Joshua and I attended two concerts this week.
On Wednesday night, on Joshua’s birthday, we attended a performance of the Dresden Staatskapelle, which appeared in Boston as part of its current American tour.
The Dresden Staatskapelle is my favorite European orchestra. It has a sound of the most extraordinary beauty and refinement, and its music-making personifies “Old World” traditions of warmth, understatement and urbaneness. Many knowledgeable persons consider the Dresden Staatskapelle to be Europe’s very finest orchestra. I have always preferred Dresden to Amsterdam, Berlin or Vienna (although the Viennese can be extraordinary when they want to be—which is not all that frequent).
I have never heard the Staatskapelle play in its own hall in Dresden, but prior to Wednesday night I had heard the orchestra play on tour on five previous occasions. I had heard the orchestra perform in Vienna, Munich, Paris, London and New York, and four of those five earlier concerts were red-letter events in my life (the New York concert was the sole disappointment).
The sound of the Dresden players is unique.
The strings carry a dark coloration, perhaps the darkest coloration among major orchestras anywhere. This specific coloration has been handed down through generations of Dresden players—it is inherently in the ears and minds of the Dresden musicians—and it may be heard on the orchestra’s recordings going back as far as the 1930’s. This highly-individual sound has never been successfully reproduced elsewhere. It may be heard in Dresden, and nowhere else.
One key to the Dresden sound is the prominence of the violas and cellos, which form the foundation of the orchestra’s string sound.
In U.S. orchestras, the sound is generally built from the first violins down through the rest of the string section. In the case of the Berlin Philharmonic, the sound is built from the basses up. In the case of the Vienna Philharmonic, the sound is built around Vienna’s golden-toned cellos.
Building Dresden’s string sound from the warmth and deep overtones of the viola and cello sections tempers any potential stridency or wiriness or glassiness from the violin section and obviates any heaviness that can result from bass-heavy orchestras such as Berlin (especially under conductors unversed in knowing how to handle that orchestra’s remarkable bass section).
Another key to the Dresden sound is that the string section produces a firm, rich sound without using the amount of vibrato common in American orchestras and in many European orchestras. Of the world’s great orchestras, Dresden uses the least amount of string vibrato, and this apparently has always been so. While other orchestras obtain a firm, rich string sound through the application of string pressure and the use of vibrato, Dresden obtains the same, if not more, firmness and richness with less string pressure and less vibrato. The result is a clean, transparent sound that never descends into thickness or gooiness, two hazards of orchestras in which string players are encouraged to lean on their strings. Indeed, the incredible transparency of the Dresden string sound, coupled with its incredible darkness, is one of the world’s most miraculous sounds, a sound that every lover of orchestras should experience at least once.
Another key to the Dresden sound is the lightness and subtlety of the orchestra’s attacks. The current international style of playing calls for orchestras to make sharp, pointed attacks. Anything less than sharp and pointed is deemed to be a demonstration of inferior ensemble. Dresden attacks demonstrate great unanimity of ensemble, to be sure, but Dresden attacks are soft, gently-articulated attacks. Such attacks always startle the listener in the early minutes of a Dresden concert, since listeners seldom hear anything so miraculous from other orchestras.
The woodwinds of the Dresden Staatskapelle also carry a dark coloration. This is especially true of the orchestra’s clarinets and oboes. The Dresden woodwind players maintain their dark colorations despite the fact that they, too, use far less vibrato than their American counterparts. That vibrato is shunned does not signify that the Dresden woodwinds lack richness of sound or insufficient color. To the contrary, Dresden has one of the world’s finest arrays of woodwinds, offering playing of great individuality and character, to which the players add bewitching timbres. No American orchestra currently maintains as fine a collection of woodwind players as Dresden.
The Dresden brass sound was surely created with the music of Anton Bruckner in mind. The Dresden brass lacks the bite and brightness cultivated among American brass players. Instead, the Dresden brass players offer a more rounded, warmer sound, a sound that almost glows with mellowness, richness and depth.
This is a glorious orchestra, with a glorious sound, and it was the sound itself that offered the chief pleasure Wednesday night.
The orchestra was not on peak form Wednesday night—grueling foreign tours surely extract a heavy toll on players—but the inherent sound of the orchestra was on display at all times even if the performance was not one for the ages.
There were two works on the program: Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Brahms’s Symphony No. 4.
The Beethoven was completely unremarkable.
The soloist, Rudolf Buchbinder, has a heavy keyboard touch, too heavy for my taste, and he is a serious pianist more than an inspired one. I have heard Buchbinder in performance many times, in recital and in concert, always in Central European repertoire, and I have never found him to be an especially interesting artist. His playing—and especially his phrasing—has always struck me as foursquare.
The conductor, Fabio Luisi, was a disappointment. Luisi is not a classicist, and he brought no insight whatsoever to Beethoven’s first great concerto (misnumbered, since Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 was actually written after the concerto labeled as No. 2). Luisi brought no style, no command of structure, and no sense of energy to the Beethoven. He supported Buchbinder, capably, but he gave Buchbinder absolutely nothing to play off or play against.
The Dresden wind players made the concerto worthwhile. It was a privilege to hear the Dresden winds play off each other in Beethoven’s wind passages, injecting a touch of life into the performance.
The Brahms was much better, which came as no surprise, since Brahms’s Symphony No. 4 has long been one of the orchestra’s prime touring pieces. For the last thirty years, the Dresden Staatskapelle has played the Brahms Fourth on tour more often than any other composition. The work shows off the blended, mellow Dresden sound to splendid effect, which may be why the orchestra uses the work as its calling card. (The kindly couple sitting next to Josh and me told us that, on its previous visit to Boston, in 2005, the Staatskapelle had also programmed the Brahms Fourth.)
Wednesday’s performance was perfectly acceptable—any music-lover would be immensely pleased to hear such a natural, instinctive performance from an American orchestra—but it was not a great performance. The sound of the orchestra again offered the chief pleasure.
Luisi is a competent Brahms conductor, but he is hardly a special one, let alone a great one. The music of Brahms was more natural to him than the music of Beethoven, but Luisi’s Brahms is not worthy to be set alongside the Brahms of Wilhelm Furtwangler, Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer or Herbert Von Karajan. Indeed, I am not sure that Luisi’s Brahms measures up even to present-day conductors of Brahms such as Herbert Blomstedt, Christoph Dohnanyi, Bernard Haitink, or Kurt Masur, none of whom has ever revealed himself to be an especially notable or imaginative Brahms conductor.
The first movement was the low point of the Brahms.
Luisi mishandled the great climax of the first movement: Brahms’s grand restatement, in the coda, of the first main theme, with its powerful, organ-like sonority, achieved through immediate thematic restatement and resplendent orchestration, intended to mimic the echo effects produced by great organs in Gothic Cathedrals (Brahms had been studying, yet again, Bach scores at the time he composed this symphony). In Luisi’s hands, this powerful moment emerged as limp.
Luisi also mishandled the most magical moment of the first movement: the beginning of the recapitulation, when the strings steal in, almost imperceptibly, playing only the final four bars of the eight-bar main theme in triple pianissimo. This is one of the most inspired moments in all of Brahms, and it generally gives me chills—but this moment came and went on Wednesday night with no attendant frisson.
The Andante lacked focus, and meandered. The Scherzo always comes off, and it did on Wednesday night.
The Passacaglia was the finest moment for both conductor and players, and provided a fitting summation for the great work. The musicians built the tension and drama inherent in Brahms’s series of 30 variations (plus extended coda) in subtle but exquisite fashion, achieving a satisfying, even tragic, culmination before the music drew to its unsettling conclusion. For the first time all night, Luisi got the climax of the fourth movement right.
How much of this was due to the conductor and how much was due to the musicians I cannot say, having heard the Dresdeners offer an even finer account of the Passacaglia in the past. Nonetheless, the great Passacaglia, by itself, made the evening worthwhile.
After the conclusion of the Brahms, the orchestra added a substantial bonus: Weber’s greatest overture, “Oberon”, in which the orchestra offered its most splendid, joyous playing of the evening.
Until Wednesday night, Josh had never heard the Dresden Staatskapelle. Josh immediately appreciated the quality of the orchestra’s sound. Josh said that he preferred the sound of the Dresden Staatskapelle to the sound of the Vienna Philharmonic.
Josh also appreciated the orchestra’s great subtlety. Of American orchestras, only the Cleveland Orchestra can play with the subtlety of the Dresden musicians.
Last night, on my birthday, we attended a performance of the Boston Symphony.
The only reason we had purchased tickets for the concert was to hear the finest of this year’s Boston Symphony guest conductors, Gennady Rozhdestvensky. However, on Friday, we learned that Rozhdestvensky had cancelled this week’s Boston appearances, and that the basis of his cancellation was the fact that he was offended by the orchestra’s promotional materials.
According to the Boston Globe, Rozhdestvensky rehearsed the orchestra without incident for the first three rehearsals of the week. However, on Wednesday, Rozhdestvensky apparently became incensed when he observed two of the orchestra’s marketing tools.
First, Rozhdestvensky saw a poster advertising this week’s concerts, a poster that featured a photograph only of the guest soloist, cellist Lynn Harrell, and not the guest conductor. The poster also featured Harrell’s name in large print at the top of the poster and Rozhdestvensky’s name in small print at the bottom of the poster.
Second, Rozhdestvensky came across a copy of the Boston Symphony’s season brochure, which gave great prominence to other conductors, including little-known and entirely marginal figures, but which made a single, inconspicuous reference to Rozhdestvensky, the most distinguished of all guests on this year’s roster.
Apparently this latter was the last straw, and Rozhdestvensky walked out.
This may all seem rather minor, if not rather silly, but I can see Rozhdestvensky’s point: he is an international conductor of the greatest stature, with a long and distinguished career, and the Boston Symphony’s marketing materials gave him all the attention and prominence of an unknown novice. I can’t fault Rozhdestvensky. He surely felt insulted—and he was insulted.
The Boston Globe’s story about Rozhdestvensky’s walkout was accorded front-page treatment here. The newspaper’s story about Rozhdestvensky’s departure also attracted an amazing number of reader comments, the bulk of which were anti-Rozhdestvensky.
The comments I thought were the funniest—largely because they displayed unbounded ignorance—appear below.
“Send the old goat home.”
“What an egomaniac. Do your job, you pinko.”
“Most of us could care less if Rozhdestvensky conducts the BSO for four concerts or not.”
“The future of the BSO is not with the over-70 crowd—it’s with young audiences who want to hear wonderful music. They will NOT pay, however, for a self-centered, entitled, high-strung, easily-bruised ego standing in front of an orchestra. Mr. Rozhdestvensky’s time is over.”
“It is Mr. Rozhdestvensky’s great loss that he will not be conducting what is arguably the best symphony [orchestra] in the Western Hemisphere.”
“Of the nearly 300 million people in this country, I bet there are less than 50 who could actually tell a difference between this arrogant buffoon conducting the orchestra and his replacement doing so. Please tell this pompous nutcase that he should feel honored to lead the team of fine musicians at the BSO and to have his name, even in small print, associated with them.”
Well, it cannot be said that Boston has a sophisticated musical audience!
Indeed, a few of the persons sharing their wisdom suffered under the misapprehension that Lynn Harrell is a woman—and such fact, to them, explained why Harrell and not Rozhdestvensky received the lavish photo promotion.
Josh and I had a lot of fun wading through the extraordinary number of idiotic comments on the Boston Globe’s website.
Once we learned of Rozhdestvensky’s departure, Josh and I contemplated not going to the concert, but we decided to go after all, largely because we had already spent money on the tickets.
It was the prospect of hearing Rozhdestvensky that had prompted Josh and me to buy tickets in the first place. Rozhdestvensky is probably the greatest Russian conductor who ever lived—Yevgeny Mravinsky is his only competition—and Rozhdestvensky is just about unparalleled among today’s Tchaikovsky conductors. Rozhdestvensky also happens to be a very fine Elgar conductor, having conducted Elgar in the Soviet Union long before he began making appearances in the West.
There were three works on the scheduled program: Edmund Rubbra’s orchestration of Brahms’s Variations On A Theme Of Handel, Elgar’s Cello Concerto and Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony.
The replacement conductor was Canadian Julian Kuerti, son of pianist Anton Kuerti. He made no substitutions in the program. He conducted the scheduled works.
The concert was about what one would have expected under the circumstances: the musicians got through the program without incident, but also without anything interesting happening. The performance was certainly not an outrage, but it was also certainly not worth attending.
Rubbra’s orchestration of Brahms’s early piano composition is clumsy and does not “sound”. I can understand why this piece is very seldom programmed.
Harrell carried the Elgar all by himself, offering an “objective” interpretation little different from the somewhat bland interpretation he provided on his old Decca recording.
The Tchaikovsky did not come off at all, but I did not expect it to. Even though Rozhdestvensky himself had been in charge of three of the four rehearsals, it was most unlikely that another conductor would be able to step in and complete Rozhdestvensky’s work. In any case, the Manfred Symphony is a very difficult work to bring off. Only old masters such as Rozhdestvensky generally have success with the score. The musicians held Kuerti together during the symphony’s hour-long duration—the playing would have been no better, and no worse, had there been no one on the podium—but this surely must have been the most boring performance of the Manfred Symphony ever offered.
As Josh likes to say, “you pay your money and you take your chances”. Well, we had paid our money, so we took our chances—and the concert turned out to be a complete waste of our time.
These things happen.
The Boston Symphony continues to have very serious attendance problems, a situation I mentioned in October. This week, the orchestra announced yet another in an ongoing series of ticket initiatives: all seats, for the remainder of the season, will cost only $20.00 for anyone under the age of forty. Josh and I would take advantage of this bargain if the orchestra’s programs were more interesting and the guest conductors of better quality.
As things stand now, the Boston Symphony is not an orchestra worth going out of one’s way to hear. The orchestra is no better—but no worse—than the Minnesota Orchestra or the Dallas Symphony. Like those ensembles, it is a fine regional orchestra, but nothing more.
The Boston Symphony has long reminded me of the five London orchestras, all of which are more or less capable but none of which is anything special and none of which remotely offers anything to write home about.
Josh and I will be going home soon. We will be spending Thanksgiving in Minneapolis, and we are very much looking forward to it.
Josh has no classes on Wednesday, and I only have to work half a day on Wednesday, but we discovered, several weeks ago, that it would be much easier (and much cheaper) for us to fly home early Thanksgiving morning rather than on Wednesday afternoon or Wednesday evening. Consequently, we will spend Wednesday afternoon and evening getting our things ready.
On Thanksgiving morning, we will rise at 3:00 a.m. in order to catch the first nonstop flight of the day from Logan to MSP. That will get us home in time for my mother’s grand Thanksgiving breakfast. My middle brother will meet our flight at the airport and take us home.
We shall have a lot to celebrate on Thanksgiving Day. We shall celebrate, on a belated basis, Josh’s birthday, my birthday, and my parents’ wedding anniversary (which falls on the day before Thanksgiving this year). I think we all have agreed to forego cakes to mark these occasions, given that we will have four different kinds of homemade pies from which to choose for dessert on Thanksgiving night: pumpkin, pumpkin-custard, Dutch apple, and sour cream-raisin. What with all the Thanksgiving desserts, it seems silly to throw cake into the proceedings, too.
It will be good to be home again, even if only for four days. We are eager to see how everyone is doing. We are eager to see how my older brother and his family are settling into Minneapolis. We are all exceedingly anxious about the baby’s arrival (it is expected in another eight-to-ten days, but it could come at any time). We want to see how the dog is doing, and we want to see how he is responding to his arthritis palliatives.
Over Thanksgiving weekend, we have some business matters to attend to, and Josh and I will have to decide how we will apportion our Christmas holidays between Oklahoma and Minnesota, and make plans (and flight arrangements) accordingly. Otherwise, we plan to kick back and enjoy lots of good food and enjoy everyone’s company.
The holiday weekend will be over before we know it.