Monday, April 30, 2012

Wishing For Something Unforgettable

On Friday evening, my parents and Joshua and I went to Orchestra Hall to hear the Minnesota Orchestra play the complete “Daphnis et Chloé” by Maurice Ravel. The conductor of the performance was Mark Wigglesworth.

The Minnesota Orchestra was the first American orchestra to record the complete score of “Daphnis et Chloé”, doing so on December 4, 1954, under Antal Dorati. (Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony were to make their legendary recording of the complete score the following year.) Twenty years later, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski led the Minnesota Orchestra in a famous recording of both suites from the score.

Recording history notwithstanding, it would not be accurate to suggest that the Minnesota Orchestra is a distinguished Ravel orchestra with a distinguished Ravel tradition. The Minnesota Orchestra plays French music like most other American orchestras: with great energy and directness, and with some brio, but with few genuine Gallic qualities.

Nonetheless, performances of the complete “Daphnis et Chloé” are uncommon, in Minneapolis and elsewhere, and we did not want to miss out.

Friday evening’s performance was very fine, if a little short on ecstasy and aching beauty (which is how I want to hear “Daphnis et Chloé”). There was also too little shimmer of sound.

I fear I would be carping if I were to compare Wigglesworth’s work in the score to that of Jean Martinon, Pierre Monteux and Munch. Much of the score came across in Wigglesworth’s hands; it was probably unreasonable to have wished for something unforgettable.

Wigglesworth is a frequent visitor to Minneapolis—he has appeared here in eleven of the past seventeen seasons—and I am told that the musicians of the orchestra like and respect him, and that management finds him congenial and efficient, all qualities sought in a prospective music director. I hope Wigglesworth will not prove to be Osmo Vanska’s successor (my money is on Andrew Litton, although I do not want him, either).

The first half of the program was devoted to the American premiere of the Oboe Concerto of British composer Michael Berkeley, son of composer Lennox Berkeley. The soloist was the Minnesota Orchestra’s principal oboist, who is to retire at the conclusion of the current season after forty-one years of service.

Berkeley’s Oboe Concerto is one of those pastoral affairs the British used to produce by the truckload. In three movements and scored for strings alone, the Oboe Concerto is in a conservative, tonal idiom—and might easily be mistaken for a work by William Alwyn. The central movement is a Scherzo, surrounded by two slow movements, the last of which is a maudlin elegy for Benjamin Britten, who had died the year before the concerto was written. The score might serve as ideal background music for a British television documentary about veterinarians in The Midlands, with baby lambs dying at the end.

Berkeley was only 29 years old when he wrote his Oboe Concerto; it was his first significant composition, and not typical of his later output.

Berkeley’s music is never heard in the United States. Friday evening was the first time I had ever heard a Berkeley work performed here. If Berkeley is known at all in the U.S., it is for his laughable oratorio, “Or Shall We Die?”, a notorious work that—mercifully—sank into oblivion immediately after its much-publicized premiere in the early 1980s.

Why was the Berkeley Oboe Concerto programmed in Minneapolis? Probably because its demands on the oboist and orchestra were minimal, and because it required minimal rehearsal time.

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