Sir Simon Rattle; photo by Jim Rakete

Outside Carnegie Hall last night, there was a red carpet. Not just for celebs, but for everybody. It was Opening Night. Inside the hall, there were red flowers. Critics with horticultural skills could tell you what they were. Let me say they were poinsettia-like, sort of.

The orchestra last night was the Berlin Philharmonic. The conductor was the BPO’s longtime music director, Sir Simon Rattle. And the soloist was Anne-Sophie Mutter, the starry German violinist.

The program consisted of favorites, not to say chestnuts: the Symphonic Dances of Rachmaninoff; Bruch’s Violin Concerto in G minor; and Stravinsky’s Firebird (excerpts from). This was “hum-along time,” as the formidable critic Martin Bernheimer says.

As a rule, I like hum-along time. I’ve been defending the performance of familiar music, even overly familiar music, my whole life. I am the squarest of the square. But even for me, this program was a little square. Opening Night might have included something more offbeat.

That said, the Symphonic Dances are not often played these days, or so it seems to me. They were an orchestral staple, back when. So was the Rachmaninoff tone poem Isle of the Dead.

One thing that distinguishes Carnegie Hall’s opening night from the two other big opening nights—that of the New York Philharmonic and that of the Metropolitan Opera—is this: no national anthem. I kind of miss it. True, it would be strange for a German orchestra (for example) to play “The Star-Spangled Banner.” And at least there’s a flag on Carnegie Hall’s stage.

The Symphonic Dances are rather a concerto for orchestra: Lots of first-desk players have solos. There is even a chance for the sax to shine. Everyone in the BPO shone; this is not an orchestra for weak links. The dances are also a chance for an orchestra in general to show off its color. The BPO was colorful indeed.

In the first movement, there is unison string playing, giving a dreamy “out on the steppes” feeling. The BPO handled this beautifully.

Overall, the dances were smooth, polished, and accurate. On the podium, Sir Simon did nothing stupid—he never does. But were the dances exciting, as they can be, and ought to be? Not really. Sir Simon is ever modulated, ever a moderate. That can be advantageous. Sometimes, less so.

Out walked La Mutter, for the Bruch concerto. I have a friend—a violinist, as it happens—who says, “I don’t go for the playing anymore. I just go for the dress.” Mutter looked smashing indeed: glamorous, hourglassy, as always. Also, blondish, I would say. That was new (to me).

Her playing was respectable, even good, in the first two movements. Most important, she took the concerto seriously. She was not slumming. She was tasteful, poised, and mature.

In the Prelude, she breathed like a singer. Her playing was notably singerly. And Sir Simon, I must say, conducted as though his life depended on it. He was not slumming, far from it. He can bring great care and vitality to these Romantic concertos. I remember a Rachmaninoff D-minor he did with Yefim Bronfman. I had never noticed the orchestral part so much.

Mutter, in the Adagio of her concerto, played with delicacy and beauty. But in the Finale—the pièce de résistance—she lost it. What happened?

I don’t know. But her intonation failed her, and so did her memory: She had a slip. The final movement was never comfortable, never in the groove, never itself. I wish she could have had a do-over.

But “life is not a studio recording,” as I like to say. Anything can happen in a concert hall, which is something that makes concert life thrilling.

Tonight, still in Carnegie Hall, the BPO will play the complete Firebird. Last night, the orchestra played beloved excerpts: the Infernal Dance, the Lullaby, and the Finale, that great, swelling, uplifting thing. Sir Simon and the orchestra were fine. But was the music electric, emotional, moving? I’m afraid not. It suffered from the quality of okayness.

But toward the end, a miracle occurred. The French horn came in. I had forgotten that Stefan Dohr was in this orchestra! His little solo was a piece of startling perfection. Dohr is not only one of the great horn players, he is one of the great instrumentalists. His moment—and Stravinsky’s, we should add—practically made the evening.

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