Sunday, July 14, 2024
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    Boston’s Mayor Trades City Hall for Symphony Hall

    BOSTON — There are things that a big-city mayor just has to do. Cut a ribbon here. Plant a tree there. Throw out the first pitch. Play Mozart with the local symphony orchestra.

    Hang on a second.

    Plenty of politicians might say that they support the arts, but Michelle Wu, a Democrat who became the first woman and the first person of color to be elected mayor of Boston, in November 2021, is one of the few who will court embarrassment to prove it.

    At the free “Concert for the City” on Sunday afternoon, put on by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and its sister ensemble, the Boston Pops, Wu took the stage before a nearly full house at Symphony Hall here to perform as the soloist in the dreamy slow movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21. She may not quite be ready for a world tour, but with the Symphony and its music director, Andris Nelsons, in support, she captured more of the composer’s characteristic elegance than an amateur might. And she barely missed a note.

    “I think Michelle did it so wonderfully,” Nelsons said during a news conference after the performance.

    While political figures, including Edward M. Kennedy, the former Massachusetts senator, and Thomas M. Menino, the former Boston mayor, have from time to time stood on the podium while the Pops has played such staples as “Sleigh Ride” and “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” the Symphony’s archivist said that Wu, 38, was almost certainly the first officeholder in the orchestra’s more than 140-year history to take the far greater risk of stepping into the spotlight as a soloist.

    Some players in the ensemble — which had rehearsed with her on Saturday, before giving a ferociously intense reading that night of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 to end its subscription season — stayed onstage to watch, even though they had no music to play.

    “I have been playing piano since long, long before I ever thought about politics, and my parents are probably more than skeptical still about the politics thing,” Wu said at the news conference, adding with a laugh, “This is probably the proudest that they’ve ever been of me, and it took getting elected to mayor to be able to do this.”

    For the Boston Symphony, the performance was a chance to showcase its quickly strengthening commitment to community engagement. For Wu, it was a platform to promote her policies as the city’s arts institutions steadily right themselves after the pandemic, including her insistence that every child in a Boston public school should have access to an instrument. But it was also an occasion to reflect on the deeper connections that she — as a pianist who trained from age 4 and, as The Boston Globe reported, keeps an upright in her City Hall office — sees between music and politics broadly.

    Classical artists often talk in platitudes about music being a universal language that can transcend borders, but for Wu, who grew up in Chicago as the first child of immigrants from Taiwan and who also learned the violin, the commonplaces were a reality.

    “I remember very vaguely when I was young, we would go drive really far so my mom would sing in a community chorus concert,” Wu said in an interview. “My mom has a gorgeous voice, so much of my function learning piano growing up was to be her accompanist.”

    Music offered Wu’s parents continuity amid change, as they learned English and adapted to a new culture. She remembered seeing that her mother had transliterated the words in her score for Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” into Chinese, so that she could pronounce them correctly.

    “My parents were in a very modest situation,” Wu said. “We were initially receiving benefits and as my dad’s career moved up, kind of moved more firmly into the middle class. But piano lessons were, I’m sure, at that time just a luxury splurge for them. But it was important because my parents were both musical, and again, it was their way to feel like the barriers maybe weren’t so high in this country.”

    As a high schooler, Wu played the solo part in Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” and she became a subscriber to the Boston Symphony while she was studying at Harvard University. Although she practiced hard for Sunday’s performance, she said, she had made a tradition of playing for herself the night before mayoral debates.

    “My go-to to really calm myself is Liszt’s ‘Un Sospiro,’” Wu said. “With the flowing of it, you can really lose yourself quickly. And then if it was that kind of day, it’d be a little Rachmaninoff.”

    Wu’s Boston Symphony appearance came about after she and her children attended a family and youth concert last year, and she played a few bars of Liszt backstage for that program’s conductor, Thomas Wilkins. The orchestra approached her about Sunday’s concert of short, mostly Boston-related works about a month and a half ago, offering her three Mozart pieces to choose from. She took a few weeks to think about it, she admitted.

    “Just as I try to be honest about the challenges that can come with being a working parent,” Wu said at the news conference, “in the hopes that that means we change our systems faster and encourage other people to believe that it’s possible to live their lives and give their fullest in every way, I hope that people will see that we can come to our positions — if you might be so fortunate to have a position of leadership or whatever platform you have — to bring your whole self to that.”

    Wu talks about the role that the arts can play in society with a conviction that many musical institutions are still working to acquire, describing them as, among other things, “a vehicle to talk about and address our biggest challenges in new and interesting ways,” such as climate change and race. These are beliefs that, she said, she might not hold with the same intensity if she had not played the piano.

    “I would imagine that even as someone who would not necessarily play but be a passionate audience member, there’s something about the feeling and the connection that you can’t put words to when all of it comes together,” Wu said in the interview. “The power of how people felt connected in Symphony Hall today, hanging on every note, delighted at each individual piece and the surprises and twists of every composition — that’s a model for how we want our community to be, day in and day out, in this city.”

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