PARIS – For its initial Sept. 15 appearance during Philharmonie de Paris’ Boston Weekend, the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Andris Nelsons presented a Mahler Third Symphony so stunning that the audience simply refused to let the performers go. From my seat in first row center of the top balcony, which many consider the best place to hear large symphonic works in the Philharmonie’s acoustically superb Grande Salle Pierre Boulez, I spied not a soul who exited the hall during a good ten minutes of applause and repeated bows. While audience members did not leap to their feet en masse, as has become de rigueur in the U.S. at performances both mediocre and marvelous, they applauded wildly, cheered, and eventually clapped in unison until, after repeated bows and acknowledgments, Nelsons finally clasped his hands together in Buddhist fashion, lowered his carriage in a final bow of respect, and waved farewell.
The evening – the first of two collaborative efforts between the BSO and Parisian musicians – saw the orchestra and mezzo-soprano Susan Graham perform alongside the Choeur de femmes de Radio France and Maîtrise de Radio France (Women’s Choir of Radio France and Master-Student Choir of Radio France). The next day, before an equally sensational concert of Bernstein’s Serenade, with violin soloist Baiba Skride, and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 4, musicians of the BSO and l’Orchestre de Paris joined soloists from l’Ensemble intercontemporain and harpist Anaïs Gaudemard to perform chamber works by Ravel, Piston, Stravinsky, Takemitsu, and Adès. Also featured in the Boston Weekend was the early music ensemble Boston Camerata. A report on its concert is here.
No review would be complete without discussion of the acoustics in Philharmonie de Paris’ 3 ½-year-old main concert hall. A collaboration between architect Jean Nouvel, lead acoustician Harold Marshall, and other designers, the layout of the asymmetrical, all-enveloping 2400-seat auditorium ensures that no patron is more than 105 feet from the stage. Thanks to multiple flat, floating reflective clouds suspended from the ceiling and a seemingly infinite number of diffusive protrusions and cavities throughout the hall, sonics are highly resonant yet remarkably clear, open, and focused. Rather than the vibrancy of highs diminishing as sounds travel far from the stage, they remain as remarkably alive, color-saturated, and potent as the hall’s astoundingly intense bass, even from a considerable distance.
Imagine the vivid colors of a rainbow created by light that has been refracted through a flawless diamond surface, and you’ll get a sense of the sound in Grand Salle Pierre Boulez. I’ve attended concerts in a number of acoustically outstanding acoustics, including the exceedingly wet Eugene McDermott Concert Hall in the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas and the vibrant Weill Hall at the Green Center in Rohnert Park, Calif., (modeled after Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood, whose design was inspired by the fabled Golden Hall of Vienna’s Musikverein), and can attest that the acoustic of Philharmonie de Paris is the most open and vibrant of the lot. Equally capable of transmitting music of nurturing warmth and cataclysmic force, the acoustic proved ideal for showcasing Nelsons and the BSO’s ability to create whatever sounds best to convey the emotional and spiritual import of the music at hand.
If the tempo of Nelsons’ vigorous opening of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 was not unusual, his wealth of detail and acute sensitivity to the emotions conveyed by contrasting waves of sound certainly were. Under his baton, one of Mahler’s frequently encountered marches at the symphony’s opening seemed less predictable than inexorable in its power. As the music’s first magical emergence of light was disrupted by the force of multiple timpani and bass drum pounded simultaneously, the return to dark militancy was made all the more startling by Nelsons’ total immersion in the emotions expressed by these contrasting musical events.
After the long opening movement, which at one point seemed to descend into chaos, Nelsons luxuriated in the warmth and glow of the second movement minuet. Tempos that initially felt too leisurely soon proved perfect for communicating the sparkle, delight, and warmth of this sweet music. Nelsons and the BSO delivered the equivalent of a loving valentine of sound, capped by the gorgeous solos of associate concertmaster Tamara Smirnova.
The third movement only deepened the feeling of warm embrace. At one point, the orchestra sounded ridiculously bumptious, to the point of sending the musical equivalent of laughter across the stage. The offstage horns were a special delight.
On paper, Graham seemed an unusual choice for solos often sung by mezzo sopranos and contraltos blessed with profoundly deep, earth mother-like instruments. (Think Maureen Forrester, Christa Ludwig, Gerhild Romberger, Michelle DeYoung, and Marilyn Horne for starters.) Yet the glowing smoothness of Graham’s exceptionally warm voice proved ideal for a statement that begins with talk of pain but ultimately proclaims the deeper triumph of eternal joy. Only when she opened her vibrato to produce a heavier sound did a few blowsy-sounding notes reveal the effects of age on her marvelous-sounding instrument.
As if taking their cue from Graham’s wonderfully plush, comforting sound, the voices of Radio France’s combined women’s and student choirs, honed to perfection by Johannes Prinz and Victor Jacob, created a truly magical paradise. Save for the sharpness of a single, unintentionally disruptive viola line, Nelsons gently coaxed from his orchestra one of the most wondrous, carefully sculpted and finely judged extended expanses of orchestral warmth I have ever witnessed.
Nelsons transformed the end of Mahler Three into a huge, all-encompassing embrace that maintained its integrity even as timpani pounded at the close. After holding his baton in the air long enough to allow his audience to bask in the glow, the conductor dropped his hands so that the love he had shared through Mahler’s music could be returned in kind. Such a masterful journey from fragmentation and pain to spiritual wholeness confirmed Nelsons’ emergence as one of the finest, most visionary conductors of our age.
The BSO’s 12-concert, eight-city European tour concluded on Sept. 17 with a concert in the Netherlands that the orchestra very nearly didn’t make because of a canceled flight from Paris. But the show went on after a mad scramble to get Nelsons and a reduced orchestra on another flight to play a revised program (Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony instead of the scheduled Shostakovich Four) at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw hall.
Jason Victor Serinus writes and reviews for Seattle Times, San Francisco Classical Voice, Stereophile, American Record Guide, Opera Now, Listen, Bay Area Reporter, and many other publications. He whistled Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” as “The Voice of Woodstock” in an Emmy-nominated Peanuts cartoon. He resides in Port Townsend, WA.