Once-In-A-Lifetime Concerts

One of Greg’s friends asked an interesting question on Twitter today: For classical music afficionados, what is the once-in-a-lifetime concert ticket, the equivalent of front-row tickets to U2 or Radiohead?

The question really got me thinking. I have been fortunate – through my work at Boston Symphony Hall and my time in London – to see a number of very memorable concerts. The ones that I would consider up there at the very top make for an interesting list.

My first answer was seeing any of the world’s top orchestras play Mahler 8. Because of the instrumentation (organ included) and the sheer number of people it requires (they don’t call it “The Symphony of a Thousand” because it’s a cute nickname) you don’t see it performed nearly as often as Mahler’s other works, and it’s a hell of a piece. I have never seen it performed yet, but I did witness a rehearsal of the BSO and Levine. They performed it in his very first concert after taking over the helm there in 2004. The rehearsal itself was an incredible opportunity, and one that I will never forget.

Many of my other top concerts all have to do with singers. One of the things I realized after a few years of hearing the BSO twice a week is that nothing – absolutely nothing – beats a really fantastic singer. I was very lucky in that James Levine, as the conductor of the Met, recruited some of the world’s absolute best to come sing with the BSO. Some of those concerts have retroactively become once-in-a-lifetime concerts because the singers have since died or retired.

I will never forget hearing Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder in the autumn of 2005. That’s another piece you rarely see performed live because of its massive orchestration. I would have remembered that anyway, but the icing on top of that huge cake was hearing Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson sing the part of the Wood-Dove. I later got to hear her sing again, on a recording the BSO did of her husband’s Neruda songs. Hunt-Lieberson died of cancer in 2006, and I will always count myself blessed that I heard her sing twice.

Thomas Quasthoff retired a few years ago for health reasons, and he is the male singer that I most enjoyed hearing live. He and another supremely famous tenor (whose name for some reason escapes me) performed Das Lied Von Der Erde with the BSO, which was the first time I heard him, and he blew me away. I heard that performance while I was working, but it so impressed me that I was inspired to buy a ticket of my own when I heard he was coming back. I worked for the BSO for four years, and I can count the number of times I elected to buy a ticket on one hand. Thomas Quasthoff doing Schubert’s Winterreise was worth it. I would have paid twice that much just to hear him sing the last song.

Deborah Voigt, the famous Wagnerian soprano, came through once to do a recital, which was another rare opportunity. Most people only hear Voigt in operas. That’s another concert I’ll always remember – she’s that good.

Other concerts were special because of their conductors. I don’t think any conductor alive today does a better live performance of Mahler than Bernard Haitink. He simply brings out the best in orchestras. The single best performance of the Boston Symphony that I ever heard was Haitink’s Mahler 6. Levine did amazing things with them, but Haitink was on another level. I actually think he might be a wizard. I got the chance to play under his baton once in London, and he did the same thing for our orchestra that he did for the BSO – made us leagues better than we had ever sounded, just by the way he moved his hands. I also saw him conduct Mahler 2 at the Royal Albert Hall in 2006, SRO – I was standing in the gallery right above the stage – and that concert made me cry.

A few others stand out just because the orchestra was so good. The London Symphony did a fabulous Mahler 5 at the Barbican. I’ve only heard the New York Philharmonic once live, but the brass playing was like nothing I’ve ever heard. Berlin came through Boston and played Strauss, and cemented my opinion of them as one of the top two or three orchestras in the world.

Then there are the oddities, the concerts that were important because the pieces are rarely performed, or were performed under special circumstances. Schoenberg’s Erwartung was one that I’ll never forget. I got to hear the premier of the Elliot Carter horn concerto, which would probably only be special if you are a horn player. I got to see Elliot Carter himself at Tanglewood once, for his hundredth-birthday concert, and that was very special.

I still have a few things on my bucket list, so to speak. I’ve always wanted to see The Ring Cycle and Tristan at the Met – actually any Wagner opera, or any performance at the Met, because so far I’ve heard neither live. I’d love to hear Berlin perform any of the Mahlers. I’ve never heard Mahler 7 done live, and it’s a favorite of mine. I’d love to hear a Russian orchestra play Russian music, because I’m convinced they do it better than Americans do. I want to hear the Vienna Phiharmonic.

But I guess if you had to ask me the real once-in-a-lifetime concert, that would probably have to be the one I saw at Tanglewood when I was fifteen. It was John Williams’ birthday concert. If you ever have the chance to hear John Williams conduct his own music – he does it every summer with the Boston Pops, but the man is old so he won’t be doing it much longer – I recommend it. I’ve seen him dozens of times now, and they were all a lot of fun and very cool, but this concert was the most memorable because afterward I got to go backstage and MEET John Williams – AND Yo-Yo Ma because he just happened to be there. I told him he was the reason I had wanted to become a horn player (which is sacrilege, but true – I was FIFTEEN, okay?) and he was very nice and took a picture with me, which my Mom now has framed with the ticket stub and a news clipping about the concert. I just don’t know if I can top that in terms of giddy excitement, because, let’s face it: if you’re fifteen, a classical music nerd, and a brass player, NOTHING is cooler than meeting John Williams.

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