Boston Symphony's glittery opening gala. Wooing the well-heeled with Beethoven and chocolates

Beethoven's Ninth is echoing through Symphony Hall, but only the performers are listening. Although the opening concert of the Boston Symphony Orchestra's 108th season is 6 hours away, this is a day not just of musicmaking, but of showmanship, salesmanship, and sheer work. As the rehearsal winds down, there's much to be done.

Volunteers still have to place thousands of chocolates, wrapped in miniature green boxes bearing a symphony insignia, into baskets and carry them to the front doors, where ushers will offer them to an audience top-heavy with financial contributors to the orchestra.

Other helpers still have to smooth out the lace cloths on tables in a warren of rooms just off the concert hall and add pink carnations to the centerpieces for the opening gala dinner that will follow the concert.

In a more intimate room, caterers are arranging the finger sandwiches and sushi that will complete the elegant buffet lunch for symphony VIPs, corporate sponsors, and the press.

Managing director Kenneth Haas, an affable, bearded, Lincoln-esque man who towers over practically everyone, has to greet the delegation from NEC, the Japanese company that's underwriting an orchestra tour of Europe this fall.

And down at the stage door, PR people must ferry a steady stream of TV crews, photographers, and reporters to first-balcony seats a few yards from the podium where music director Seiji Ozawa, clad all in white, is waving, nodding, dancing, leaping, and at times shouting the orchestra through the Beethoven. ``First violins, play the phrase as long as possible,'' yells Mr. Ozawa, who rehearses the entire symphony without having to consult his score.

If there's a better way than culinary delicacies, flowers, cameras, microphones, fancy dress, and well-aged music to make contributors feel as important as they are, it probably won't take long for today's astute symphony management to find it. No one knows better than they that, without these donors, the orchestra couldn't function.

Even healthy subscription sales, TV and record contracts, gift-counter revenue, and endowment and other income will provide only about 85 percent of this year's $31.7 million orchestra budget. The contributors pick up the rest. Pity the poor orchestra that doesn't have Boston's cachet, Pops and Tanglewood offshoots, and well-heeled friends.

As the rehearsal speeds into its last hour, an armada of singers from the Tanglewood Festival Chorus bobs behind the musicians, ready to fire on signal. Many are reading novels or newspapers to pass the time until deployment in the last movement.

The cameras recording the scene for the 11 o'clock news are positioned in the balcony rather than on the main floor, because an enormous white curtain, hung just behind the sixth row of seats, has temporarily cut off the view. Its purpose is to bounce sound back to the musicians so they can tell if the ``Ode to Joy'' is turning to mush. It isn't.

A clock, concealed during concerts behind a wall panel at stage center, ticks off 12:57 p.m., and a man opens the doors at stage left to signal Ozawa that he'd better call it quits, or they'll soon be paying the players over-time. Unfazed, Ozawa keeps plowing on toward the finale, even when, at 12:59, the timekeeper comes all the way to the podium to give him an inescapable reminder. But apparently the maestro reigns supreme in rehearsals, despite management's concern with costs, and Beethoven, whose name is emblazoned in gold leaf atop the proscenium arch, gets his due.

After the run-through, the maestro and media people adjourn to a press conference to discuss both tour and season (see box at right), only to return a few hours later for the performance.

Miraculously, by 6:15 p.m. everything appears to be in order, right down to the handsome bouquets that adorn graceful columns inside the main entrance. We eagerly accept a box of chocolates and squeeze past a woman who, in her chic lam'e gown with ostrich plumes at the shoulders, stands out even in this crowd. She had better hang on to her chair, or the first chorus fortissimo will waft her into flight.

The huge Steinway at center stage, however, signals that she needn't worry yet, because the little-known Concerto in E-flat for the left hand by Franz Schmidt (1874-1939) will lead off the program, with the Beethoven coming later.

The corridor lights flash a warning to dawdlers, and soon the ushers close the auditorium doors. Mr. Haas, known for running a tight ship, values punctuality, and those not yet seated will miss the first movement.

The pianist is Leon Fleisher, a performer who enjoyed a meteoric keyboard career until 1965, when muscle problems with his right hand made playing the standard repertoire difficult. Since then he has built a second career as a conductor and administrator, serving since 1985 as artistic director of the Tanglewood Music Center, the BSO's summer training school. In performances, he is giving the piano literature for the left hand wider exposure.

The Concerto in E-flat is a three-movement work composed in 1934 for Paul Wittgenstein, a celebrated musician who lost his right arm in World War I. It is written in a romantic style that Schmidt contemporaries such as Arnold Schoenberg would have sneered at. A sonorous work, rich in lush motifs and melodies exchanged between orchestra and piano, it demands considerable technical skill.

Mr. Fleisher's performance is distinguished by the expressiveness and fluidity of the arpeggios that sweep seamlessly from one end of the keyboard to the other. But even more impressive is his careful shading of piano accompaniment against melody in the work's extended solo passages and last-movement cadenza. Though the piece seems overblown at 50 minutes, it nonetheless makes a fitting showcase for Fleisher's artistry, capably supported by the orchestra.

After an intermission where everyone gets a closer look at what's being worn, there's hushed anticipation as the audience awaits the Beethoven. Surely no musical monument is as durable as the Ninth Symphony or as well loved by the public. And hardly any is as capable of sounding fresh, thanks to the serious reconsideration being given now to the composer's brisk tempo markings, dismissed for nearly a century as faulty or impractical.

Ozawa's crisp, propulsive reading appears to owe something to Roger Norrington's landmark period-instrument recording of the work released earlier this year, which comes closer to the indicated tempos than any other. In the Ozawa performance, the sudden rhythmic and dynamic contrasts convey the kind of drama Beethoven must have intended. The orchestra is bombastic yet controlled, sumptuous yet fleet. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus delivers firepower that rings out over the full orchestra, but also shows itself capable of nuanced soft passages.

Josephine Barstow stands out among the guest soloists, not only for her lilac dress (did someone fail to send her the dress code?), the only break in a stageful of black gowns and cutaways, but for an impassioned soprano that soars above everything. Mezzo Joan Khara sings with grace and expressiveness, as do tenor Jacque Trussel and baritone Stephen Dickson.

The joy conveyed so effectively in the singing and playing of the final movement doesn't kindle every face on stage, but that hardly matters. A thunderous standing ovation proves the audience is well pleased.

The season is off and rolling, thanks to the musicians - and the many others who help bring the whole grand show together.

Highlights of '88-89 season

Among the topics BSO music director Seiji Ozawa discussed with reporters last Thursday:

The European tour, Nov. 28-Dec. 15. It is the orchestra's first since 1984 and the first winter tour since '81. Plans call for concerts in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris, Hamburg, Berlin, Hannover, Vienna, Frankfurt, and Munich.

New works. This season's world premi`eres at home are a still-untitled work by Bernard Rands and John Cage's ``One Hundred and One.'' The US premi`eres are Franz Schreker's Chamber Symphony and Richard Saxton's ``In the Beginning.''

Recordings to be made: Richard Strauss's ``Elektra,'' with Hildegard Behrens in the title role; Mahler's Symphony No. 9 and ``Kindertotenlieder''; and Ravel's ``Daphnis et Chlo'e'' (with conductor Bernard Haitink).

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