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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Rush Tickets

As college student in Boston I lived in a dorm room close to historic Symphony Hall, which opened its doors on October 15, 1900. It was designed with acoustical principles in mind and is regarded as one of the three finest halls in the world (the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and the Musikverein in Vienna are the other two). With the exception of the wooden floors, the Symphony Hall is built of brick, steel, and plaster which have ideal properties for the reflection of orchestral sound. It seats 2,625 people during the regular season and 2,371 during the Pops season. This season the building will have more light. Its windows had been covered over during WWII to camouflage against possible air raids from our enemies, and were just returned to their original translucent state.

I soon discovered the Boston Symphony Orchestra offers Rush Tickets. Sponsored by a generous grant that was permanently set aside specifically for this purpose, rush tickets make the BSO readily available to anyone in the public who wants hear this leading orchestra.

The tradition of discounted BSO tickets has a long tenure. It existed back when centenarian composer Elliott Carter was a student at Harvard, and he one wrote about how he took full advantage this and was able to experience the orchestral repertory up close and in person. Although the fixed ticket price has increased over the years from the $3 that I paid in 1973, it is still a great bargain at today's ticket price of $9. (My memory is fading, but I may have initially paid as little as $1.50 to purchase BSO rush tickets. Composer Robert Ceely just emailed that as as student at NEC during the Serge Koussevitzky era, rush tickets were only sixty cents. He attended every week).

Here’s the scoop:

Rush Tickets are only available at the main BSO box office at the Massachusetts Avenue entrance on the day of the concert and for performances on Tuesday & Thursday evenings and Friday afternoons. (You can’t buy them online).

For Tuesdays & Thursdays evening performances at 8pm, rush tickets go on sale at 5pm - $9.00 - cash only! (up from $8.00 last season).

For Friday afternoon performances at 1:30 PM, rush tickets go on sale at 10 AM. They will only sell one ticket per person, but you may go back into the line again an get additional tickets if it is not too long.

Rush Tickets are NOT sold for Friday or Saturday evening concerts (Which is different than it was in the 70’s when I attended every week on Saturday).

The choice of seats for rush tickets can vary. They tend to be the same every week, and many hard-core attendees get into the line early and request their favorite spots. (There is a camaraderie amongst the regulars, some of which have been attending concerts regularly on rush tickets for decades). I’d estimate that a few hundred tickets are available in the general pool, but many are single seats, with obscured vision under the balcony, or in the infamous “jump” seats on in last row of the second balcony on the sides. I’ve often wondered why they call them “jump” seats, and if the anyone has ever leaped off of the high balcony in a act of suicide during a musical climax. But there is no record of this ever occurring.

I’ve attended many BSO concerts on rush tickets over the years, and heard countless great works of music and historic performances by conductors and soloists, but these are far too numerous to list here. Let me just say that attending the BSO frequently has been one of the great advantages of living in the Boston area. The ability to do this with rush tickets makes it more affordable for the common man.

On days when there is a renowned conductor or soloist, you would be wise to get into the queue well before the ticket office opens. There are occasionally performances where all to the tickets for the general public are sold out and only rush tickets remain. But in general I estimate that it is easiest to obtain tickets without an excessive wait in line for the Friday afternoon concerts.

Occasionally you have to wait in the freezing weather to get your ticket, which is part of the experience (no pain, no gain). I remember waiting in line in the bitter sub-zero November weather with my son Joseph in 2005 to purchase two of the last remaining rush tickets to hear the famed American mezzo soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson perform the premiere of her husband Peter Lieberson’s Neruda Songs. It was a spectacular concert, and regrettably it turned out to be Lorraine’s last performance in Boston before she succumbed to her long battle with cancer.

If you don’t like to wait in the queue and prefer to purchase an affordable ticket in advance, you can always attend a BSO Open Rehearsal. Open rehearsals which are scheduled for one of six Thursday mornings or four Wednesday evenings in the 2008-09 season. They are open to the public at a deeply discounted price from the regular ticket prices. If you get to Symphony Hall early, you can sit anywhere you want. General admittance and seating is on a first come, first served basis. But be aware that these performances are working rehearsals in which the conductor may stop the orchestra to rehearse specific passages of the music. There is no guarantee that the entire program without interruption will be performed during a rehearsal.

It’s interesting to see how musical sausages are made. The Boston musician’s union (Local 9-535 of the American Federation of Musicians) has a lot of power, and by contract the open rehearsals last the regulation rehearsal time from 7:30 to 10 PM – not a minute longer. Open rehearsals have been a bit of a sticking point, since all the dirty laundry is potentially on display for everyone to hear. Under the standard trade agreement between management and the members of the Orchestra, nobody is allowed into a rehearsal except by a majority vote of the orchestra. However the musicians voted to allow students and the public to attend a limited number of rehearsals (six Thursday mornings and four Wednesday evenings in the 2008-09 BSO season).

While I prefer rush tickets, I have also attended many open rehearsals to observe how difficult pieces are put together. It’s a good idea to sit close to the stage, so that comments made by the music director can be heard. I like to sit on the edge of the upper balcony just over the stage with score in hand. Last season I watched and listened to Maestro James Levine rehearse the Berg Violin Concerto and the Mahler 9th Symphony. He would stop often, and work on the details of balance and articulation. Often the piece is still in a quite raw form, but you can observe the process of it becoming more polished. It’s interesting for musicians to observe, but too often the meticulous attention to detail and frequent interruption drive the elderly casual listeners batty. Many of them descend on Symphony Hall from senior citizen homes and are not overly enthusiastic about hearing Berg or Schoenberg in the first place. Add to that the painstaking efforts of musicians working under the stress of an all-to-short rehearsal period, and you can see the signs of frustration coming from the public.

Often the “audience” at open rehearsals consists of music students and professional musicians. As I looked up from my score of the Malher 9th Symphony last year, I noticed Gustavo Dudamel coming into balcony near me with a few members of his acclaimed Simón Bolívar National Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, an orchestra consisting mainly of children and teenagers from slums of Venezuela. They had just performed at a sold out concert in Symphony Hall the night before. Dudamel saw that I had the score in hand and we exchanged glances and said “hello.” From what I hear, the now 27 year old is a wunderkind on steroids and regarded by some as the finest conductor in the world. Together we watched James Levine shape and mold Mahler. Dudamel will have to do it himself when he becomes Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic next year.

Keep in mind that high society has always supported orchestras. The BSO is no exception. The top ticket price to attend the Opening Night “Gala” is $2,500. If you would like to hear the majority of the concerts this season (25 Saturday evenings) and have the best seats, a subscription will cost you $2,725. On the other extreme you can secure less-than-desirable season seats for $725 per person, but don’t forget the added expense of parking in that area of town. That's not exactly what the average person can afford.

I wish I could say that the BSO 2008-09 season will be extraordinary in terms of its programming. They have come down a notch and frankly given-in to the public’s recent clamoring for less Schoenberg and modern music. Levine, back on the podium after having a cancerous kidney removed this summer, has toned down his aggressive new-music stance, and more of the tried and proven orchestral war horses have made it into this year’s concert schedule at the expense works by 20th and 21st century composers.

But there are still some concerts of interest, including works by Boulez, Messiaen and world premieres by Gunther Schuller, Elliott Carter, and Leon Kirchner. Perhaps the highlight will be one of my personal favorites, the Ives 4th Symphony conducted by Alan Gilbert in March.

The Dutch will be represented by Bernard Haitnk (BSO Conductor Emeritus), cellist Pieter Wispelway, and violinist Janine Jansen.

The BSO brochure reads “Wispelwey brings his historically informed approach to Haydn’s popular Cello Concerto number 2.” Does this comment imply that all of the other BSO performances – past and present – are not “historically informed?”

I have not heard violinist Janine Jansen, but from her photo I wonder if she is related to Mr. Spock from Star Trek.

Mr. Spock
Ms. Jansen

Put away your iPod and go to hear some live music. There is no substitute for the excitement of a concert. Support your local musicians, whoever they are.