Last week I went to hear the Boston Symphony play Beethoven’s Third Symphony. The first half of the program—Gossec’s Symphonie à 17 Parties, Mozart’s Concerto for Harp and Flute—was also appealing, but I was really there for the Beethoven.
It used to annoy me to see such a predictable work on the program. Hadn’t everyone heard Beethoven’s Ninth and Shostakovich’s Fifth quite enough? It was no coincidence that I felt this way during the years when I planned on becoming a professional musician. I was well-accustomed to playing the usual warhorses, to the point where I felt tired of them even as a teenager. My friends and I thought the audiences who wanted to hear the same symphonies repeatedly must be philistines. We felt sorry for the musicians who were forced to play the same crowd-pleasers year after year, presumably because the conductors were just trying to sell seats.
Then I stopped playing and started working a day job, a job whose ordinariness would have horrified my teenage self. With barely enough time to write, let alone read, exercise, or listen to music, it became difficult to investigate composers who had always interested me. I never did get around to reading Gardiner’s new biography of Bach, or learning more about theory. All those annoying adults were right: It’s frightening, once you settle into a professional routine, how quickly life goes by. Years can pass and you don’t even realize it.
One interesting resultant change is that I now love hearing the predictables. As a teen, I looked down on Tchaikovsky’s Fifth, found it trite and cliché. Now I go to the symphony whenever it’s on the program. Ditto for Beethoven symphonies, Brahms, and all the embarrassingly typical choices of your average classical lover. Since I hardly have time to listen to these pieces on my own, hearing them in a concert hall is the ideal place to spend an hour hearing music without distraction. (The cost of concert-going also contributes to this behavior. Concerts are not cheap, and I like to know ahead of time that the splurge is for something I will enjoy.)
So enter Beethoven 3 last Tuesday night. I was really excited to hear it. The struggle, the magnitude, the exploded symphonic form. Quite frankly, after working in an office all day, your soul feels pretty stifled. I wanted Beethoven to make me feel again, to remind me that I was human.
Unfortunately, not long after François-Xavier Roth started conducting, it became clear that this rendition would be otherwise. While I appreciated the brisk tempo, the musicians played with little energy. They sounded tired, quiet, and bored. During the development, there are shocking dissonances that tear the harmonic fabric; these moments should be violent and searing. Instead they were played almost pleasantly, like the most ordinary music in the world.
The second and third movements were better, with exceptional solos by principal oboist John Ferrillo and a rousing trio soli in the horns. But the fourth movement was a mess. The string section was sloppy in several of the fugal sections. The rage of Beethoven’s variations gave way to muddled tameness. The orchestra sounded ready to quit playing and go home.
What I have been wondering ever since is: Do I have the right to feel disappointed? It was the Tuesday night show; the musicians had already played this program two or three times. It’s only human that they were bored, and struggled to hide it.
On the other hand, I am a paying customer, and playing well is supposed to be their job. If you make a living performing—and if you’re lucky enough to be in the Boston Symphony—is it reasonable for the audience to expect an exciting performance?