The seats were empty; no musicians tuning, noodling, kibbutzing, or randomly entering to take their places. The orchestra parts sported a distinctive maroon binding. The podium was different and a platform sat at the center of the back wall. The audience filtered in from a soaking, gale-driven rainstorm, shed coats and umbrellas, and took their seats in an unusual air of quiet anticipation. Then the stage doors opened and Leipzig's Gewandhausorchester filed in from both sides, acknowledged the audience’s applause, took their seats, and began to tune. The logistics required to get to this point – 103 musicians, their instruments and luggage, orchestra parts, podium, and heaven knows what else – were such that DHL was acknowledged in the program as the GHO’s “Official Logistics Partner”. The most precious cargo of all, though, was not in any crate: the orchestra’s distinctive sound, style, and traditions.

Andris Nelsons conducts the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester
© Robert Torres

Though it has appeared in Symphony Hall ten times since its first American tour in 1974, this series is special. Not only was Sunday’s Celebrity Series of Boston/BSO performance the opening concert of the third annual Leipzig Week, but Thursday’s BSO/GHO joint concert would mark the official conclusion of the Federal Republic of Germany’s “Year of German-American Friendship”. The GHO has also dedicated their performances this week to commemorating the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. An overarching sense of occasion could not help but prevail.

Robust, unified strings are the bedrock of the GHO’s sound signature. Seating and the choice of pieces favored this profile. Violins were split antiphonally; the double basses stood to the conductor’s left curling along the back wall to the stage door; cellos were massed left center of the podium with the violas at right center, the first three chairs lined up in front of the second violins; timpani plus the modest complement of brass and winds required occupied a raised platform at the center of the back wall. Overall, the orchestra produced a density of warm, even buttery, string-dominated sound which remained clear and clean and never occluded. The strings often leaned into their phrases with remarkable precision, unanimity, and energy. Timbre and color remained constant even in the softest passages.

Leonidas Kavakos and Gautier Capuçon with the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester
© Robert Torres

Leonidas Kavakos and Gautier Capuçon expressively blended and contrasted their sound with the orchestra’s while maintaining their individuality – the cello grainy and bumptious; the violin sweet, warm and composed – in Brahms’ Double Concerto. Frequent eye contact and body English reflected a conspiratorial, fraternal rapport which made for a fluent, sensitive, and playful dialogue and something approaching a vocal duet in the Andante. Brahms wrote this concerto as a peace offering to violinist and longtime friend and collaborator, Joseph Joachim, with whom he had had a falling out, so the Hungarian Dance quality of the final movement is likely a wink at his friend’s heritage. Kavakos, Capuçon, Nelsons and the GHO took off on a witty, impish romp whose spirit carried over into the duo’s encore: the second movement of Ravel’s Sonata for violin and cello.

The Gewandhaus premiered Schubert’s Symphony in C “The Great” in 1839 under Mendelssohn, but with substantial cuts. This afternoon’s performance clocked in at about an hour, observing all the repeats. Andris Nelsons began slowly and deliberately allowing Schubert’s plethora of themes to introduce themselves in stream of consciousness fashion. The recapitulation sparked a jolt of energy which galvanized orchestra and conductor followed by a melodic second movement muted, expansive yet tensile. The energy of the latter part of the first movement percolated through the dancing Scherzo and intensified in the bright C major joy of the final movement with its lusty, celebratory strings and kinetic energy building to the coda’s ecstatic release. The wall of perfectly balanced sound the Gewandhaus produced in the closing measures was jaw-dropping.

Further works associated with the orchestra will make up the next program. Miss it and you’ll miss a top notch ensemble playing a repertory it knows heart and soul.