It was a Friday night, early evening. I had just gotten home from a long day of work; tired and a little cranky. I cracked open a beer, a Sam Adams Noble Pils. Took a long swig and settled down to the news in full chill mode. My daughter asked me what I was doing tonight. I thought she might need the car, which would have been fine because I had no plans to move from the couch. Instead, she asked if I wanted to go to a Haydn and Handel Society performance of Beethoven’s 5th at Symphony Hall. I said I was too tired and didn’t want to go. She said, “come on, you like classical music, you’ll enjoy it”. I admitted that she was right, but said again that I was too tired to move. Furthermore, I didn’t want to drive and deal with the hassle of parking. When my wife offered to drive us there, I changed my mind – I mean really, how could I refuse? I do like classical music. All I had to do was listen – it wasn’t like I had to go socialize. Besides, my daughter is good company and enjoys music too. I quickly got a second wind, and a second beer and agreed to go. And it was the best decision I made all week.
We got to the show with only seconds to spare. We made it to our orchestra seats just in time to hear the orchestra tuning up. Moments later, the conductor, Richard Egarr, raced onto the stage and quickly launched into the Overture to Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The music sounded familiar, but I don’t own any recording of his operas. So I might have heard it on the local classical station, or maybe when I watched the film Amadeus, but probably not because I think they just played bits from one of the Acts. In any case, I liked it and the orchestra played flawlessly.
Egarr addressed the audience, saying he was honored to play Symphony Hall and particularly noted the fine acoustics. In a normal tone of voice he asked if people in the back could hear and they clapped that they could. He said that he did not like devilish microphones and that here, they were not needed and would not be used.
Next came Haydn’s “Clock” Symphony No. 101. I enjoyed this piece. As the second movement begins, it becomes clear where the symphony got its nickname. The crowd applauded during the breaks in the music to which Egarr approved saying “it’s historically accurate.” During one pause, with a smile on his face and a sharp conductor motion he signaled a coughing audience member to stop. I have a recording of this Symphony on an old record I found at a thrift shop conducted by Mogens Woldike with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra. It’s from a late 50’s or early 60’s Vanguard Stereophonic Demonstration Disc. The logo says Vanguard Stereolab: Records for the Connoisseur. I have to say the Handel Hayden performance compares favorably.
One of the highlights of the concert was the next piece – Haydn’s Keyboard Concerto No. 11. Egarr, an accomplished pianist, doubled as conductor and fortepiano soloist. He introduced the piece by saying the keyboard concerto came out of nowhere, but he thinks it was a hat tip to Mozart who had had enormous success with the form. Somehow, Egarr managed to conduct with one hand, play the fortepiano and turn pages with the other until the piece demanded both hands. And when it did, he still kept the orchestra on track with his head movements as he glanced back and forth from musicians to sheet music. Mr. Egarr gave a masterclass on multitasking.
The final piece was the one all had been waiting for: Beethoven’s 5th symphony. The orchestra played with feeling and gusto. Their energy and physicality impressed me, especially from the strings. They played with intensity, love and the utmost respect for the music. My favorite moment came when the piercing piccolo elevated above the music and hovered majestically.
I’ve heard more polished versions of the 5th with better sonics. I’ve played the vinyl off the benchmark Toscanini recordings, with a tempo of nearly twice the speed of other interpretations. However, I have never heard a more soulful performance and for that I readily stood with the others for a long ovation which brought the conductor back three times.