The Brill Report: Bernstein Alive! Andris Nelsons & The BSO

Leonard Bernstein (that great emissary for the joyful role of classical music in everyday life) would have been pleased by what transpired this past summer at Tanglewood (Bernstein’s beloved alma mater) before the start of an afternoon of music at Tanglewood’s Koussevitsky Shed.

Bernstein would have loved that the Boston Symphony was going to be playing one of his favorite pieces that afternoon: Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. He also would have been intrigued to hear (walking on a leafy path leading to the Shed), the sounds of descending glissandos and guttural growls coming from someplace nearby. (At Tanglewood, it is not uncommon for one to hear intrepid young musicians practicing their scales or their vocals in the small wood practice sheds that line the pastures of this special place). On this day, Bernstein would have been particularly delighted to come upon a group of tuba players, (sitting on make-shift chairs in a semi-circle), their giant metallic tubular instruments glistening in the noon day sun. Each player was dressed in their formal Sunday whites from head to toe and each was either practicing or listening intently to their comrades scaling the lower depths.

Here was a chorus of notes that reached into the bowels of the maximum range for human hearing, rivaling any group of bullfrogs singing in the nearby Berkshire ponds (all of whom had taken shelter from this onslaught of stentorian notes). The rehearsal continued while a curious audience formed to watch the festivities as each tuba player tuned and then methodically practicing their huffy descents into the abyss. Bernstein would have been justly proud of this unfolding moment at his beloved Tanglewood: Informal musical collaboration and synergy on the highest (and lowest!) level and all for the glory and joy of music making.

Such rich and informal collaboration also occurred at a closed rehearsal held on October 15, 2013 at Symphony Hall where the Boston Symphony (“BSO”) partnered with Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons in his first rehearsal since being named the BSO’s 15th musical director.

Marco Borggreve

Marco Borggreve

It so happened that this first rehearsal of Nelsons and the BSO involved a performance of Brahm’s Symphony No. 3, which again brings back memories of the great Leonard Bernstein who frequently discussed the works of Brahms in his writings and lectures during his lifetime. For instance, in his wide-ranging book The Infinite Variety of Music [published by Simon and Schuster in 1966], Bernstein takes a “microscopic look” at the symphonic method in the context of Brahms’ Symphony No. 4. In Brahms’ hands, Bernstein observes, “there is something divine in symphonic growth, something akin to creation itself.” Bernstein analyzes the dizzying array of vehicles that Brahms utilized to achieve his incredible skill at development (including Bernstein’s lucid explanations of techniques like expansion, diminution, syncopation and embellishments and inversions of canons), and how, “stone by stone,” Brahms created a masterful architecture to his symphonic works. Bernstein concludes: “Now, that’s development- not only in a dynamic sense but harmonically, contrapuntally, rhythmically, dramatically.”

Interestingly, it was precisely the term development that Nelsons used frequently in his discussions with members of the BSO during their rehearsal of Brahms’ Symphony No. 3. On several occasions, Nelsons commented on how Brahms wanted to develop themes slowly and methodically. To emphasize this point, Nelsons at one point comically stroked his face deliberately and softly, to emphasis how a musical line was to be “caressed, not attacked.” He paused at another section to ask the trombones to allow for more “diminuendo” to allow the woodwinds to “peek through” the brass figures so that their softer lines could be heard underneath. At another juncture, Nelsons stopped to sing some of Brahms’ soaring melodic lines to the orchestra. He made the point that this was a section to be played like “church music, not to be played with too much overall darkness, but rather with a feeling of growing light and melodic sweetness out of the darkness.” Here again, Nelsons was paying close attention to Brahms as master architect – requiring close attention be paid to the slow evolution of each monumental building block in Brahms’ masterful symphonic development.

The young and vivacious Nelsons was certainly up to the task in this closed rehearsal, reminding one of the energetic Bernstein in his prime. He frequently danced and swirled on the podium to the surging energy of the orchestra or, at other times, crouched down low near his music stand to emphasize (with his supple circular hand motions) the entrance of particular instruments or the quiet of a particular slow passage. The orchestra clearly enjoyed their first rehearsal with Nelsons, chuckling along with him (at the spill of water by a member of the orchestra during a break) or delving into a big swash buckle of melody with Nelsons dancing along. These should be exciting times to hear the BSO with Nelsons at the helm.

It was also a rare treat to hear the sound of the BSO playing to an empty Symphony Hall at this closed rehearsal. Harry Pearson, the founder of The Absolute Sound, frequently commented that when he listened to recordings made in Symphony Hall, he always heard a “golden” quality to instruments. With an empty Symphony Hall for this rehearsal, however, the sound of the full BSO was very different indeed. There was a definite increase in conciseness of tone to high strings and string basses – less full but with more pluck and brightness of tone. The brass sections sounded less golden and full but also with more pungent attack and precision. Percussion was tensile and bright, particularly the sound of the triangle tingling clear and high. The differences between string sections could be heard much more distinctly than when the hall is full of listeners. All evidence of how even the great halls of the world (like our listening rooms) change their sonic qualities with changes in volume, density and, in this case, the absence of an audience.

111111111111111111111Finally, on a recording note, BSO members have frequently formed amongst themselves stellar chamber groups to perform in smaller venues and on recordings. A recent example of this is the superb audiophile recording of the Concord Chamber Music Society (“CCMS”) on Reference Recordings [RR-122].

CCMS was founded in 2000 by BSO violinist Wendy Putnam and is composed of Putnam, Owen Young on cello; Lawrence Wolfe, bass; Thomas Martin, clarinet; Vytas Baksys, piano and Daniel Bauch, percussion. This Reference Recording disc finds the CCMS performing music by composers Chris Brubeck; (Boston native and resident) Michael Gandolfi and Lukas Foss, all recorded in the sparkling acoustic of Mechanics Hall in Worcester, MA. – another of our region’s magnificent halls. The music and musicianship on this recording is virtuosic and a beauty to hear. Brubeck’s composition, “Danza Del Soul” has many places to explore with its unfolding instrumental and melodic inventions. Gandolfi’s piece, “Line Drawings” (painting on a smaller canvas here than on his sprawling, magnificent creation, The Garden of Cosmic Speculation [with Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra on Telarc CD and SACD] is a whimsical feast combining Baroque fugues, pointillist jazz colors and pungent string and woodwind meanders. Foss’ “Central Park Reel” is whirligig fun complete with player piano, coursing violin lines and swift bluegrass swing.

Keith O. Johnson and his Reference Recording team have accurately captured the dimensionality of these acoustic instruments (such as in the opening of Brubeck’s piece when players play offstage and then gradually enter to join players already on the stage). Brubeck’s composition also includes some beautiful bass bowing down very deep, as well as shimmering high violin, resonant bells and hand drumming that will all test your system’s ability to render these tones with clear and tactile precision. The entire recording is a marvel to hear in all of these respects and encourages, yet again, the “Bernstein” love of music making.



Nelson Brill is an avid music lover. He has reviewed concerts and recordings (spanning all musical styles) for several online publications, including The Stereo Times, HPSoundings and JAZZIZ Magazine. Brill considers the joy of music as one of the supreme essences of a spirited life.

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