For years I’ve listened to the concert podcasts from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, but yesterday was the first time I’ve gone there to hear a concert in person. The concert hall is unique. Literally everyone has a first or second-row seat, on the performance floor or in balconies which tower far above it. The piano’s lid was completely removed so its sound would project upward. From where I sat in the top balcony, I had a perfect view of Benjamin Grosvenor’s hands on the keyboard. My favorite piece in the performance was Busoni’s setting of Bach’s Chaconne in D minor. Several composers have written piano arrangments of that piece, originally written for unaccompanied violin; I love both the Brahms and the Busoni versions.
That has to be an intimidating place to perform, like being in an arena. You’re surrounded on all sides by spectators, some of them high above you; if they got upset enough to throw things at you, it could be deadly. Grosvenor didn’t speak to the audience at all, even to tell us what his encore was; it can’t be easy to speak to an audience that’s arrayed above you like that. The performance was excellent anyway.
After the concert I went through a glass tunnel to the museum’s other building, which was a complete contrast. The concert hall is extremely modern, but the museum proper is one of the most medieval-feeling places I’ve been in west of the Atlantic. Except for the courtyard, everything is dimly lit for preservation reasons and photography is forbidden. The museum has an amazing collection of old tapestries.
The museum is well worth visiting when a concert is scheduled. If you aren’t near Boston, you can still listen to its concert podcasts.