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Karen Allendoerfer

A Birthday Visit to Symphony Hall

December 5, 2010 at 3:11 PM

Since my violin solo last month I have been taking it easy with the violin.  To be honest, I haven't had a lot of choice.  I had a tough week at work last week and had to cancel my lesson, and I am also taking advantage of a relatively light orchestra schedule of holiday music.  Something has been missing, and last night was the right way to get back on track.

It was my birthday yesterday, three weeks before Christmas.  It's a nice time for a birthday, nestled between major holidays, especially if you enjoy the lights, the decorations, the dark evenings, while people are still calm, with Thanksgiving a pleasant memory and avoidance of the frazzled shopping rush still seeming like a possible dream.  In short, perfect timing for a symphony concert.

My husband is not a musician, so this kind of activity is not a regular occurrence for us.  And in fact, although we've lived in the Boston area for over 12 years, this was our first time in Symphony Hall to hear the BSO.  In previous years we've gone to smaller regional orchestras such as the Arlington Philharmonic (before I joined), the Longwood Symphony, and the Lexington Symphony. 

We parked quite far away, and walked half a mile, enjoying what the city looks like at this time of year.  When we got to Symphony Hall and tried to take our seats, we found that we had tickets for a row that didn't exist, row A.  After some discussion, the ushers sent us back out to the box office, where alternate tickets were waiting for us, in row F, near the front and to the right, close enough to the 2nd violins to see what kind of shoulder rests they use.

After a medical leave and a series of guest conductors, James Levine is back, using a special conducting chair, and he was a delight to see--his passion, his energy, his sheer joy.  Like Gandalf, or Dumbledore, he is a wise wizard of the classical stage.  

First on the program was a violin soloist, Nikolaj Znaider, playing Mozart #3. Since I've been reading, I've become much better acquainted with today's violin soloists than I used to be, but he was still new to me. Unfortunately, due to the acoustics of where we were sitting, I still don't feel that I have a good appreciation of the violinist he is.  For this concert the seating was non-traditional, with the violins on either side of the conductor.  We were close to the front on the right of the hall, near the 2nds.  A hypothetical diagonal line drawn from me to the soloist would have intersected Levine's conducting chair.  Most of the time I couldn't even see Znaider, and often, the sound of the "Kreisler" Guarnerius del Gesu that he plays did not rise above that of the orchestra.  While I didn't choose the seats, and these weren't even the seats my husband bought since we were switched at the box office, next time I come, I will be sure to sit somewhere else!  It would probably even cost less.

Here is the angle I wish I'd had.  And a nice review by Jeremy Eichler of the program, which was also performed on Thursday night.

The Mozart #3 is a charming piece, and it brought back memories of my teen years spent studying the first movement solo part.  My husband turned to me and asked, "could you play that?"  The answer is a qualified yes, which I told him, but the answer to that question is always complicated.  Orchestras all over the world play essentially the same repertoire, but the devil is in the details.  "Well, right," he persisted, "you could plaaaay it, but would you stick out?  Here in the back of the second violins?"

"Yes, I'd stick out.  Well . . . maybe not if it was the Mozart orchestral part and I practiced really hard beforehand."  

His comment got me to looking at the section players.  What was especially enjoyable about being that close to them was seeing how human they are.  One player wears an earplug while he's playing.  One player has an Ohrenform chin rest like mine.  Most, but not all, of them use shoulder rests.  But not Kuns, either something fancier or less so, like a sponge with rubber band, that they adjust and play with during the rests.  One player has a special chair, not like Levine's, with a little back support attached.  Most of the men sit back, against the back rests of the chairs, which was a big no-no when I was in high school orchestra.  Only the young woman in the very last stand, inside, sits the way I used to:  on the edge of her chair.  Also, as I used to, she bends her knee and tucks her left leg under the chair.  In middle age I have modified and essentially abandoned this playing position because it caused back pain.  Just looking at her, my back twinges.  I notice that she, and some of the other players too, fidgets and switches position throughout the concert.  The women who are wearing heels have trouble positioning their feet.  For the most part, they do not just leave them "flat" on the floor like the men can.  One player sticks her ankles out in front of her and crosses them while she's playing.  I own one pair of high heeled shoes, and I wear them when I play in orchestra concerts.  You know, I'm going to re-think that.

Second on the program was John Harbison's Symphony #2.  Harbison and Levine are close colleagues, and, from the program notes, friends.  I admit that Harbison's music may be an acquired taste.  The piece is programmed in an interesting way, from Dawn to Darkness in 4 movements.  I may or may not have been able to tell when one movement ended and the next one began.  The movement that I think was "Dusk," was gorgeous, with a lovely, rich melody in the strings.  It was my favorite.

The last piece was Schumann's Symphony #2.  I played #3 last year with the Arlington Phil, and was unfamilar with this one.  I always find reading Robert Schumann's biography to be troubling.  Not much older than I am now when he died in an asylum, he struggled with his ailments when he wrote this piece as well.  But he pushed through them, and emerged triumphant.  I especially loved the Scherzo, and think I would love to play it, too.  It has virtuosic passages for the violins, which the BSO executed brilliantly.  Sure, if I tried to play that, I would "stick out," even if I practiced really hard.  But there's something about fast runs, when you can do them, when you can't rush because you're playing them literally as fast as you can, poised on the knife edge of disaster, and you make it to the end, breathless and exhilarated.

After multiple curtain calls for Levine, we went back into the lit-up night.  My birthday, and the concert, over for another year.  I won't wait so long until the next concert.

From Tom Holzman
Posted on December 6, 2010 at 12:17 AM

Happy b'day!  What a great way to celebrate.  Too bad you could not hear Znaider better.  He is very good.

Mozart #3 is a favorite of mine, which I studied with M. Benedetti when I lived in France.  And your post brings back the wonderful memory of my 20th birthday.  I was living in Paris and celebrated by going to see a concert of my favorite trio -- Stern/Rose/Istomin -- playing my favorite piece -- the Archduke Trio.  Thanks for bringing that one back to me.

Have a great holiday season and New Year. 

From Francesca Rizzardi
Posted on December 6, 2010 at 7:26 AM

How did your own concert go?

From Jim Hastings
Posted on December 6, 2010 at 12:10 PM

I lived in Boston for much of the 1990s through summer 2001. It's a magnetic city, indeed. Although I'm not a native of the place, it's the town I get homesick for -- not the Chicago metro area where I spent my first years.

As I recall, Symphony Hall has some of the best acoustics among US concert halls, but evidently you weren't in best seats to capture what the soloist could do. I made it to Symphony Hall once -- couldn't do more because of my schedule and ticket prices. But it was a great evening. I recall there being some Wagner and some Rossini on the program.

This blog really brings back fond memories. Thanks a lot for sharing.

From Stephen Symchych
Posted on December 6, 2010 at 1:02 PM

I was also at the first half of that concert.  It was nice to hear Znaider for the first time, but my real errand was to hear the Harbison.  A while back, I had performed in the East Coast premiere of the symphony-- I liked it then, and while Levine could have asked for a lot more expression from soloists, the BSO played it very well.

If you ever do go back to Symphony Hall, try to sit in the side balcony between the middle and the front of the hall.  You'll see more, and also get a fantastically clear acoustic impression of what's going on.

From Tom Holzman
Posted on December 6, 2010 at 1:54 PM

Stephen's post about where to sit brings back to me a memory which might be of some use to all who go to concert halls.  In DC some years ago, the concert hall at the Kennedy Center underwent renovation.  Naturally, some of us were curious to find out where the accoustics would be the best in the newly renovated hall.  I called Tim Page, then the Washington Post's music critic to ask his opinion.  I left a message, figuring he would never get back to me.  However, the next day, he called me back and told me that the cheap seats were accoustically the best.  He was right.  So, if you ever have questions about where to sit for the best accoustics, you can do worse than calling the local music critic to get an opinion.

From Christina C.
Posted on December 7, 2010 at 4:31 PM

Happy Birthday Karen, what a lovely way to spend it..... but no BSO until now!!???? Hopefully the wisdom of being a year older will get you there a little more often!   I love the BSO & I love the Symphony Hall. I make a point of going every year when I visit Boston for a week .... in fact today I'm purchasing my tickets for February. As I write this, Mahler 4th is playing on the radio and that's what I heard when I went last year. Magical.

Stephen- Are you talking about the side of the second balcony? That's what I'm planning on getting.


From Francesca Rizzardi
Posted on December 7, 2010 at 6:55 PM

Regarding the Schumann: I read a biography of Clara Shumann recently.  Not only was her husband always ill, but they lost several children at an early age.  She was fortunately talented enough to earn enough money to keep the family financially comfortable, and her relationships with Brahms and Joaquim are enviable.  But the mentality of the people who ran the asylum Robert was at is highly regretable.  His works and her continuous devotion to him are indeed miracles.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on December 8, 2010 at 6:52 PM

 Tom, I could hear him, just not that well.  I wish he'd been more up-front.  But I could still tell he was good.  And he's also, well, nice to look at  ;-)

I've now been hearing from others too that the best seats are the side balconies.  Live and learn. But I will take the opportunity to plug regional orchestras and smaller venues again. Last year for my birthday we went to the Lexington Symphony with Stephanie Chase playing the Beethoven VC.  It was in the Lexington town hall.  I felt more involved with Chase's performance during that concert. I don't think that's a comment on the relative skills of the musicians, just a comment on the intimacy of the venue.


From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on December 8, 2010 at 7:02 PM

Fran, I'm still trying to get a high-quality video of my concert to post.  There are at least 2 in existence, I just have to get them in upload-able form.  I have one my daughter took but the audio on my camera is really not that great.

About the Schumanns, since I played the Rhenish last year I've been thinking about them on and off.  Much more so than Mozart, it seems to be the right sort of music for the existential angst of middle-age (at least for me).  I do think that Mozart #3 is a charming piece, and Znaider played it superbly, but right now it just strikes me as a bit, I don't know, fluffy.  I'm either too old for it, or too young, or both.  Ruth Kufler in her blog a few years ago said the piece reminded her of a "bunny opera," which was a good image.  When I first started lessons with her, my teacher tried to interest me in studying it again (I played it as a teen), and that was enough to send me running for my viola.  Whereas when I listen to Schumann, the emotions are rawer, messier, even within a basically tonal, classical context.  And somehow that's the kind of music I need to listen to and play right now.  Maybe when I'm older and wiser it will again be time for Mozart #3.

From Francesca Rizzardi
Posted on December 9, 2010 at 1:05 AM

Karen,  Take it from a mother whose kids are slightly older than yours: it's possible that life willl continue to get messier and rawer for awhile!  Maybe I should make it a goal to learn some of that Schumann in the next few years. --Fran

From Tom Holzman
Posted on December 9, 2010 at 5:25 PM

Karen - in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, the side balcony seats are among the cheapest.  That is where we always sit.  If you don't care if you can see everyone, they are perfect.

I agree with you on intimate venues.  For that reason, I tend to be partial to chamber music performances in those sorts of venues.  The NSO prinicipals have a chamber music series in the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, which is ideal for that sort of thing,is much more intimate and has better accoustics than the concert hall.

There was also a time when I was head of my synagogue's cultural arts committee.  We used to sometimes bring in chamber musicians to play concerts in the sanctuary.  For reasons that are not completely clear, the sanctuary apparently has either the best or one of the best accoustics of any chamber music locale in the metro area.  One professional chamber musician once said that it had the most perfect accoustics for piano trio that she had ever encountered.  Unfortunately, we are not doing that sort of programming any more, even though some of the NSO people would like to come back and play (a quartet consisting of two of them and two other musicians played a fabulous concert there a couple of years ago).


From Terez Mertes
Posted on December 9, 2010 at 6:30 PM

 Happy belated birthday, Karen!

Oh, my, Schumann's no. 2. The 3rd movement, the adagio expressivo just blows me away. (The movement features heavily into one of my novel scenes - I think I mentioned it last year when I was writing it.) Would love to hear this symphony played live.

And I'm thinking I'll have to hunt around your blogs to get news on how your solo went? (I've been living in my cave here over the past month; feels rather disorienting to emerge.) If you blogged about it, would you post the link here? 

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on December 9, 2010 at 11:17 PM

Terez, it's so great that people are actually interested in my solo :)

I just got one of the video recordings of it that I was looking for.  The file is huge, we worked out an FTP scheme using our work servers.  I downloaded it over several minutes . . . and the camera is placed such that all you can see is the back of my head!

And, the sound quality is so good that every little flaw is amplified.  You can even hear where my bow shook in about the 8th measure.  I think I'm going back to the one my daughter took!


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