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Seen and Heard International Concert Review


Strauss and Schubert, John Ferrillo (oboe), Karita Mattila (soprano), Boston Symphony Orchestra, James Levine (conductor), Symphony Hall, Boston, Massachusetts, November 6th, 2004 (BH)


Richard Strauss: Concerto for Oboe and Small Orchestra
Richard Strauss: Final scene from Salome
Schubert: Symphony in C, D. 944, “The Great”

Until this absolutely delicious concert, it had been probably twenty years since I’d set foot in Boston’s Symphony Hall, and I have now resolved not to let such a serious lapse occur again. It was highly instructive to revisit this acoustic wonder after many years of hearing the sound in Carnegie, the Concertgebouw and the latest entrant in the World’s Greatest Concert Hall Sweepstakes, the Disney in Los Angeles. Boston’s room is in the traditional rectangular shape, with a very high ceiling and two U-shaped balconies, and for visual interest, alcoves in the walls above the second balcony, with serene, backlit statues of what look like Greek goddesses playing musical instruments. The hall is often considered one of the top three venues in the world – the other two being Amsterdam and Vienna – and all it took was this concert to hear why. Even though modern technology and construction methods are producing some worthy contemporary candidates such as the halls in Birmingham, Lucerne and elsewhere, the sound in this classic space will continue to astonish even the most jaded music-lover.

This evening was propelled by not one but two soloists, starting with the great John Ferrillo in the Strauss Oboe Concerto. Ferrillo, former first chair in the Met Orchestra and now Boston’s principal, produced tones that were as close to sublime as I’ve ever heard an oboe sound, both here and in the final Schubert, too. This Strauss gem is as lovely as a summer day, with a texture perhaps more transparent than one might expect from this composer. The soloist works his way in and out of the large chamber-sized ensemble, in highly filigreed passages that are utterly delightful, but also filled with some fearsome breathing problems. The lyrical opening solo is fifty-seven measures long, without any rests whatsoever (which is why oboe players sometimes look as if their heads are about to explode). In the program, Mr. Ferrillo included a touching dedication to his teacher, John de Lancie, who met Strauss at his villa in Garmisch, Germany. I daresay that both teacher and composer would be fairly boggled by Ferrillo’s amazingly fluid performance, and just basking in his gorgeously dark timbre filling the hall was a treat in itself.

Attired somewhat differently than Mr. Ferrillo, the second soloist of the evening was Karita Mattila, who wore a dark, blood-red, Gaultier-esque dress with straps criss-crossing the front, and no shoulders, prompting my concert companion to note, “She looks like she’s on veil number three-and-a-half.” Whatever the case, Ms. Mattila made a striking presence for the scene from Salome, fast becoming a role she pretty much owns. Having seen her in the complete opera an embarrassing number of times last spring, I knew what to expect and wasn’t disappointed. Everything that was so spectacular then was still intact: the awesome control, the ability to manage the fearsome heights that Strauss requires, and an indubitable acting gift that makes her appearances more than just musical events. Mattila isn’t afraid to use her voice in “non-beautiful” ways. Consider the passage near the very end, when “a great black cloud covers the moon,” and Salome delivers with chilling quietness, Ah! Ich habe deinen Mund gekusst, Jochanaan (I have kissed thy mouth, Jokanaan), before the orchestra swells and crests to conclude the scene. Mattila uttered the words in a low growl, evoking sexual afterglow, whispering her triumph while Strauss’ tense, daringly endless trill in the flutes is punctuated by sinister belching in the brass and percussion. Of course, her totally thrilling high arcs cause the most awe, but they are set up by the scene’s more grave moments.

Levine was an ideal accompanist, with tempi and pacing that seemed exactly right. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an orchestra play this passage with such blood-curdling menace, thanks to Levine’s brilliant control (which was in place all night). At the conclusion, when the admirably attentive Boston audience cut loose with walls of cheering, Mattila affectionately kissed the conductor, who proved once again that he is a singer’s best friend in many ways.

In a letter to the audience in the program, Levine wrote that this Schubert symphony is one of his favorite works, and it is easy to see why. If someone looked up the word “orchestra” in a dictionary, this is just the kind of piece that a “typical orchestra” might play. Levine’s supple performance perfectly illustrated the ability of a great conductor to elicit maximum drama over a long span. What caught me slightly off guard was the almost magical balance and immaculate phrasing that Levine achieved (qualities that were a little shaky in his recent Mahler Eighth). The Boston musicians sounded like a textbook example of what a great ensemble should be, with some superb horn work, sensuous violins (divided right/left) and more of Ferrillo’s oboe (and his equally talented colleagues in the woodwind section). This was about as satisfying a performance of a classical work as I expect to hear, let alone of this piece – and this confession from someone who generally doesn’t respond to Schubert’s symphonies. What a night, and I can guarantee that it won’t be another two decades before I return.

Bruce Hodges

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