Sunday, May 08, 2011

Dutoit In Berlioz

Last night, Joshua and I went to Symphony Hall to hear Charles Dutoit lead the Boston Symphony in Berlioz’s “Romeo And Juliet”.

The Boston Symphony has a distinguished history performing “Romeo And Juliet”. Both Charles Munch and Seiji Ozawa recorded the work, famously, during their respective tenures as Music Director of the Boston Symphony.

The Boston Symphony’s former special expertise in French music is now a thing of the past. The orchestra no longer has anything special to offer in French repertory. The orchestra’s thick, flabby sound, the chief legacy of the disastrous James Levine years, is much too “Germanic” to reveal the color and piquancy of French music. Further, the orchestra no longer has the flair needed to bring French music to life—the orchestra’s collective sense of rhythm is too square and plodding, its phrasing too blunt if not brutal, the elegant and patrician style of music-making from fifty years ago replaced by an unattractive and disheartening brusqueness and beefiness. This is an orchestra in dire need of a competent Music Director.

Dutoit is a fine if not particularly memorable conductor of Berlioz—yet he is the finest Berlioz conductor that may be heard on a regular basis today in the United States.

Dutoit’s Berlioz, in my experience, tends toward the light and fleet—Dutoit’s Berlioz certainly lacks the color, depth and drama of Colin Davis’s Berlioz—and I often find a “bleached” quality in Dutoit’s Berlioz performances. Nonetheless, Dutoit’s Berlioz is undeniably French in outlook; no one would mistake Dutoit’s Berlioz interpretations as emanating from Central Europe.

Last night, I thought that Dutoit viewed his chief mission as one of keeping things moving. Had Dutoit had the Philadelphia Orchestra at his disposal, I suspect Dutoit would have sought more color and drama from the musicians—and allowed first-desk personnel to participate actively in lending shape and character to the performance. However, given what he had to work with, Dutoit kept a tight rein on the proceedings. There was very much a “traffic cop” aspect to his leadership—and Dutoit cannot be faulted for such an approach, since Dutoit knows as well as anyone alive how to gauge what results may be obtained from a particular band of musicians and what results may not.

Two years ago, Josh and I had heard Dutoit lead the Boston Symphony in music of Ravel, Prokofiev and Stravinsky. That night had been a very happy one for us—and, from his smiles, it had been a happy night for Dutoit, too.

There were fewer smiles from Dutoit last night. Dutoit’s tense if not grim facial expression suggested that he simply wanted to get through the score without suffering a major incident.

The best thing about last night’s performance was mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink. Fink possesses a glorious voice. She has been blessed with a unique timbre, she has been granted a voice of extraordinary color and richness, she knows how to phrase with great specificity, and she knows how to project a text. Fink is one of the finest singers currently before the public. I would drive 200 miles in an instant to hear her in recital.

The other soloists were Jean-Paul Fouchecourt and Laurent Naouri, neither of whom is in possession of a unique timbre and both of whom command voices of pronounced dryness.

The chorus was the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, which performed to its usual low standard. Why is choral singing in Boston so atrocious? Is it something in the water supply?

Josh and I learned last night that this week’s performances of “Romeo And Juliet” were the very first performances of the work by the Boston Symphony that did not include an intermission. We were astonished when this very odd fact was brought to our attention. I cannot conceive of a more wrong-headed notion than inserting an intermission into “Romeo And Juliet”. The very idea is as laughable as inserting intermissions into performances of Brahms’s Requiem.

Contrary to reports in at least one Boston news outlet, Dutoit was not filling in this week for an indisposed Levine. Dutoit had always been scheduled to lead this week’s “Romeo And Juliet” performances.

Last night marked the end of the Boston Symphony’s 2010-2011 subscription series. It also marked the final time Josh and I will hear the Boston Symphony as residents of Boston.

The next time we hear the orchestra, I hope it will be with Riccardo Chailly at the helm, with a couple of years of reparative work already under the belts of orchestra and conductor.


  1. Any specifics about the chorus? As a member, I'm curious about your perception of our "usual low standard."

  2. The quality of sound produced by the Tanglewood Festival Chorus is poor.

    When the chorus sings softly, the quality of sound is unsupported, thin and wispy—and lacks color, body and texture. The chorus simply cannot produce a fully-supported and pleasing pianissimo.

    When the chorus is called upon to produce volume, the quality of sound is blaring and unsophisticated—and yet still lacks color, body and texture. The chorus cannot produce a pleasing fortissimo, either.

    The quality of sound should be pleasing and uniform throughout the full dynamic range. That is one of the hallmarks of a well-trained chorus. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus lacks this basic quality.

    Intonation is a major problem with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, especially with the soprano section, which is indescribably weak. The intonation simply is not pure.

    What kind of choral blend does John Oliver seek? What kind of sound is Oliver trying to produce? Why are texts presented so poorly? Why are entrances and releases so ragged? Why are rhythms so flaccid? Where is the imaginative phrasing?

    These are all fundamental questions that must be raised when discussing the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and I don’t think Oliver has answers to any of these questions. Honestly, the man is not a premiere choral trainer, and there is no point in pretending otherwise.

    By the choral standards of Cleveland and Chicago, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus is a nonstarter. Deficiencies must be directed at the feet of Oliver, who probably should have been replaced years and years ago.

    Boston newspapers need to press the issue of local music standards, insistently—and yet Boston newspapers stubbornly refuse to call out any of the local ensembles, especially if doing so would involve criticizing a local institution like Oliver.

    The result is that many people in Boston believe that what they have is the norm—and it is NOT.

    When Tim Page moved to Washington to cover music for the Post, he remarked—to his apparent surprise—that choral singing in Washington was at a much higher standard than the level of choral work Page had experienced in Boston. It made him realize, Page wrote, that the standard of choral singing he had witnessed in Boston suddenly was no longer acceptable.

    Choral standards in Cleveland and Chicago are much higher than in Washington.