The Boston Symphony Orchestra visited the Kennedy Center Saturday night and gave a classic demonstration of how a symphony orchestra should sound. Less than 24 hours after the Los Angeles Philharmonic had given a brilliant but rather insubstantial program of Russian favorites (plus Copland's more meaty Orchestral Variations), the Bostonians brought a distinctive old-world flavor to the Concert Hall. The program was all-Beethoven and the performance was close to flawless, with a depth and richness in the sound that matched the precision of the ensemble playing.
The depth was in the sound rather than the interpretation. Music director Seiji Ozawa has no special revelations to make about Beethoven, but he is a superb technician and, give or take a few slightly hurried tempos, he made sure that all the notes were played correctly. With Beethoven and the Boston Symphony, that is enough for an evening of intense satisfaction.
On paper, the program -- the Fourth and Seventh Symphonies -- might seem to lack variety. In performance, it explored a wide range of emotions, from a pure, Apollonian calm and detachment in the slow introduction to the Fourth to a Dionysian frenzy in the orgiastic finale of the Seventh.
There was humor in the scherzo of the Seventh, where the orchestra becomes impatient with efforts to bring back once more the "assai meno presto" section and terminates the movement brusquely with an instrumental equivalent of "oh, shut up!" There was tenderness in the slow movement of the Fourth, one of the greatest wordless love songs ever written -- though Ozawa could have been a shade slower in tempo and less metronomic in pulse. There was rhythmic vitality throughout the Seventh, rising to a kind of obsession in its slow movement. And throughout, there was a sound that had the texture of deep velvet, with a constantly shifting variety of nuances -- sometimes bringing horns, timpani or woodwinds to the surface, sometimes covering the music with a rich patina of deep bass -- that was always well adapted to the music's statement.
Ozawa, who reaches his 50th birthday this year, still looks like a teen-ager from a distance, but he has matured well as a conductor. So has Michael Tilson Thomas, who conducted on the previous evening, but this time he did not have a program to show it effectively. Ozawa managed to keep both feet on the podium throughout the evening -- something he has not always done in the past and may still find difficult in some repertoires. Thomas, in his music's most frenzied moments, sometimes had both feet in the air.
This is not the final test of a conductor's quality, to be sure; it may simply indicate that the aging prodigy in Boston is 10 years older than the one in Los Angeles. But it was a fair index of the relative impact of the two concerts, both highly satisfying but in quite different ways.