Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Repeating And Reformulating

Last night Joshua and I and my parents went downtown to hear the Minnesota Orchestra play music by Beethoven and Sibelius. Despite the fact that yesterday was a Tuesday, last night’s concert was part of the regular subscription series.

My parents have always had the Friday night subscription, but they had exchanged last Friday’s tickets for tickets to last night’s concert because my mother had wanted to hold Josh’s graduation celebration Friday night, the first “real” night Josh and I were home.

It is interesting to compare the Minnesota Orchestra, which I had not heard since Thanksgiving 2008, with the Boston Symphony, the orchestra I have heard most often the last three years.

Both orchestras are fine orchestras, but neither orchestra arises to the exalted standard of the ensembles in Amsterdam, Berlin, Chicago, Cleveland, Dresden, Leipzig, Philadelphia and Vienna. I would categorize the Minnesota Orchestra and the Boston Symphony as upper-tier regional orchestras, the former orchestra on a short-term upward trajectory and the latter on a long-term downward spiral.

The Boston Symphony’s sound is superior to that of the Minnesota Orchestra. The sound of the Boston Symphony has more body and color and depth, as well as more light and shade, than the sound of the Minnesota Orchestra.

The Boston sound is also much richer, which is not necessarily a good thing—the richness of the Boston sound is largely artificial and inflated, imposed upon the musicians by James Levine. To my ears, the current Boston sound is not pleasing; it is an unsuccessful attempt on the part of Levine to replicate the sound of the Berlin Philharmonic under Herbert Von Karajan. However, whereas Karajan drew thousands of shades and textures from his Berlin musicians, most often with astonishing transparency throughout the entire dynamic range, Levine obtains primarily volume and mass from the current Boston players. The result: an unpleasant and unsophisticated thickness and heaviness and inflexibility of sound, the very antithesis of Karajan’s objective in Berlin.

In its current state, the Boston Symphony sounds better under skilled guest conductors than when conducted by its recent Music Director. During the last three seasons, Boston sounded at its best under Christoph Dohnanyi and Bernard Haitink, both of whom toned down the Levine beefiness and both of whom obtained much greater transparency (and much better orchestral balance) than Levine ever was able to muster from the musicians.

The current Music Director of the Minnesota Orchestra, Osmo Vanska, favors a much leaner sound than the sound Levine attempted to create in Boston. Vanska treasures clarity above richness; he seeks a sound with a cutting edge, not the kind of luxuriant, upholstered deep sound Levine tried—without success—to create in Boston.

I have no objection to a lean sound, but the sound of today’s Minnesota Orchestra is characterized by a plainness that would be never be tolerated among world-class ensembles. There is a one-dimensional, generic sameness about the Minnesota Orchestra’s sound—in music of all periods—that quickly becomes tiresome.

On the other hand, the level of ensemble is now higher in Minneapolis than in Boston. Even though there is an unmistakable, heavily-drilled “bandmaster” quality to the playing of the Minneapolis musicians, the Minnesota Orchestra is much more unanimous in its attacks and releases than the Boston Symphony. The playing in Minnesota is more accurate, more alert and livelier than what I had become accustomed to in Boston.

The brass section is the finest section of the current Minnesota Orchestra. The Minnesota brass section puts the brass section of the Boston Symphony to shame (although I grant that the brass section has long been the weak link in Boston).

Neither orchestra has a distinguished array of winds. The winds in Chicago, Cleveland and Philadelphia are in an entirely different class than the winds in Minneapolis or Boston.

What ultimately tips the balance slightly in favor of Boston is that the Boston Symphony displays a higher level of collective music-making than the Minnesota Orchestra. Remnants of the old Boston magic may still be heard on occasion; I heard isolated moments in Boston performances under Dohnanyi, Haitink, Colin Davis and Charles Dutoit in which the musicians suddenly took off like a flight of birds, as if the ghost of Charles Munch had appeared in Symphony Hall.

In Minnesota, the musicians do Vanska’s bidding, and they do it very well—but Vanska appears to generate the entire performance himself, with little real input from the souls of the players. In great orchestras, players give as much as they receive—and the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra are still very much in the receiving stage. A better roster of guest conductors might contribute toward righting the equation.

The Beethoven work on last night’s program was the Piano Concerto No. 3. I last heard the Minnesota Orchestra play Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 three years ago, when Alfred Brendel performed the work in his final Twin Cities appearance (Vanska had been on the podium that night, too).

The Third is my favorite Beethoven piano concerto. I readily acknowledge that the Fourth and Fifth concertos are more original, feature more sublime slow movements and attempt a wider array of emotion than the Third—yet the Third is closest to my heart. In the Third, Beethoven was in the process of expanding the scale and scope of the concerto as an art form, yet the composition retains the pure Classicism of Mozart. In his Piano Concerto No. 3, Beethoven obtained perfection.

The pianist last evening was Yevgeny Sudbin, a Russian pianist who has appeared often in Minneapolis. Sudbin is in the process of recording the Beethoven concertos with Vanska and the Minnesota Orchestra.

I heard no special qualities in Sudbin’s playing. He was less overtly Romantic than many Russian pianists, current and past, but I found Sudbin otherwise unremarkable. On a few occasions, I thought Sudbin’s playing tended toward the precious and coy, which I find annoying if not grating in Beethoven.

Last night, Vanska was less mannered in the Beethoven than he had been three years ago, which was all to the good. He was less fierce in emphasizing dynamic contrasts, and more flexible in shaping the musical line. There was a more natural flow to last night’s performance than what had been presented in March 2008.

The Sibelius work on the program was the Symphony No. 2.

The Sibelius Symphony No. 2 is Vanska’s party piece. He generally programs the Sibelius Symphony No. 2 when making an appearance as guest conductor of an orchestra for the first time. Vanska performances of the Sibelius Second have been acclaimed all over the world.

I do not like Vanska’s Sibelius. In Sibelius, as in everything else, Vanska over-conducts. He is too intervening; he cannot leave well enough alone. Everything he conducts sounds forced, stressed, unduly emphasized. Hearing Vanska conduct is like watching a documentary propaganda film from the 1930s.

Audiences respond to Vanksa because of his intensity. The man has undeniable intensity.

An intense performance, however, is not the same thing as a good performance. On the whole, I find Vanska’s performances wearying—unyielding and unsubtle. I felt exhausted and beaten down at the conclusion of last night's Sibelius Second; the performance, simply put, was overstated.

Next week, the Minnesota Orchestra will record the Sibelius Symphony No. 2. It, along with the Symphony No. 5, will be the first release of an intended Sibelius cycle. The upcoming cycle will be Vanska’s second recorded Sibelius cycle—and will be made for the same label as his first.

Opening last night’s program was a composition by Aaron Kernis. Titled “Concerto With Echoes”, the piece was inspired by Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 and is scored for chamber ensemble (“Concerto With Echoes” was commissioned by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and premiered in 2009).

In three movements and of fifteen-minute duration, “Concerto With Echoes” is bland, faceless music, without personality and without profile (and without a single genuine—or original—idea). The score is, however, “accessible”—there is nothing in the least challenging about “Concerto With Echoes”—and skillfully orchestrated.

Kernis is a very unlucky man. In his youth, he never experienced the necessary epiphany, while listening to the music of Gyorgy Ligeti or Witold Lutoslawski or Elliott Carter, that caused him to ask himself: “Why am I thinking of becoming a composer? Whatever gave me such a bizarre notion? I could never write anything half so original. I could never write anything of such depth. I could never write anything approaching such a masterful display of craft. God simply did not grant me such genius. I need to get over the idea of becoming a composer, and focus on something else to do with my life. The best I could ever do as a composer would be to repeat and reformulate someone else’s third-rate, stale ideas.”

Alas, having never been so fortunate as to experience the necessary epiphany, Kernis entered the field of musical composition—and duly began repeating and reformulating the third-rate, stale ideas of others. Kernis rejected modernism, as it was fashionable to do in the U.S. at the time he was a composition student, and became an “eclectic” composer, borrowing bits and pieces from a wide array of other popular styles in order to assemble his profoundly undistinguished and unimaginative compositions.

More arranger than composer, Kernis more properly should have devoted his very limited set of skills to the art of scoring television films. Such is his natural realm.


  1. Audiences are drawn to "intense" conductors because the bulk of that audience is disposed more to Dionysus than Apollo; they seem to crave having their music beaten over their heads with the jawbone of an ass. This is why "hot" conductors like Vanska will always be much more popular than "cool" conductors like Welser-Moest. Such audiences, dare I say, listen with their skins and gonads more than with their minds and hearts.

    The general sentiment of such audiences is that "the Devil is in the details" - i.e., "don't gimme any of that 'subtle' [stuff]."

    Their "needs" are really not much different than those common among the "body-surfers" and "head--nockers" at any rock concert.

  2. There were standing ovations last night after the Beethoven and once again after the Sibelius.

    I truly do not know what to make of Vanska in Sibelius. So many persons acclaim him as a Sibelius interpreter of genius, I feel sour for not liking or even respecting his Sibelius performances.

    However, they are not good.

    Ormandy, Karajan, Blomstedt, Berglund, C. Davis, Jansons, Rattle: all were/are finer Sibelius conductors than Vanska.