: “How do you like this music, Herr Mahler?”

Concert Program:

Haydn, Symphony No.60 in C, “Il Distratto”

Debussy, “Nocturnes”

Beethoven, Symphony No.7 in A, Opus 92

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