LONDON — On Saturday night, the Boston Symphony Orchestra opened its European tour in high populist style, performing at the BBC Proms in the city’s enormous Royal Albert Hall before a crowd of almost 6,000 people.
It was the orchestra’s first London appearance since 2007, and its first European performance under the baton of music director Andris Nelsons. Expectations were running high as Nelsons, while a fresh face in the United States, is practically a hometown figure here after seven years at the helm of the nearby City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, with which he performed at the Proms a widely hailed Beethoven’s Ninth earlier this summer. As the Guardian wrote earlier this month, in this visit Nelsons “has a lot to live up to.” Would the new Nelsons-BSO partnership be ready for scrutiny?
On Saturday night, the BSO players clearly voted in the affirmative. At key moments in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, the strings dug in deep, the woodwinds were in pellucid form, and the brass drew on seemingly vast reserves of power. There was a sense of the ensemble playing on the front edge of its seats, matching and at times surpassing the account of this work offered just last weekend at Tanglewood. Saturday’s crowd showered the orchestra with applause lasting nearly 10 minutes. As of this writing, the city’s musical press was just starting to weigh in, with one veteran critic on The Arts Desk calling it “easily the best Mahler Sixth I’ve heard in a concert hall.”
The night began with Brett Dean’s trumpet concerto “Dramatis personae,” performed by soloist Hakan Hardenberger. In this work, heard last fall in Symphony Hall, the trumpet over three movements takes on a variety of narrative poses, from comic-book superhero to Shakespearean soliloquist to “accidental revolutionary” (inspired by Chaplin’s “Modern Times”). It’s a piece whose prime virtue appears to be the opportunity it affords the soloist for virtuosic display, and Hardenberger on Saturday took full advantage.
The Mahler came after intermission, and Nelsons once again set the opening of the first movement at a forward-tilting clip, suggesting it as not only a heavily freighted march toward an uncertain fate, but one that seems in a rush to get there. In this performance, however, he was able to confer on the movement’s contrasting material, including the winged “Alma” theme, a freedom and fantasy all its own. In the Scherzo, he brought out the sardonic, galumphing quality of the music, with the woodwind trills sounding as if they had escaped from the Allegretto of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. The strings glowed in the slow movement, and the immense finale was both nimble and muscular.
Performances on tour carry a level of unpredictability, in part because every hall asks something different of the players. At the Royal Albert, the stage itself is steeply terraced, so that the back row of brass is sitting far above the strings, essentially canopying the orchestra with its sound. (The orchestra adjusted, albeit imperfectly, on Saturday.) Sitting up high also lends the brass players a dominant visual prominence. When principal trumpet player Thomas Rolfs stood to take a solo bow after a stellar night in the Mahler, the volume of applause leapt up many decibels.
The Proms itself is a festival like no other. Beyond the sheer stadium-like enormity of its home, it seems to beat with a uniquely democratic heart. This is thanks not only to countless small touches, like the fact that listeners can enjoy beer and wine and Häagen-Dazs right from their seats, or because of its multiuse history, having hosted everything over the years from sumo wrestling to One Direction. Rather, it flows from the layout of the hall itself.
The gigantic circular theater has a space on its central floor called the arena, where there are no seats but where up to 850 people stand to watch the performance. Arena tickets cost only around $8 each, and some wait on line the entire day to purchase one. At most other venues, too often concertgoers with a passion for the art that exceeds their means end up sitting miles away from the action. Here these die-hard fans are at its very center, some standing only feet from the stage, and their energy sets the tone and the intensity of the listening for the hall as a whole. In other words, it proves contagious. I have very rarely witnessed a crowd even one-third as large experiencing a concert with the kind of rapt attention displayed at this packed venue on Saturday night.
The BSO was to give one more performance here on Sunday afternoon, featuring Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony. Once again it had a high bar to meet, in this case set by its own recent recording of the same work, which has been earning hosannas in the British press. Then it’s on to the Salzburg Festival, followed by stops in Grafenegg (Austria), Lucerne, Milan, Paris, Cologne, and Berlin. As was already clear after Saturday’s opener, this was an orchestra happy to be back in Europe.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Andris Nelsons, conductor. At Royal Albert Hall in London, Saturday nightJeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.