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Hilary Scott
Christoph von Dohnányi led the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood in a program of Mozart symphonies,

AT TANGLEWOOD: Three lessons from Mozart’s last three symphonies

By Wednesday, Jul 29, 2015 Arts & Entertainment 2

Lenox — You think you know Mozart’s last three symphonies pretty well? So did I. I can hum along with all the main themes and even keep up (sort of) with discussions about expositions, recapitulations, and other esoteric matters of classical music analysis.

Then I heard these three symphonic masterpieces (No. 39 in E-flat, K.543; No. 40 in G minor, K.550; and No. 41 in C, K.551, “Jupiter”) performed at Tanglewood Sunday (July 26) in sequence, all in one program, by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnányi conducting. This is a bit like hearing Laurence Olivier recite William Shakespeare’s best three sonnets in your living room. And it’s been six years since the BSO performed them this way at Tanglewood.

Here’s what I learned from this performance:

 Christoph von Dohnanyi leading the BSO Sunday, July 26, 2015. Photo by Hilary Scott


Christoph von Dohnányi leading the BSO Sunday, July 26, 2015. Photo by Hilary Scott

  1. When you hear Mozart’s last three symphonies together in a single program, the listening experience differs significantly from that of separate performances. These pieces — completed about 40 days apart from one another — make musical sense in a whole new way when considered as a group. Their remarkable diversity, for example, is seen in a new light when they follow one after another, while at the same time we never lose sight of their common heritage in one musical genius.
  2. The conductor matters, and Christoph von Dohnányi happens to be one of the world’s most highly respected conductors of Mozart’s works. Not only does he have these symphonies memorized — he uses no score during performances — but also, it’s no secret that he has a special way of inspiring BSO musicians to outdo themselves one more time. His rapport with the players is plain to see every time he interacts with individual musicians during a performance.
  1. Carefully watching any group of musicians perform these pieces reveals much about the music itself, as well as the level of musicianship required to make them sparkle with all due radiance. When you see entire sections of the orchestra — double basses, for example — really hustling to keep up on a hot summer afternoon while, inexplicably, never breaking a sweat (!), you are witnessing something truly extraordinary, something you can’t possibly appreciate if you’re not there in person to see it, but something that’s yet become routine for Shed audiences. But make no mistake: This music may be easy to listen to, but it’s by no means easy to play.

Even if this music is easy to listen to, it never wears out. Like all of Mozart’s music, it hides a multitude of sophisticated and expressive secrets, which reveal themselves only on repeated hearing. Mozart had it right when he wrote, “My music appeals to amateurs and specialists. The amateurs because they just love it without knowing why; the professionals because they can hear everything I am doing.”

Few pieces of classical music are as beloved as Mozart’s last three symphonies. But that doesn’t mean we’ve all experienced a full measure of their miraculous perfection. There’s always something more enlightening, more delightful, more amazing to discover in each of these works, and it seems the BSO is determined to give us all a fair shot at enjoying it all.


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