This past Saturday, a lone gunman entered Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue and killed 11 people during a Shabbat service. As with most mass shootings , the names of the dead and their ages were released shortly afterward.
Then came the stories from their lives. Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz treated HIV-positive patients at the height of the AIDS crisis. Brothers David and Cecil Rosenthal lived with help from a disability-assistance service and found joy in devoting time to the synagogue community. Joyce Fienberg played dual roles as University of Pittsburgh research specialist and surrogate mother to graduate students. Before we read these stories, we know these people are gone. Afterward, we know these people are gone.
On the surface, this has nothing to do with the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s concert Thursday night, which included Haydn’s Symphony No. 93, Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme (“Enigma”), and the US premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s BSO co-commission “Remembering: In Memoriam Evan Scofield.” At the same time, it has everything to do with it. Once we know the human traits of the dead, they cease to be just names and numbers.
Haydn’s wit and love for musical pranks makes it easier to see him as more than a gilded bust in the hall of capital-G Great Composers. The orchestra’s reading of his Symphony No. 93 graced the hall with an eminently danceable minuet, some fine wind solos, and a generous amount of that signature humor. (Who doesn’t love a good fart joke? Well, you might not. Haydn did.) The sound was at times bottom heavy, which may have been avoidable by placing the perpetually buried second violins on the outside opposite the firsts.
Writer Evan Scofield’s online memorial at www.scatterevan.com tells us that he was a curious student of life, a “poet and Pirate” with an appetite for adventure. For its first three movements, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s piece is a celebration of Scofield’s full but short life. The piece’s highly syncopated score includes a vast brass section and omits violins, making for an unusually hued sound world in which elements of modern classical music, jazz, swing, blues, and musical theater all dance together.
Only the final movement delves into the grief of Scofield’s death, at 26, from sarcoma. Traces of the piano elegy that formed the seed of the movement were clearly audible. A seamless dialogue between principal violist Steven Ansell and principal cellist Blaise Déjardin pierced deep, and as the wind players pushed air into a recurring rising and falling figure, the sound took on an unmanicured wailing quality. Conceivably, that final movement could be performed on its own as a somber memorial piece for anyone, but with the music of Scofield’s life attached, listeners are introduced to someone most of them never knew, who becomes a reminder of our own mortality.
I can’t say exactly why Elgar’s intimate scrapbook of friends felt like a memento mori Thursday night, even though it was never intended to be such. Maybe it was because I had just heard Turnage’s piece, maybe it was because of the Pittsburgh shooting, and maybe it was because of Andris Nelsons’s nakedly emotional take on the “Enigma” Variations. In the ninth variation, “Nimrod,” which is often used as a public elegy in England, Nelsons masterfully handled a long crescendo from whisper-quiet to the first moment of catharsis, but that was only one source of poignancy.
The unique humanity of the variations’ long-passed dedicatees came through in striking color: a woman’s distinctive laugh here in the oboe and flutes, a cellist’s kindness captured in a sweet melody, a man’s crashing struggle with the piano there illustrated by the whole orchestra. These people are gone. Someday we will be gone, too, whether it’s our time or before. All you can hope is that someone will remember what you gave the world, and carry it on.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall, Nov. 1. Repeats Nov. 3 and 6. 888-266-1200, www.bso.org .
Zoë Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.