Wednesday, October 06, 2010


On Sunday afternoon, Joshua and I went to Symphony Hall to hear The Handel And Haydn Society perform a Mozart program.

In the concert’s first half, the orchestra performed Serenade No. 13 (“Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”) and Violin Concerto No. 5. After intermission, the orchestra performed “Mitridate” Overture as well as a march from the same work (Mozart’s first opera seria, “Mitridate” was written for Milan during the composer’s fourteenth year), followed by Symphony No. 38 (“Prague”). The ensemble’s Music Director, Harry Christophers, conducted the program.

Christophers is no Mozart conductor. Christophers conducted Mozart in The Pre-Classical Style, perfectly suitable for the music of Johann Stamitz but fatally inadequate for the music of the great Salzburg master. To perform Mozart in the manner of Galant music, a practice Christophers shares with many other British musicians, is to trivialize the music as well as to rob it of its greatness.

Christophers’s Mozart was fluid and neat in concept, but there were no other merits in his work. His was the blandest Mozart imaginable; the genius and individuality of Mozart thoroughly escaped him. Christophers revealed not a single moment of inspiration in what turned out to be a frustrating, even interminable, afternoon. I do not believe I ever want to hear Christophers again.

The low point of the afternoon was the performance of Violin Concerto No. 5. The soloist, Rachel Podger, who produced the least pleasing and least sophisticated string sound to be encountered anywhere, was as lost in the music of Mozart as her conductor. The performance was as dispiriting a Mozart performance as I have ever heard—and I have heard some pretty bad Mozart in my time—and I never want to hear Podger again, either. In fact, Josh and I were so disappointed with what we heard in the first half of the concert that we contemplated departing at intermission.

We remained in the hall only because we wanted to hear the “Prague”. One of the glories of the Mozart work list, the “Prague” features the greatest symphonic movement Mozart had composed to that time (1786): a first movement with a grand Adagio introduction followed by a masterful sonata-form Allegro presenting six individual themes that Mozart sends through an astonishing course of harmonic manipulation even before the composer reaches the heart of the movement, the development, the most complex development Mozart had yet attempted (which itself culminates in a grand fugue).

Mozart’s genius accounted for nothing in Christophers’s hands. Christophers was as vapid in the “Prague” as he had been in the first half of the program. Hearing Christophers glide upon the surface of Mozart’s notes, a lay listener would have perceived no difference between a Stamitz symphony and one of Mozart’s very greatest efforts in the form.

The orchestra did not play well for Christophers, but I cannot say whether the poor quality of the playing on Sunday afternoon may be blamed on the conductor. I have only heard The Handel And Haydn Society on one previous occasion, playing Vivaldi and Handel under a guest conductor. While the playing was clean and energetic on that previous occasion, the music of Mozart is much more demanding than the music of Vivaldi and Handel—and much more in need of a competent conductor.

I can say, based upon my experience Sunday afternoon, that Christophers is no natural orchestra leader. His is a career that clearly will go nowhere in the orchestra world. It was a major error for the Boston ensemble to have engaged him as Music Director—and it will be interesting to see how long it will take The Handel And Haydn Society to rectify its mistake.

British conductors whose careers originated in Britain’s period-instrument movement have not fared well once they have tried to escape the parochial bounds of the British period-instrument guild. Several have attempted to create mainstream careers, some leading mainstream orchestras, and all have failed.

Patrons of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra witnessed the loathsome work Christopher Hogwood offered Twin Cities music-lovers during his short tenure in Minnesota. Hogwood’s dismal work in Saint Paul ended permanently his American career with mainstream ensembles.

John Eliot Gardiner laid a colossal egg with the NDR Orchestra Of Hamburg. His brief, unsuccessful tenure in Hamburg instantly ended his career as a conductor of mainstream orchestras everywhere.

Roger Norrington’s short-lived period with the New York-based Orchestra Of Saint Luke’s was praised neither by players nor press nor public. His unending—and inexplicable—tenure with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony has produced some of the most negative reviews any conductor has ever received. Indeed, Norrington’s work has been derided so often and so widely that he has become the subject of satire: several of his commercial recordings have become cult classics, virtual templates of “something that has to be heard to be believed” along the lines of infamous vocal recitals by Florence Foster Jenkins.

Trevor Pinnock and Roy Goodman—the latter by far the most talented of the lot, as well as the least known—have never been able to break into mainstream careers, probably because the poor results of predecessors Hogwood, Gardiner and Norrington had already scared away managements of mainstream orchestras by the time the careers of Pinnock and Goodman were ready to expand beyond the confines of the period-instrument enclave.

All of this must have been known to the Board of The Handel And Haydn Society at the time Christophers was offered its music directorship.

So why was Christophers hired?

My guess is that the organization was fearful of hiring a French or German or Italian musician schooled in period-instrument performance and decided to uphold its recent tradition of appointing British conductors.

HHS has a history—an undistinguished history—of preferring British conductors to continental musicians. Hogwood served as Music Director from 1986 until 2001, holding on in Boston long after he was ousted in Saint Paul. Grant Llewellyn, by no standard a major musician, was appointed Music Director from 2001 until 2006. Norrington served as Musical Advisor from 2006 until 2009, a time during which Norrington could not buy an engagement with a first-class ensemble.

The appointment of Christophers will, I predict, be a brief one—or else it will come back to bite the Board.

In any case, Josh and I will now have to reassess how many HHS concerts we want to attend this season. In August, we had earmarked several HHS concerts as of interest to us—there were more HHS programs that appealed to us than Boston Symphony programs—and we had at the time even briefly contemplated buying an HHS subscription before coming to our senses (we do not like our calendars to be governed by concert dates).

All of that will now have to be re-examined.

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