Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Two Orchestral Concerts

On Friday evening, Joshua and I went to Saint Paul to hear the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in concert.

Rossen Milanov, former Resident Conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra (Milanov’s official title in Philadelphia was “Associate Conductor”), was on the podium.

The concert began with a Shostakovich arrangement for winds and timpani of two keyboard sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti. Identified in the program booklet as “Pastorale And Capriccio”, the composition is more widely known by the title assigned by its publisher, “Two Pieces From Scarlatti”. One of countless miniatures Shostakovich wrote in the late 1920s, “Two Pieces From Scarlatti” is pleasing and ear-beguiling. It provided a good concert-opener.

The concert continued with Rudolf Barshai’s arrangement for string orchestra of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 (Barshai’s arrangement is known as the “Chamber Symphony For String Orchestra, Opus 110a”).

I am diffident about Shostakovich quartets. They are deeply personal utterances, a private self-portrait of a disillusioned and conflicted man, a veritable diary of the collected grievances of an occupant of a totalitarian state. Some musicologists insist that the quartets are the essence of Shostakovich, which very well may be the case—yet, by the standards of Beethoven and Bartok, the music of the Shostakovich quartets is not of high quality. Whatever the underlying narrative, the themes are third-rate, the way the themes are worked out is third-rate, and ideals of unity, internal logic and coherency are thrown out the window. In the sprawling, five-movement Eighth Quartet, the unfolding of the musical ideas is particularly weak: the over-familiar D-S-C-H theme is worked to death while the composer introduces countless quotations from earlier compositions. The appeal of the composition has always eluded me.

I have never heard the Chamber Symphony come off in live performance—I have heard even Mariss Jansons came to grief in the piece—and I was not taken by Friday’s performance, either. The only way to make the quartet work is by turning it into a vast and hypersensitive study in irony, with the music played in quotation marks. Barshai, to judge by his recordings, knew how to do this; no one else using the string-orchestra arrangement has been able to produce a satisfying performance of the work.

Music of Prokofiev was next on the program: Overture On Hebrew Themes, a piece fun to play and fun to hear. The audience gave the Prokofiev the warmest and most genuine applause of the night.

The concert should have concluded with yet another Russian work, but Late German Romanticism was offered instead: Korngold’s Violin Concerto. I have no idea who conceived the notion that Korngold might make a suitable companion for Shostakovich and Prokofiev—but the idea was not a good one.

I enjoy the Korngold Violin Concerto, although I readily acknowledge that the piece’s primary recommendation is that it is of brief duration. The Korngold is among the shortest concertos in the active repertory.

The concerto begins well, hitting its stride three minutes into the first movement, when the composer has the violin soar above an unexpected and extended and complicated and amazing harmonic progression that gives the listener chills for a full thirty seconds. Alas, the concerto is, for all practical purposes, over at that point, because nothing else interesting is to occur for the remainder of the work. The composer did not know, after a spectacular start, how to extend—or how to wind down—a sonata-form first movement, the composer did not know how to write a penetrating slow movement, and the composer did not know how to write an imaginative and original Rondo Finale.

The final movement of Korngold’s Violin Concerto might provide the subject of an interesting doctoral dissertation. In writing the Rondo Finale, Korngold was obviously following the models of the violin concertos of Beethoven and Brahms—yet Korngold’s main theme was second-rate, and his development of that theme even more second-rate. Korngold’s Rondo Finale is a splendid example of ersatz music: music no one would ever confuse with the real thing. Significantly, the final movement demonstrates that the composer had not developed as an artist during the previous quarter century: the materials are worked out no better than the materials in the comparable movement of the composer’s “Much Ado About Nothing” Suite, written more than twenty-five years earlier.

The Korngold Violin Concerto was largely ignored the first four decades after its premiere. In the late 1980s, however, violinists everywhere began taking up the piece; the Korngold Violin Concerto began appearing on concert programs with greater and greater frequency. Today, numerous first-rank violinists maintain the work in their repertories. In my estimation, their attentions would be better devoted to the Lars-Erik Larsson Violin Concerto, roughly contemporaneous with the Korngold but a much finer work.

The Saint Paul performance was not successful. A full orchestra is needed for the Korngold Violin Concerto to make an impact; a chamber orchestra performance is inherently destined to sound under-nourished and anemic (the elaborate—and undeniably beautiful—orchestration provides one of the few reasons to hear the piece).

The soloist was the SPCO concertmaster. Probably from necessity, he gave a very linear and one-dimensional performance of the violin part (the SPCO concertmaster lacks personality and a unique sound). At the conclusion of the concerto, the woman next to me turned to her husband and wryly noted, “He should stick to Vivaldi . . . or Stravinsky, if he wants to do something more recent”—a statement I was prepared fully to affirm.

On our way home from a very disappointing concert, Josh asked me: “Remind me again: Why did we earmark this concert?”

“Because the orchestra had originally scheduled an interesting piece by Schnittke” was my response.

I have no idea what happened to the Schnittke. Somewhere along the line, the Schnittke disappeared, to be replaced by the Prokofiev.


On Sunday afternoon, my parents and Josh and I attended a rare Sunday matinee concert by the Minnesota Orchestra. Courtney Lewis, the orchestra’s Resident Conductor, lead the performance (Lewis’s official title is “Associate Conductor”).

Elgar’s Concert Overture, In The South (“Alassio”), began the concert.

In The South is a miraculous work, beautifully-constructed, with the widest possible range of expression—yet it is a very difficult piece to bring off, probably because it is not easy to make the various sections cohere. On disc, only Leonard Slatkin—of all persons—has managed to produce a fully-satisfactory reading.

Sunday’s Minnesota Orchestra performance was not so much a genuine performance as a rehearsed run-through. Lewis was clueless what to do with the piece, and the musicians, by themselves, were unable to create a performance without a distinguished Elgar conductor at the helm.

Schumann’s Piano Concerto followed the Elgar. The soloist was Argentine pianist Ingrid Fliter.

I am saturated by the Schumann Piano Concerto; I no longer respond to the piece.

During the last three concert seasons alone, Josh and I heard the Boston Symphony program the Schumann concerto twice: Maurizio Pollini/James Levine (a performance my parents, visiting us in Boston, had also heard); and Nelson Freire/Kurt Masur. Neither Boston performance was distinguished.

Moreover, eighteen months ago, Josh and I spent many hours listening to the fresh and intriguing Maria Joao Pires/Claudio Abbado recording of the concerto.

The result: we have had too much exposure to the work in recent years—and the Schumann Piano Concerto, a troubled if not ill-conceived work, probably does not warrant such extensive listening in the first place.

On Sunday afternoon, the musicians did not capture my full attention in the work, and I had not expected them to be able to do so. The performance merely passed by, the music going in one ear and out the other. I can state, with accuracy, that Fliter did nothing bizarre—my ears would have perked up considerably had she done so.

After intermission came Walton’s Symphony No. 1. Opportunities to hear the Walton First in the U.S. are rare, and we did not want to miss out. The Walton First is one of my favorite 20th-Century symphonies.

Going into the performance, we did not expect much—and Lewis did not deliver much. We heard precisely the sort of performance one might expect to hear from a Resident Conductor.

Lewis fatally misjudged the final movement. The climax came six minutes in, just as Walton drops the six-note fanfare theme that provides the basic material for the first half of the movement. Once the fanfare theme was tabled, Lewis was unable to maintain tension for the remaining eight or nine minutes of the symphony. The conclusion of the symphony was a dud.

The first three movements were seriously under-characterized. Anyone hearing the Walton First for the first time would have found the symphony incomparably bland. Lewis was never once in complete control of musicians or score.

The whole performance, to be frank, was not worth hearing—but I suspect that last week was Lewis’s first series of public performances of a very long and very complex and very great symphony. Allowances had to be made.

That said, the performance should have been presented in Bozeman, Montana. Lewis is not ready to be inflicted upon subscription audiences in the Twin Cities.


  1. I also think the Walton First is one of the greatest twentieth-century symphonies. The “Allegro Assai” alone is one of the most breathlessly exciting sonata-allegro movements ever penned in the 1900’s. Unfortunately, the Symphony is not as self-rising as any work by Gustav Mahler; indeed, its success in concert is heavily dependent upon a fine conductor. Under any among the common lot of conductors available today the work can come off as boring and even pretentious.

    I would much rather hear a great Walton conductor like Andre Previn lead the Cleveland Orchestra in the Walton on Saturday night rather than Nicola Luisotti conducting the Prokofiev Fifth. Even better: Previn leading the First AND Second Symphonies on the same program.

    As you know, George Szell made a definitive recording of the Walton Second, praised by Sir William and Lady Walton but virtually forgotten by just about anyone else. I will probably never hear a live performance of either Symphony.

    As you suggested, I looked at the Minnesota Orchestra’s lineup for next season. The offering is shockingly unimpressive; it looks like something that the Orlando Philharmonic would present, and I must say that I NEVER attend concerts by the Orlando Philharmonic. If I were living in the Twin Cities I would certainly not subscribe next year.

    Thank you for eliminating the "Word Varification" doggie hoops.

  2. We attended Sunday’s concert solely because we wanted to hear the Elgar and the Walton. We had no expectations, going in, that the performances would be memorable.

    I dislike it when orchestras put Resident Conductors on subscription programs—but most orchestras give their Resident Conductors one subscription program each year to reward them for hanging around all season, prepared to go on at a moment’s notice in the event of a last-minute cancellation.

    Alas, the Minnesota Orchestra turned most of the month of February over to Courtney Lewis. Such was probably a mistake.

    I think the Minnesota Orchestra must be afraid to spend money on guest conductors. The orchestra must have made an assessment, based upon recent trends, that good guest conductors have not brought in sufficient additional revenues to warrant their engagements. Such, at least, is my assumption.

    On the subject of next season’s programs . . .

    Honestly, I cannot believe how uninspiring they are. My father says they are the worst Minnesota Orchestra programs in forty years—and he would know.

  3. In addition to recording a fine Walton First for RCA (and a fine remake for Telarc), Previn recorded a fine Walton Second for EMI.

    Andrew Litton also recorded a more-than-creditable Walton Second for Decca.

    Bernard Haitink recorded an interesting Walton First for EMI. I would not have thought Haitink had it in him, having heard his distinctly poor attempt to make a go of the Elgar First for EMI, but I think Haitink’s Walton First works.

    However, after his recording, I don’t think Haitink ever returned to the piece.

  4. “It was reported in The Gramophone that Walton liked Bernard Haitink’s performance of his Symphony No. 1. Willie was being polite. He was glad that such a distinguished figure had recorded it and that was uppermost in his mind. But he hated the performance and, quite frankly, it is awful. About eight minutes are added to this account and the spirit of the music is completely misunderstood. The performance by Simon Rattle is also a travesty. He caricatures all the sforzandos painfully and there are so many faults and flaws that it would take many paragraphs to list them.”—David Wright

  5. I acquired both the Previn RCA and his Telarc recordings of the Walton First, being dissatisfied with every other available reading, based upon YOUR recommendation, in fact, if you recall. I love both CD's.

    (As I write this I am listening to a streamed broadcast of the Minnesota Orchestra playing the Britten "Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes" - a concert I believe you and Josh attended. So far the music making has not proven distracting.)

  6. If you manage to listen to the entire stream, I hope you can hear Midori in the Sibelius.

    On Monday of this week, a young woman at another firm told me how disappointed she had been when Midori had appeared as soloist with the Minnesota Orchestra earlier this season. According to this young woman, she had been unable to hear Midori, either because the orchestra had purposely drowned Midori out or because Midori “wasn’t even trying”.

    I suspect that this particular young woman is familiar with concerto performances via recordings, in which soloists are artificially spotlighted, and that she does not realize that concerto performances sound different in live performance.

  7. Yes, I heard the Sibelius. Midori was and IS a wonderful artist. Her individually dulcet sound, however, did not register very well through this medium.

    Perhaps that is why I was not impressed with the Debussy miniatures. These particular orchestrations didn't work for me, either (didn't Stokowski arrange some of these?). Vanska's must have completely missed the mark with "La Mer." I say "must have" because I fell asleep in the middle of "Jeux de vagues."

  8. Midori was perfectly audible in the hall.

  9. I should clarify. Midori's sound was clearly audible, but her individual, sweet TONE was not that clear.

  10. My comment was a swipe at that poor young woman who had complained about not being able to hear Midori because Midori “wasn’t even trying”.

    Isn’t the sound quality on those live streams pretty awful? Don’t orchestras on live streams sometimes sound like passing locomotives? I suspect all violinists sound alike on those streams.

    Do you have an opinion about the playing and conducting of Nikolaj Znaider? I have always liked his violin work—but a violinist in the Minnesota Orchestra tells me that Znaider is notorious within the profession for playing out of tune at virtually every concert (which apparently is why Znaider’s calendar is so chock-full of second- and third-rate engagements, precisely the types of engagements Anne-Sophie Mutter and Maxim Vengerov would never touch with a ten-foot pole).

  11. Well, I wouldn't say that the streamed sound of an orchestra is THAT bad, but it is certainly not good. Harmonics suffer and intermodulation distortion sometimes blurs together disparate musical lines. I don't stream much, really. One CAN get a general idea about a performer's interpretation as well has his (or her) technical abilities.

    I like Znaider a lot. (I do NOT like his choice of face makeup.) I didn't detect any suspect pitching last year when he played the Brahms concerto in Miami. Perhaps, unlike Mutter, he has good AND bad days . . . like his makeup.

  12. I found numerous additional photographs online of Znaider wearing lipstick, including several photos of him wearing lipstick while he was studying violin with a noted violin pedagogue in Vienna. Znaider was in his early- and mid-twenties at the time, and not yet famous—and, in the photos, lipstick is plastered all over his face, just like his fellow female violin students standing alongside him.

    I may have to do another post.