Praise Gutenberg!

I love live music, but my suburban locale and the responsibilities of my home life (read: my dog) conspire against my better nature when it comes to actually attending concerts on a regular basis.  To make up for this constant short-falling, I have taken to seeking out these events online from the comfort of my desk.  (Please don’t alert the internet-police in my office–I’m somewhat positive your Facebook addiction takes up more bandwidth than my occasional streaming of Mendelssohn.)

My latest regret was missing conductor Bramwell Tovey leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus in Mendelssohn‘s Lobgesang (Hymn of Praise).  Tovey is currently the music director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, and he’s apparently somewhat of a superstar, both as a conductor and as a composer in his own right.  This performance at the end of January was Tovey’s Symphony Hall debut, following his Tanglewood debut last summer.  Although his contract with the VSO runs for another two years, there are rumors afoot that he is on the top of the list to take on the BSO starting in 2015.  Oooh, the drama!  But seriously people, the BSO needs a new director, and he has such a fabulous name, how can we resist?

Mendelssohn wrote the Lobgesang in 1840, for a three-day festival honoring the 400th anniversary of Gutenberg‘s printing press. This will be only the third time the BSO has performed the complete work (the first was under Seiji Ozawa in 1988, the second under Arthur Nikisch in 1890)

So, why has a great orchestra like the BSO performed this piece only twice, ever?  Mendelssohn is pretty popular (everyone loves a child star), and choral symphonies in general tend to be pretty crowd-pleasing.  Tovey speculates in his introductory interview that this has less to do with the pleasing nature of the Lobgesang, and more to do with the nature of Romantic music, and then the focus of the Lobgesang in particular.

Romantic music (quoting and paraphrasing Tovey here) is all about “the self, the expression of Romantic idealism, reaching for pinnacles, the drama of peaks and valleys.”  The Lobgesang is about praising God, and over the years the symphony has been increasingly viewed as a very religious piece of very sentimental music.  In short, you need to be a pretty self-confident conductor with a great orchestra, a truly great set of soloists, and the confidence that spending an evening with Protestant Lutheran German (sans intermission) is something you really want to do.

Personally?  I love it!  A little sentimental, ok, but from the orchestral waltz-like intro to the truly joyful choral finale, it’s swooping, grandiose, Romantic spectacle at its best.  Check out the full recording here: The Boston Symphony Orchestra in Concert.

Selections from a Midsummer Night’s Dream (no wedding marches, thankfully), interspersed with truly otherworldly snippets of narration, start off the recording.  To skip the dream and interviews and go right to the symphony, start the audio at 43:00.  Enjoy!

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