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”?