Avoiding Great Performances

As part of my subscription  to the Boston Symphony this season, I had a ticket to the October 15 performance of Richard Strauss’s opera “Elektra.” This was the first of three performances. It was given again on Saturday, October 17, and again in Carnegie Hall the following Wednesday, October 21. It drew reviews ranging from the favorable to rave — Boston Musical Intelligencer, Boston Globe, The Arts Fuse, and the New York Times. It seems to have been a performance not to be  missed, one for the ages.

I say “seems” because I wasn’t there, having exchanged my ticket for one to the November 5 concert, which will include the American premiere of Unsuk Chin’s “Mannequin,” a work co-commissioned y the BSO. I try to attend all premieres given by the orchestra in Boston, whether they are the world, American, Boston, or BSO premiere. I consider them special events, and therefore worth attending. I think of famous premieres of the past, such as the concert where Beethoven premiered four of his works, or the premiere of “The Rite of Spring,” where a riot broke out; and I think how wonderful it would have been to be there. Any premiere holds the possibility of being a similarly noteworthy occasion. Facetiously, I say, “Fifty years from now, I can tell people I was there for the premiere.”

As for “Elektra,” I had seen a video performance on TV a number of years ago, and the opera wasn’t something I wanted to hear again. So even if an end-of-season Race Committee party had gotten scheduled for the 15th, I probably would have made the ticket exchange, even though I could have gotten a ticket for the 5th some other way.

The result was that I seem to have missed hearing a really spectacular performance. Of course, in advance I had no way of knowing it would be that good. If I had somehow known, I might have deliberated seriously about it. There is something to be said for hearing a really spectacular performance, even if it isn’t a piece one particularly likes. But there are limits. I don’t think I’d ever go to hear “Lulu,” even if I knew it would be the best performance ever. Berg’s music and the story are just too repulsive. Similarly, I’d never go to a performance of something by Milton Babbitt, no matter how well it was to be played (unless it was part of a larger program). Under James Levine, the BSO played something by Babbitt, and it’s among the worst things I’ve ever heard. On the other hand, although I have no real interest in hearing “La Boheme” or “Also Sprach Zarathustra” again, if I had reason to believe that an upcoming performance would be one for the ages, I’d be interested to hear it. The “reverse side of the coin” is that I’d be happy to hear a mediocre performance of Beethoven’s 3rd or 5th symphony or piano concerto, or “Il Trovatore,” but not a really terrible one.

In this particular instance, I have mild regret that I missed this “Elektra,” but I’m not “kicking myself” over it.


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