Monday, March 30, 2009

Prokofiev Times Three

Last week, Joshua and I—taking advantage of the fact that Josh was on break—heard three concerts in four days.

On Wednesday night, we heard the London Symphony play Beethoven and Prokofiev at Symphony Hall. Valery Gergiev was the conductor and Alexei Volodin was the soloist.

The London Symphony is a capable ensemble, but it hardly numbers among the world’s elite musical institutions. It is quintessentially British, with all the strengths and all the weaknesses associated with British musical ensembles. It plays precisely at the level of such fine but midline American orchestras as the Atlanta Symphony.

British orchestras strive for clean and neat playing, and the London Symphony certainly supplied clean and neat playing on Wednesday night. British orchestras, however, lack the character, personality and deep musicianship that are the hallmarks of great orchestras from Central Europe and the United States. As Herbert Von Karajan noted, great continental orchestras give the conductor much more than he asks for—but British orchestras give the conductor ONLY what he asks for, and nothing more. Above all, the London Symphony is known for its flexibility and peerless sight-reading facility. It is, however, an entirely faceless ensemble, lacking both a distinctive sound and an individual style of music-making.

The difference between British orchestras and their American and Central European counterparts is most noticeable in the colorless, featureless string playing that afflicts British orchestras. The rich tradition of string playing from Russia, Central Europe and Italy, still to be heard in the finest continental ensembles, took root in America in the late 19th Century (probably the result of widespread immigration from Russia, Germany, Eastern Europe and Italy) and has blossomed in the U.S. ever since. That same tradition never seeped into Britain’s musical life—in fact, it bypassed the British Isles altogether. The result is that British orchestras feature string sections that sound anemic, undernourished, unsophisticated and unmusical compared to the finest of American and continental ensembles.

This difference may be heard, on an individual basis, in the quality of string sound offered by the current generation of leading violin soloists. Russian Maxim Vengerov, German Anne-Sophie Mutter and Israeli-American Gil Shaham, to offer merely three examples, all have unique and bewitching individual timbres, timbres that no other violinist could possibly replicate. Tasmin Little from Britain, on the other hand, has a sound of no special quality and distinction whatsoever.

Even in the near-perfect acoustic of Symphony Hall, there was no depth to the string sound of the London Symphony, very little richness, and no color whatsoever. The string ensemble was faultlessly accurate—clearly, it had been rehearsed to a “T”—but the sound never bloomed and the playing never took flight. This was generic string playing and generic music-making, pure “Brand X”, strictly limited to the production of the notes on the printed page, and nothing more.

If undistinguished string playing is the bane of British orchestras, excellent wind playing is generally the redemption. The London Symphony is known for its excellent winds, but those winds were not in good form on Wednesday night.

I wonder whether the orchestra’s principal winds remained in London and sent deputies on the current American tour, because the work of the wind ensemble Wednesday night was very unimpressive. The wind ensemble did not sound like a group of master musicians that had worked together for years. Instead, the winds sounded more like a pickup ensemble than the crop of top-flight instrumentalists widely considered to be the finest group of wind players currently working in London. The principal flautist and the principal clarinetist were conspicuously weak. The flautist suffered from intonation problems and offered bland, even nonexistent, phrasing. The clarinetist had a croaky, unappealing timbre, and made absolutely nothing of solo passages. The oboist was quite fine.

The London Symphony brass section, however, was a marvel on Wednesday night. Internal balance was perfection. Balance with other sections of the orchestra was perfection. Attacks were perfection. Releases were perfection. The quality of the brass sound was amazingly fine—clear, full, brilliant—and the sound quality was remarkably even throughout a wide dynamic range. I cannot remember when I last heard a brass section in such splendid shape. The brass section is definitely the glory of this orchestra.

There were only two works on Wednesday night’s program: Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5; and Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5.

The Beethoven did not come off.

To the best of my recollection, I had never heard Volodin before Wednesday night. However, I may have heard him half-a-dozen times, because his playing is entirely forgettable. He commands considerable virtuosity, but the drama in Beethoven’s most dramatic concerto completely eluded him. He rushed rapid passages in the first and third movements—his passagework was shockingly uneven—and every entrance brought a new tempo. Volodin is either an undisciplined pianist or he was severely off form on Wednesday night. In any case, I suspect his talents are best displayed in Romantic repertory.

The orchestra contributed nothing to the Beethoven, and neither did Gergiev. Gergiev appeared to have no genuine interest in Beethoven’s last and finest piano concerto—and Gergiev appeared to have no interest in the soloist, either, based upon how many times conductor and soloist parted company during the performance. It was a frustrating, even wasted, thirty-five minutes.

The Prokofiev was much more effective, with orchestra and conductor both operating in much more congenial territory.

Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 is one of those works that almost always comes off in performance. It can survive a wide variety of treatments and it can surmount the obstacles of a bad orchestra or a bad conductor or both.

In everything he performs, Gergiev conducts minute-by-minute, always looking for the next interesting motif or next interesting theme to emphasize and heighten. There are a thousand climaxes in the typical Gergiev performance, which is why his performances are so exhausting and, ultimately, so unsatisfying. Nonetheless, there is a streak of wildness in Gergiev when he conducts Russian music, and this streak of wildness probably accounts for his success with the concert public.

I have heard far more sophisticated performances of Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 than Gergiev’s on Wednesday night, but I enjoyed his reading of the work immensely. He conducted with great confidence, and the orchestra played with great confidence. This was not a subtle performance of the work by any means, but surely no one in the hall was expecting a subtle performance of the work from Gergiev. Gergiev was looking for raw nerve endings in the score, and finding them in practically every bar. One would not want to hear this kind of performance often, but as a one-off it offered undeniable pleasure. The audience loved the performance; the response was overwhelming.

On Thursday night, Josh and I heard the Boston Symphony play Ravel, Prokofiev and Stravinsky at Symphony Hall. Charles Dutoit was the conductor and Lisa Batiashvili was the soloist.

It was interesting to compare the sound of the Boston Symphony with the sound of the London Symphony, what with both orchestras playing in the same hall on successive evenings.

Although the Boston Symphony is no longer in the first tier of American orchestras, the Boston Symphony has tonal allure to spare compared to the tonal allure of the London Symphony. The Boston Symphony’s sound is much richer, with much more body, color and presence, than the London Symphony’s sound.

Nonetheless, the Boston Symphony needs lots of work. The string sound is not sophisticated or pleasing—it lacks transparency and bloom, and the quality of the string sound varies widely through the dynamic range—and the wind principals, apart from the stunning flautist, are not distinguished. The brass section needs to be replaced, wholesale. It is the Achilles Heel of the orchestra.

Under Dutoit, the orchestra sounded better and played more accurately than it did in October under James Levine or in November under a last-minute replacement conductor. Dutoit obtained a lightness in the orchestra’s sound and a sprightliness in the orchestra’s music-making that Levine simply could not muster.

Since Dutoit conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra the previous week, I would very much like to know Dutoit’s personal thoughts on a vital issue: the course of action the Boston Symphony might take to return to the level of its former peer, the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Dutoit’s program was a good one: Ravel’s “Mother Goose” Suite, Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2 and Stravinsky’s “Petrouchka” in the original 1911 scoring.

This is all classic Dutoit repertory, which was the reason Josh and I elected to attend the program. No other conductor currently working in America is superior to Dutoit in these scores.

The concert was a great success. Dutoit is a conductor who can conduct the same works, over and over and over, and still offer performances full of freshness and insight. Dutoit’s “Mother Goose” is perhaps the finest since Pierre Monteux. “Petrouchka” has been Dutoit’s personal calling card for almost forty years—he is THE master of this score—and he obviously loves the work without limit and continues to find fascinating details on every single page of the score.

There was nothing much wrong with the Prokofiev, either. Dutoit’s Prokofiev was, quite naturally, much more objective than Gergiev’s Prokofiev. Dutoit kept the long line in view and never succumbed to immersion in passing detail. Dutoit’s was not necessarily a “Russian” performance, but I thought his accompaniment was quite fine, even admirable.

I did not know what to make of Batiashvili. She certainly played the notes capably, but I have no idea whether she is an individual musician. I would like to hear her in recital.

Thursday night’s Boston Symphony concert was the last of the season for Josh and me.

We had intended to attend a Boston Symphony concert next month, too, but the scheduled conductor, Yuri Temirkanov, has cancelled his Boston concerts. Josh and I had been looking forward to Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 under Temirkanov, but the replacement conductor, Mark Wigglesworth, holds no interest for us. I have heard Wigglesworth many times in Minneapolis and Washington, and Wigglesworth has never fulfilled his early promise. Happily, we had not purchased tickets for the Temirkanov Boston concert at the time his cancellation was announced.

Alas, we HAD purchased tickets for a Baltimore Symphony concert under Temirkanov after his Baltimore cancellation was announced—but before the Baltimore Symphony made note of this cancellation on the orchestra’s website. Josh and I had planned a trip to Baltimore—a trip specifically built around hearing Temirkanov conduct his former orchestra—and we had made all necessary arrangements before we learned of the cancellation. Because of the expense, we went forward with the trip, although we were slightly ticked and almost called the whole thing off up until the very last minute.

Consequently, on Saturday night Josh and I heard the Baltimore Symphony play Brahms and Prokofiev at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Yan Pascal Tortelier was the conductor and Vadim Repin was the soloist.

Because of the guest artists, it was a very successful concert.

Ten years ago, Tortelier was not a particularly good conductor, but he has improved considerably in the last decade. He was indeed impressive during half of Saturday night’s concert.

I last heard Tortelier over Thanksgiving weekend, when he conducted the Minnesota Orchestra. The day after Thanksgiving, my parents and Josh and I, on a lark, went downtown to hear Tortelier lead the Minnesota Orchestra in Berlioz’s Harold In Italy and Elgar’s Enigma Variations. I feared those might be “throwaway” performances, but the performances turned out to be very fine, especially the Elgar.

From a conducting standpoint, one of two works on the Baltimore program was very fine, too.

The second half of the program featured Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5, which Josh and I had heard three nights earlier.

The Baltimore Symphony performance was actually better than the London Symphony performance, but only because Tortelier was a more apt conductor for the work than Gergiev.

Tortelier played the work “straight”—no pushing and pulling of the music, no hyper-emotive outbursts, no flagrant distortion of the music’s natural line and progression—and he maintained the long line, not conducting every individual measure as if it were the absolute climax of the work. He offered a very French, very objective reading of the score, and to my ears it worked beautifully.

I would be willing to bet that Tortelier, as a child, became familiar with Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 via Eugene Ormandy’s famed 1957 Philadelphia Orchestra recording of the work, first issued on the Columbia label and now available on Sony, and that Tortelier’s childhood exposure to Ormandy’s reading has colored Tortelier’s view of this particular Prokofiev symphony ever since.

Tortelier’s Baltimore performance was very lucid and very naturally-paced, as was Ormandy’s. Further, his performance was free from the excess weightiness and false profundity that some conductors attempt to impose upon this score.

Like Ormandy, Tortelier allowed the music to speak for itself. Unlike Gergiev, Tortelier did not play the work as if it carried, Shostakovich-like, all sorts of gloomy, hidden political messages.

The first movement was very expository—tension, power and thrust were built very gradually and very steadily, almost imperceptibly, until the movement reached its intended climax in the coda. In lesser hands such as Gergiev’s, the climax may be seen coming long, long before it actually—and finally—arrives.

The scherzo was very subtle, understated and pointed but not unduly sarcastic. Tortelier’s scherzo was much more playful than Gergiev’s, and not a heavy-handed, brutal “statement” to endure.

The Adagio, also understated, did not lack feeling. It flowed very naturally and gracefully, and was suitably solemn, but Tortelier made no effort to turn it into grand tragedy. Gergiev’s Adagio had been overwrought—it attempted to turn Prokofiev’s slow movement into Gustav Mahler in heaven-storming mode.

The finale was suitably witty in Tortelier’s hands—lots of forward propulsion, lots of woodwind detail, a successful mixture of playfulness and seriousness—and provided a satisfactory culmination for the work. Under Gergiev, the finale had been played like AN IMPORTANT PROCLAMATION from Comintern.

Brahms’s Violin Concerto was played in the first half of the program, and it would have been a genuinely great performance had the orchestra and conductor operated at the same exalted level as Repin.

I thought Repin was magnificent, offering as fine a performance of the concerto as one may expect to hear. His reading was a very Russian one—it was not Classically-poised in the way one may generally expect from a German violinist, it offered the widest possible array of tone color, and Repin played around with tempo a little too freely in the sonata-form first movement—but it was never perverse and never too Romantic. Repin’s was a successful and fresh reading, full of genuine thought and feeling. He held my full attention for every second of this very familiar work.

Repin did not receive ideal support from orchestra and conductor.

Tortelier was not, I believe, an ideal partner for Repin. Tortelier’s conducting was neutral and uncommitted, suggesting no particular fondness for the work. My instinct tells me that Tortelier would have been happier with quicker tempos, and that Tortelier went along with Repin’s conception of the piece merely out of a sense of obligation, and without any conviction on Tortelier’s part.

The orchestra’s support was shoddy. Entrances were ragged. First-desk work was rudimentary. The level of ensemble was indifferent. The quality of sound varied from wispy and lean one minute to blowsy and overbearing the next. This was not the same fine-tuned, polished and urbane ensemble I was accustomed to hearing with some frequency during Temirkanov’s tenure, when I would drive up from Washington to hear Temirkanov’s concerts with the orchestra while I was in law school.

“What has happened to this orchestra?” is the first question I directed at the intermission to the fellow sitting next to Josh.

“Marin Alsop” was his answer, and he offered a pained, resigned expression. “She’s killing this orchestra. Look around at all the empty seats—and this is a Saturday night.”

There were large numbers of empty seats Saturday night, especially for a program featuring two popular masterpieces and an international-level soloist. Moreover, all seats in the hall had been available at the bargain price of $20.00. Given these factors, the small size of the audience was depressing.

I question whether the Baltimore Symphony can survive much longer.

The Baltimore Business Journal covers the affairs of the Baltimore Symphony much more honestly and much more accurately and much more seriously than the Baltimore Sun—which in any case will probably (and thankfully) not be around much longer, as its parent company is in the midst of bankruptcy proceedings—and the future of the orchestra appears to be grim.

Before the most recent market nosedive, the endowment of the Baltimore Symphony had already dwindled to $47 million, hardly substantial enough to keep a large and important musical organization afloat. A couple of years ago, the orchestra had raided its endowment, withdrawing a giant chunk to retire an enormous ongoing deficit. Many observers viewed that maneuver as an act of desperation if not outright vandalism.

Even with $20.00 seats, ticket sales are down 17% from year-ago levels—and ticket sales have not been robust in Baltimore for years.

The orchestra is stuck with an inexplicable Music Director who should never have been appointed. Morale among the players must be falling through the floor.

Management of the orchestra is widely viewed as the most incompetent of any large American orchestra—among other things, management allows Alsop to bring her girlfriend across country to play as a substitute in the horn section of the orchestra (as if the Mid-Atlantic region is not already swarming with first-class musicians), an appalling and trashy practice as well as a dismaying ethical lapse on behalf of all parties involved —and I doubt that management has a clue how to reverse the orchestra’s fortunes.

The Board is held in no higher regard. Without even undertaking a genuine conductor search to identify a suitable replacement for Temirkanov, the Board stuffed Alsop’s appointment down the throats of the musicians, in the face of very public opposition from the players.

Although all persons on the Board and in management who had been instrumental in engineering Alsop’s appointment were soon asked to step down, the orchestra remains saddled with a Music Director no one wants—and yet no one is willing to take necessary measures to remedy an untenable situation.

The orchestra’s short-term solution, to judge from the announced programs for the 2009-2010 concert season, is to turn more and more of the season over to Baltimore Symphony Pops Conductor Jack Everly. An entire month next season will be devoted to Everly conducting circus music and nothing but circus music (and I am not making this up). No doubt Everly is a better conductor than Alsop, but is this truly the direction in which the Baltimore Symphony wants and needs to go?

If the Baltimore Symphony were as committed to excellence as The University Of Kentucky Athletic Department, Alsop, like former Kentucky basketball coach Billy Gillispie, would already have been shown the door.

However, the Baltimore Board and management appear to be emulating The University Of Iowa Athletic Department’s stance in administering its basketball program—not willing to admit a boneheaded coaching mistake, The University Of Iowa prefers to allow its basketball program quietly to wither away into irrelevance, hoping no one will notice.

The Baltimore Opera has already folded. Short of decisive action, the Baltimore Symphony may not be far behind.

Isn’t there a song in the musical, “Hairspray”, along the lines of “Wake Up, Baltimore”?


  1. You know, it took me a while to figure it out, but Dutoit is pretty good in colorful pieces. Philly could do worse than having him hang around for a few years.

    We now have a new board chairman. We still need a new executive director and a new conductor. Jurowski is still the orchestra’s first choice after Rattle, the one the orchestra really wants but knows it can’t get.

    I see the music critic of the Baltimore Sun decided he needed a vacation and went to Ft. Lauderdale to see Dame Edna. Nice to know what really appeals to him. His writing about the Baltimore Symphony is worthless. Didn’t he miss the whole Baltimore Opera story?

    I can’t believe the local musicians union puts up with Alsop bringing her partner in for gigs. That smells.

  2. That’s amazing about Alsop using her partner to fill in with the BSO. There was a big to-do at the Colorado Symphony about Alsop favoring her partner there. Lots of people were upset about the relationship with one of the players. Yet orchestra officials did nothing.

    Alsop’s so damn ugly she must have to take partners where she can find them. She looks like a teamster.

  3. Dan, I cannot believe that the local union puts up with this kind of nonsense, either. Of course, I cannot understand how management allows such self-dealing to occur in the first place.

    No, Miss Alsop definitely does not present a pleasant array of chromosomes to the world, to say the least.

    Have you seen her in person? She's 100 times less attractive in person than in photos, hard as that may be to believe.

  4. Andrew,

    From "The Amphisbaena Whisperer" (April), to you and your readers (for those with the capacity to enjoy):


    "Crosses We Must Bear"

    BERLIN – The classical music world has been abuzz lately over the upcoming world premiere of Andre Previn’s new opera, “Brief Encounter,” on 1 May, in a city where this composer once lived and worked as the music director of the Houston Symphony. Here in Maestro Previn’s birthplace, however, all this brouhaha in the media has been totally eclipsed by the animated chatter in the wake of two another local premieres; those of Nicholas Maw’s new (and very long) chamber opera, “Oskar the Dandipratt,” on 14-15 February, at the newly-built Mohammad Obama Schlepphosehalle (we’re not kidding) in Potsdam, just down the street from Marlene Dietrich’s famed Studio Bablesberg; and the 1 March premiere of American composer John Adams’s “Priapus Prances,” a ballet originally intended for HIS new chamber opera, “Bobbitt,” to be showcased later this year (no date as yet announced) at the same venue where patrons eagerly await the Previn, with subtitles in English.

    While film actress Kate Winslet was strutting her glamorous stuff around the Sony Centre on Potsdamer Platz on the final day of the “Berlinale,” a dumbstruck audience was witnessing the revelation of this most singular creation by Mr. Maw, with a libretto in English by Swedish playwright Petersen Petersen-Berger, which nearly bursts with a synthesis of ideas drawn from three principal sources: the Comedy Overture, “Beckus the Dandipratt” by the late Sir Malcolm Arnold; German novelist Guenter Grass’s post-war opus, “Die Blechtrommel”; and even Scottish writer J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan” (with one irreverent smack on the nose for the Bard tossed into the mix, as well).

    “Oskar the Dandipratt” was commissioned by the Mohammed Obama Schlepphosehalle. It was first performed on Sunday, 15 February, with subtitles in German, Turkish, Arabic, Farsi, and Urdu, by an international cast and the Akademie fuer Alte Musik Berlin under the direction of Marin Alsop.

    Mr. Maw’s opera is framed by a “proscenium,” modeled after Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” and (presumably) “Henry V,” in which a single character, a tinker, provides introductory and concluding commentary on the main story. Opening at Heathrow Airport in London, “Bell” (“sung” on this occasion by Irish baritone Dr. Hieronymus Earwicker, Alsop’s audiologist), sings and dances the first “air” of the prologue, “Never, Never Land in London,” accompanied not only by Ms. Alsop but by the tinny clang of hanging pots and pans - and sets forthright into place the whole, underlying political theme of Petersen-Berger’s not-so-“little book”; namely, the “oppression” of the Muslim presence in Britain.

    The main story concerns the adventures of the title character, a cross-dresser from Bristol, Oskar Dandipratt (sung in this production by tenor Eberhard Klein) who refuses to “grow up,” in protest of his adopted countrymen’s attitude toward Jihad. (Enough said, I think.)

    As for the music itself, I must admit that the composer of “Oskar the Dandipratt” has successfully created a microtonal system of notation never before encountered by humanity, which system, based upon what I heard on opening night, I should like to dub, “meantone distemperament.” In the program booklet, Mr. Maw claims this music is designed to evoke the exotic timbres of the Middle East; but I dare say that it is more literally inspired (again, based upon first impressions) by an amusing story related to the first-hearing a number of years ago of a work by German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen (I’ve forgotten what), at the Philaharmonie, under Zubin Mehta, who, being overwhelmed after the performance by a veritable avalanche of “booing” from the audience, turned and suggested to Stockhausen that he should write a piece DELIBERATELY to elicit “boos” throughout its course, an enterprise that would render such a work “immune from criticism,” since the “booing” would then be part of the performance. Word has it among the cynical Berliners, in fact, that the Akademie fuer Alte Musik Berlin had practically leaped backwards at the opportunity to serve as pit orchestra for this world premiere just so that they, too, one guesses, could enjoy – for once at least – “immunity from criticism.”

    A dismayed audience in Manchester, England had gotten a foretaste of Mr. Maw’s new microtone system at the unveiling last September of “Piano Cracks,” delivered by “pianist” Iggipu Zhukovoreanssohn, the composer's twenty-something nephew, born without fingers, but having always dreamt of becoming a piano virtuoso. (Prior to this debut, Zhukovoreanssohn had only been proven adept at APPLAUDING other pianists.) In the recital, the soloist played his doting uncle’s work with admirable energy and panache, with the aid of what looked like, to one observer, two Japanese santoko “botcho” knives fastened securely to both his palms. Everyone had naturally assumed before the event that “Piano Cracks” would turn out to be just another kitschy rip-off of John Cage; but what made this audition surprisingly unique, if not captivating, was the sonorous flood of aleatoric “ornamentation” pouring out of the Steinway – a dulcet flecking of the “line,” as it were, comprised of tone clusters more familiar to the well-tempered, diatonic scale: Mr. Maw, it appears, had discouraged his nephew from actually practicing “Piano Cracks” beforehand, not that it would have made any difference, anyway (“Z” can’t read music).

    Unlike “Piano Cracks,” the microtones of “Oskar the Dandipratt” were uningratiatingly audible. That is, to most of us. It would be completely pointless for me to describe my immersion of 14-15 February as unspeakably awful. Rather, l will sum it up this way: During the sleep-over interval between the eighth and ninth acts I happened to overhear one burka-bubbled patron suggest that it had been a most courageous act for Maw, especially after the disappointing critical and public reception of “Sophie’s Choice,” to write such a piece. In my mind, however, if the word “courage” is to be reasonably applied in any way to Mr. Maw’s effort, I’m more disposed to think of the “courage” required in 1944 of Malcolm Arnold, who shot himself in the foot just to get out of the Army.

    Of course, John Adams also experienced a disappointing reception to his stage work, “Die, Rhea,” which caused the famous riot at the Houston Grand Opera last year. Not since P.D.Q. Bach and his drunken entourage had demolished the interior of the “Church of Our Lady of the Evening” in Baden-Baden-Baden, Germany, circa 1802, had there been such a catastrophe in the history of music performance. Thirty-nine people were taken to hospital after that sole performance of “Die, Rhea”; and sixty-nine hapless souls, including three principal cast members and a “very half-naked” Sylvester Stallone, were pronounced “incurably insane” by psychiatrists thereafter. Mr. Adams, therefore, has more notoriety to overcome than Mr. Maw. (Not even “Dr. Atomic” has successfully erased that memory.) That said, It is understandable at least why Mr. Adams would want to “test the waters” of public opinion first by offering the ballet suite, “Priapus Prances,” alone, sans choreography (and opera), in the same way the composer excised “The Chairman Dances” from “Nixon in China.”

    But there’s more to the story than that. Last year Mr. Adam’s producer, Peter Sellars, threatened to withdraw all support for “Bobbitt” unless the composer cut out the ballet entirely, which Sellars deemed to be pornographic. At a sensational press conference last November, during which the composer dolefully acquiesced to his friends’ advice, Mr. Adams vehemently denied that the ballet was naughty in the slightest, exclaiming, somewhat unintelligibly, “It’s NOT! . . . There’s nothing at all profound about ‘Bobbitt’ whatsoever!” (What do you expect, he attended Harvard).

    I caught the concert on 1 March, performed once again by the over-employed Akademie fuer Alte Musik Berlin, only this time it was painfully obvious to all that the orchestra by now had lost all its “immunity.” It was mostly an all-Adams evening, opening with “Righty Tighty and Lefty Lucy: a Children’s Fantasy Ode to Henry James’ ‘The Turn of the Screw’”; that was followed by “The Chairman Dances,” followed by James Moody’s “Little Suite” for harmonica and orchestra (with superb soloist Buddy Greene), by far the best offering on the program.

    “Priapus Prances” came after the interval. The program notes regarding the thirty-minute ballet suite didn’t elaborate upon the libretto of “Bobbitt,” written by one of Mr. Adams’ fellow Harvard alumni, music critic Alex Ross – but I can tell you right here that Mr. Adam’s “mother ship” has nothing to do in the slightest with professional golf or basketball. Neither is it concerned with the lofty theme of American poetry. Needless to say, “Bobbitt” has nothing in common with Sinclair Lewis or even American composer Milton Babbitt. The program notes merely make mention of the extended title of the work, “Bobbitt, an American Tragedy,” and explain that the dance piece was originally written to communicate a bizarre dream experienced by the title character as he soaked up newly found fame on the American television “talk-show” circuit. Adams himself IS quoted in the notes, however. He describes the piece as “sort of a cross between Aeschylus and Sam Peckinpah.”

    Indeed, the performing forces of the ballet exuded “Greek tragedy” from every corner: The piece is written in Dithyrambic form with seventeen stanzas and is scored for a small orchestra as well as a “Greek chorus” of four male singers. (I presume the “AMERICAN tragedy” component of the piece was meant to be gathered from Mr. Adams’ choice of artists on this occasion: the countertenor quartet, “Androgynous Four,” and conductor Rene Jacobs, who commissioned “Bobbitt.”)

    Deprived of dance, text, as well as context, the audience seemed captivated. That doesn’t say much, however, when one realizes that many sitting in the hall had just escaped the all-consuming Maw scarcely a fortnight before. Mr. Adams was very lucky in his timing, indeed.

    But I’m in gracious mood right now. Give the composer a “C-minus“ for his work in progress, but give the man an “A” for at least abandoning another operatic project, that of “Benjamin and Thomas,” based upon historian Shareen Blair Brysac’s new book, which purports that the British Prime Minister Disraeli carried on a thirty-year love affair with another, dubiously celebrated Victorian, Thomas Crapper, reputed inventor of the flush toilet. (All right, give him a “B” then, since he dropped the project for the wrong reason, the subject matter being “too English” for him. Alas, it wasn’t so for Thomas Ades, who is considering a new work.)

    Shahzia Sikander



  5. This, of course, has me in hysterics, Dane.

    There are so many jokes that, after reading this three times, I nonetheless believe I must have missed half of them.

    I especially loved the name Iggipu Zhukovoreanssohn, which had me laughing out loud for five minutes. There are at least six jokes contained within that one name alone. Of course, I also enjoyed the fact that Zhukovoreanssohn is the world’s only pianist without fingers (other than Richard Goode).

    You have a great gift for satire.

  6. You might be interested to learn that London orchestras are chock-full of string players, especially principals, from Russia, mainland Europe and the Far East. It has actually become relatively rare for a string player who is British to win an appointment in any of the major London orchestras. Perhaps British string teaching lags behind. I find the idea that such multinational bunches of players are "quintessentially British" rather laughable...

  7. By the way, the 'sight-reading' in London is a myth. It might have been partly true 40 years ago, but no longer.

  8. Thanks, Andrew.

    One correction to paragraph three, however: The second sentence actually reads, "It was first performed on Saturday, 14 February and Sunday, 15 February, with subtitles . . . ." (My transcription skills aren't as fine as those for satire, I suppose, as evidenced by some other minor typos.)

    I can imagine that other jokes didn't survive the scrutiny of the TAW editor(s). I'd wager there was one reference to the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre, for instance. Rumor has it that the publisher of "Benjamin and Thomas" (the "history" book) rejected the author's original title, "Cwap," chosen on the basis of the "fact" that Thomas Crapper suffered from a peculiar speech impediment, made famous many decades later by Mel Blanc's cartoon character, "Elmer Fudd."


  9. The bulk of the string players in the London Symphony are from the British Isles. Further, players trained elsewhere must adjust their sounds and styles of play to the local ensemble, not the other way around.

    The Philharmonia is the one London orchestra with a string section that has some resemblance to continental ensembles. The strings of the Philharmonia have a darker coloration and more richness than their London counterparts.

    In 2004 or 2005, Leonard Slatkin, who has worked with all five London orchestras for almost thirty years, told his Washington orchestra that the sight-reading skills of London orchestras remain unparalleled, describing London orchestras as the best sight-readers in the world—and significantly better at sight-reading than orchestras in France or Germany.

  10. Andrew,

    I noticed today that David "El Cheap-o" Robertson has been engaged by the Cleveland Orchestra in November. Guess what he is taking with him? The "Doctor Atomic Symphony" by John Adams.

    Oh, the crosses to bear during a recession!


  11. Thanks for the warning. I’ll be sure to stay as far away as possible from Cleveland this coming November. Myself, I am holding out for the “Doctor Scholl” Symphony.

    Dane, when have time, go to There is a link to a long article about Donald Rosenberg in some Cleveland magazine. I thought the article was hysterical.

    This fool simply will NOT go away.

  12. Andrew,

    I just read the article on I especially enjoyed the cartoon by Bruce MacPherson (I should have it printed and blown up).

    Your're right, of course: Rosenberg is one pathetic buffoon, a perfect target for ridicule by TAW. This article in fact is pregnant with possibilities. Thanks for the heads-up.

    I suppose Mr. Robertson could present from up his sleave a musical offering even worse than the "Doctor Atomic Symphony" or "Son of Chamber Symphony" (wow, what a Harvard-worthy, original title for a follow-up to his "Chamber Symphony").

    Playing Hayley Mills's "Glad Game" from "Pollyanna," I'm GLAD that Mr. Robertson didn't plan to present a "Doctor Scholl" Symphony.

    But I suppose there are even worse possibilities. Mr. Robertson, after all, could have chosen the "well-tempered" John Adams in the peristaltic "Passacaglia in 48 Very, Very Short Movements," from "Die, Rhea!"


  13. Parker just called me. He said he also read the article and that I was too polite to call Rosenberg a "pathetic buffoon." He said that I should have invoked the Russian word, "drystun," which I will not translate for you unless you ask me to.


  14. I guess I’ll have to find a translation for that Russian word online. I somehow doubt that it means “great guy”.

    David Robertson is not very good. I do not understand why he gets the few prestigious engagements his management succeeds in obtaining for him.

    Donald Rosenberg is obviously a bit of a nut case. I am told, on reliable authority, that The Plain Dealer told him to tone down the personal nature of his criticism two or three years ago, and that he indeed did back off for six months or so, after which he went back weekly to airing in public his personal vendetta against Welser-Most. Rosenberg simply was unable to get an adequate grip on himself and his feelings, and rein in his vendetta against Welser-Most for any reasonable period of time.

    If Rosenberg had had any brains at all, he would have known that there is a way to write negative criticism in a one-newspaper town without getting personal and without getting everyone riled. The man is a total moron.

    I don’t know if you bothered to read the Rosenberg complaint online, but I did so, and it was pretty funny.

    Every single Cause Of Action would have been thrown out in the pleading stage in Federal Court. The entire Complaint is drafted so as to keep the matter in State Court at all costs. Lower pleading standards apply in State Court and, further, Rosenberg hopes to find a mindless judge and a mindless jury in State Court. Excepting the age discrimination allegation, all Causes Of Action against The Plain Dealer were voluntarily dismissed solely in order to prevent the case from being removed to Federal Court. His voluntary dismissal of the Causes Of Action against The Plain Dealer proves that Rosenberg views his real enemy as The Cleveland Orchestra, not The Plain Dealer.

    Rosenberg’s lawyer is completely inept.

    For one thing, he needs to muzzle Rosenberg until the suit is resolved. From a strategy standpoint, allowing Rosenberg to shoot himself in the foot over and over by engaging in press interviews is a fatal tactical mistake. All of Rosenberg’s public statements may be used against him at trial.

    The Cleveland magazine article was a particularly grave mistake, as it sets forth, publicly, the long and frustrating history of numerous past and present officials at The Plain Dealer to talk some sense into Rosenberg. Unintentionally, the magazine article demonstrates that Rosenberg is nothing more than a zealot—and zealots, as a general rule, do not get much sympathy from most juries.

    To defend itself, the Cleveland Orchestra hired one of the best lawyers in Ohio, by the way. I have never bothered to check which lawyers The Plain Dealer engaged, but the single remaining Cause Of Action against the newspaper, age discrimination, should be very easy for anyone to handle.

    If he had any brains, Rosenberg would have moved on with his life and work by now. (Of course, if he had any brains, he would never have found himself in this position.) Now Rosenberg will never be able to obtain a job elsewhere, and he surely knows it.

    I think John Adams SHOULD write a “Doctor Scholl” Symphony. He has already written a large number of pieces with stupid names—“Christian Zeal And Activity”, “Gnarly Buttons” and such—and he very well might acquire an entirely new audience with a “Doctor Scholl” work: persons with foot problems.

    Incidentally, did you see the interview in Newsweek in which Adams slammed Marin Alsop without naming her? I could care less whether anyone slams Alsop, but for Adams to do so is pretty classless. Adams has received a lot of exposure in Baltimore, and for Adams, of all persons, to slam Alsop is totally bush league.

  15. Andrew,

    Was that Newsweek interview the one where Adams trashed those Naxos recordings with Alsop? Yeah, that was pretty low-class.

    I haven't read the Rosenberg complaint, but I've kept up, more or less, with the internet chatter on the subject. I DO remember seeing someone write a blog comment somewhere that expressed the exact same thing you have written about Rosenberg "backing off" for about six months only then to mindlessly continue full-steam with his personal feud.

    You know, I hate to say this, but Rosenberg reminds me of Harnack in some small way: "Rosenberg loved the Cleveland Orchestra so much that . . . ."

    Good luck trying to find "drystun" on the internet. It's not really translatable, but its meaning can be humorously described. I haven't heard the word too often among young Russians today, though it was a common, comically vulgar term used back in Soviet years to insult anyone in possession of contemptibly low intelligence.


  16. You are correct. I had no luck at all trying to find the definition of "drystun".

    Yes, the Newsweek interview was one and the same.

  17. I live in London and go to a lot of concerts. Much of what you say is absolutely true but it is not the whole picture. It's a bit more complicated.

    For weird historical reasons there are too many orchestras in London. Their relative standing and quality go up and down depending on the vagaries of funding and on whether the band likes its current chief conductor.

    The LSO is a good example. The gossip is that the players don't like Gergiev because of his chronic unpunctuality and his vague beat. Certainly its playing has deteriorated of late though there are exceptions; a recent Verdi Requiem under Colin Davis was quite wonderful.

    By contrast, the LPO obviously loves Valdimir Jurowski and is paying for him with an extraordinary translucence. The sound is still developing as everyone gets used to the acoustics of the revamped Royal Festival Hall. But I believe that the LPO is returning to the glory days of Klaus Tennstedt.

    As to the quality of the players, I agree with earlier commenters that the influx of string players from Russia has been all to the good. I think that the commenter who said that the newcomers adjusted to the orchestras rather than vice versa is mistaken. The change has been quite noticeable. For example, the ROH strings played with much greater richness of tone after a new Russian leader arrived (we call concertmasters "leaders" in the UK).

    I am sorry to hear that the LSO wind section played badly. That really is unusual. To name just one player, the LSO's principal clarinettist, Andrew Marriner, is a marvel. As you say, they may have sent the stringers.

    Plainly there are big problems in London - halls with dodgy acoustics, poor funding, too many orchestras chasing the same concertgoers, the financial impossibility of repeating programmes in the same venue in the way that US orchestras do, lack of rehearsal and so on.

    But hey. Everyone has problems. They just vary from place to place. The great thing about music in London is the huge variety on offer. And the best London orchestra - whichever it may be from time to time - can be a world beater under the right conductor.

  18. I live in London and go to a lot of concerts. Much of what you say is absolutely true but it is not the whole picture. It's a bit more complicated.

    For weird historical reasons there are too many orchestras in London. Their relative standing and quality go up and down depending on the vagaries of funding and on whether the band likes its current chief conductor.

    The LSO is a good example. The gossip is that the players don't like Gergiev because of his chronic unpunctuality and his vague beat. Certainly its playing has deteriorated of late though there are exceptions; a recent Verdi Requiem under Colin Davis was quite wonderful.

    By contrast, the LPO obviously loves Valdimir Jurowski and is paying for him with an extraordinary translucence. The sound is still developing as everyone gets used to the acoustics of the revamped Royal Festival Hall. But I believe that the LPO is returning to the glory days of Klaus Tennstedt.

    As to the quality of the players, I agree with earlier commenters that the influx of string players from Russia has been all to the good. I think that the commenter who said that the newcomers adjusted to the orchestras rather than vice versa is mistaken. The change has been quite noticeable. For example, the ROH strings played with much greater richness of tone after a new Russian leader arrived (we call concertmasters "leaders" in the UK).

    I am sorry to hear that the LSO wind section played badly. That really is unusual. To name just one player, the LSO's principal clarinettist, Andrew Marriner, is a marvel. As you say, they may have sent the stringers.

    Plainly there are big problems in London - halls with dodgy acoustics, poor funding, too many orchestras chasing the same concertgoers, the financial impossibility of repeating programmes in the same venue in the way that US orchestras do, lack of rehearsal and so on.

    But hey. Everyone has problems. They just vary from place to place. The great thing about music in London is the huge variety on offer. And the best London orchestra - whichever it may be from time to time - can be a world beater under the right conductor.

  19. Thank you for your comments.

    London has a very active and very rich musical life—much, much richer than Boston, for example—and I envy you your access to the splendid concert and recital opportunities in London. In the U.S., only New York has comparable music riches.

    To me, it is amazing that London maintains five major orchestras at all—in the U.S., only one city, Minneapolis-Saint Paul, my hometown, sustains more than one full-time professional orchestra—and I find it equally amazing that the London orchestras are as fine as they are.

    I have always believed that, of London’s five orchestras, the most under-rated was the Royal Philharmonic. However, I always heard that orchestra under Daniele Gatti, a very fine conductor, and no one else. In my experience, that orchestra always played to a very high standard under Gatti, in London and in the U.S. on tour, and I would go hear the RPO in a minute under a fine conductor.

    I have always believed that the BBC Symphony was the least of the London orchestras. I have heard the BBC under several conductors (none particularly good), in London and in the U.S. on tour, and that orchestra has never impressed me in the least. It simply is not a very good orchestra.

    I know that the LSO is considered still to be at the top of the London heap, but I hear very little difference between the London Symphony, the London Philharmonic and the Philharmonia. All three are capable, but not particularly distinguished, ensembles. They certainly cannot compete—in alphabetical order—with Amsterdam, Berlin, Chicago, Cleveland, Dresden, Philadelphia and Vienna.

    I have heard and read about dissatisfaction with Gergiev in London, including among the players of the LSO, and I cannot say that I am surprised. I think Gergiev is an odd choice for Music Director of a London orchestra, largely because Gergiev is so undisciplined. Gergiev represents the antithesis of what London orchestras require in a Chief Conductor, given the difficult circumstances under which those orchestras operate on a daily basis.

    Now, having said all that, please allow me to reiterate: the strings of the LSO simply were not up to snuff on the night of March 25, and there is no getting around that fact. If there was any doubt in my mind, that doubt was erased the next night, in spades, immediately upon hearing the strings of the Boston Symphony. I do not even like the strings of the Boston Symphony, but the strings of the Boston Symphony were operating at levels far, far higher than the LSO the previous night. It was a night-and-day difference.