Lenox — The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s best performances are inexplicable, sometimes even to the players themselves. How so? Sometimes a symphonic performance gels in a way that is both uncanny and unexpectedly sublime. No one knows exactly how it happens. But then, neither does anyone know exactly how the murmuration of starlings happens. It’s safe to say, though, that both orchestras and starlings exhibit emergent behavior when they need the group to function as a unified whole. When starlings do it, the result is a mesmerizing aerial spectacle. And when the Boston Symphony Orchestra does it, the result is a mesmerizing audio spectacle. Keep this in mind as you view the free streaming video of the BSO’s Aug. 24, 2018, Shed performance of Gustav Mahler’s third symphony with Susan Graham and Andris Nelsons. It may help to explain the inexplicable.
Gustav Mahler’s third symphony demands more of an orchestra — more physical stamina, more technical facility, more experience, more institutional wisdom (to borrow a term from BSO assistant principal bass Lawrence Wolfe) — than most orchestras can reasonably be expected to muster. It takes a mature and very well-prepared orchestra and chorus to pull this off. And while the BSO is certainly up to the task, it’s worth noting that the Boston Symphony performs this piece infrequently.
During his pre-concert lecture about Mahler’s third symphony presented by the Lenox Library Association, Boston University professor Jeremy Yudkin made a simple suggestion that he’s been offering his students for decades: Stop everything else you’re doing when you listen to an unfamiliar piece of classical music, especially when it’s the lengthiest symphony in the standard repertory. If you give it your undivided attention, which is a lot easier to do when listening from home than it is when sitting 50 rows back in a hot and crowded Shed, you will find that even without professor Yudkin’s guidance — don’t miss his Aug. 23 lecture on Beethoven’s Ninth — the entire performance becomes a great deal more accessible than if you constantly shift your attention between the music and the crossword puzzle and your iPhone. In performance videos such as this, you can see which musician is soloing or otherwise occupying the spotlight. You can see the conductor’s face when it really matters, and you can almost read the players’ minds by studying their faces and body language. All this information is relevant to a fully informed and thoroughly enjoyable listening experience. And if you can’t take it all in on the first listen, just hit the rewind button and try again.
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Running time: one hour and 51 minutes
This video will be available for streaming through Sunday, Aug. 16, at bso.org.