Monday, September 17, 2012

First Concert Of The Season

On Friday evening, Joshua and I went to Saint Paul to hear the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in concert. Edo de Waart was conductor; Christian Zacharias was guest soloist.

My parents joined us for the concert.

My parents are dedicated patrons of the Minnesota Orchestra, yet they seldom attend Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra concerts. In fact, my parents attend SPCO concerts only when Josh and I invite them to come with us—and they accept perhaps only half of our invitations.

Surveys suggest that the Minnesota Orchestra and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra have distinct patronships, with little overlap between the two organizations’ subscribers or regular concertgoers. I find this situation remarkable, as one would think that both orchestras would draw from the very same body of music-lovers. I cannot provide a satisfactory explanation to account for the fact that the two orchestras have separate and discrete audiences.

It was the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 that attracted us to the concert hall on Friday evening. An epic work bursting with drama and grandeur, the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 is the most profound and most affecting (and most thrilling) of all concertante works for piano and orchestra.

Going in, we knew the performance would be problematic. A chamber orchestra simply cannot do justice to a work written for—and demanding—the resources of a full symphony orchestra. The Vienna Philharmonic uses 83 players when performing the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2; in Saint Paul, only 35 were onstage.

By definition, the performance was small-scale. Overwhelming beauty of sound was nowise present. The great climaxes of the first two movements did not tell. The audience was offered an undernourished and underpowered account of the score. There were many lovely moments, all in the third and fourth movements, but the performance did not arise to a satisfying and fulfilling account of the work.

Zacharias is a fine pianist, but he is not a great one. Since every note produced by the piano could be heard clearly, we were able to note pianistic detail generally lost in a full-orchestra performance of the work. We heard nothing memorable or remarkable from Zacharias, nothing that made us sit up and take notice of a unique personality and unique keyboard artist.

We did, however, hear lots of slipped notes. The Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 operates at the very outer limits of Zacharias’s technique. It is probably a mistake for Zacharias to perform this work in major venues.

Zacharias had limited color at his disposal in his presentation of the great work, far too limited to bring the concerto off. If an artist is unable or unwilling to explore the sonorities of the piano in this greatest of all concertos for the instrument, the work should remain unperformed. Zacharias was mechanical in his sound production when he needed to produce a deep, penetrating, glamorous sound from his instrument.

I do not think there is a pianist alive today that can do justice to the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2. Maurizio Pollini is chilly in the work, Krystian Zimerman too odd, the current generation of Russian pianists too unversed in Classicism to give satisfactory accounts of the work. Theoretically, one would think that Stephen Kovacevich, a magnificent Brahms pianist, would own this concerto—but the Second has always eluded him (although he is stunning in the First). I wonder whether I will ever hear a satisfactory live account of the work.

Friday evening was the fourth time in the past two years we have heard Zacharias—and we have had our fill of him for now. In November 2010, we heard Zacharias as conductor and soloist with the Boston Symphony (Mozart and Haydn). In December 2011, we heard Zacharias as conductor and soloist with the SPCO in two separate programs (Beethoven and Frank Martin; Haydn, Weber and Stravinsky). At present, we need to give Zacharias a rest. He is, for us, over-exposed.

The first half of the concert was devoted to music of Richard Strauss.

Performed first was Strauss’s Serenade In E-Flat, a nine-minute, one-movement, sonata-form work for thirteen wind instruments written shortly after the composer’s seventeenth birthday. A distillation of Mozart and Mendelssohn, the Serenade received the finest performance of the evening.

Performed next was Strauss’s Metamorphosen For 23 Solo Strings, completed in the composer’s 81st year. A lament for the destruction of Munich as well as the German civilization that had formed the basis of the composer’s artistry and art, the elegiac and somber Metamorphosen was begun in 1943 and completed on April 12, 1945, twenty-five days before Germany’s final surrender—and the date, coincidentally, of Franklin Roosevelt’s death. Contrary to common belief, Metamorphosen was not written after the conclusion of the war, nor was it written specifically to commemorate the destroyed opera house of Munich.

The Saint Paul performance of Metamorphosen was faceless and impersonal, not deeply-felt and moving. The playing was clean, but there was nothing behind the notes. It was an earnest, trudging performance—and an earnest, trudging performance of the half-hour Metamorphosen will always seem to go on forever, which is precisely what happened in Saint Paul on Friday evening. I hold de Waart responsible for the performance’s lack of concentration, absence of shape, and want of expression and commitment.

I have never been an admirer of de Waart. De Waart was Music Director of the Minnesota Orchestra from 1986 until 1995, and it cannot be claimed that de Waart’s years in Minneapolis constituted some sort of glorious period for the Minnesota Orchestra. Musicians, administrators, critics, concertgoers: all were happy to see de Waart leave town.

I recall de Waart’s Minnesota Orchestra performances as, fundamentally, dour and unimaginative.

My father’s analysis of de Waart’s tenure in Minnesota: “De Waart simply had no depth—and it became more and more obvious with each passing year.”

My mother’s characterization of the de Waart years: “I don’t think de Waart enjoyed making music. I never once heard the orchestra play for him with the slightest joy.”

In my parents’ dining room, in the final year of de Waart’s Minnesota Orchestra tenure, I recall hearing a noted professor remark, over dinner, “Hearing him for nine years, I can say: he’s totally washed up now as a musician.”

The professor was corrected by a noted conductor sitting across the table. “No. He was washed up before he arrived here.”

De Waart’s career has been on a steep downward slide since his Minnesota Orchestra directorship ended seventeen years ago. De Waart has been reduced to working with orchestras in Sydney, Hong Kong, Milwaukee and Antwerp. It has been years and years since de Waart has been invited to conduct the very finest ensembles in the United States and Europe on a regular basis.

De Waart’s career has had an odd arc. His career—and fame—peaked in the late 1970s, when de Waart was in his late thirties. It was widely believed at the time that de Waart would develop into a major talent. De Waart enjoyed major management, a major recording contract (Philips), major engagements and major fees.

De Waart was one of eight conductors profiled in Philip Hart’s “Conductors: A New Generation”, published in 1979. In his book, Hart attempted to identify the eight most important conductors for the next thirty years—and Hart’s guesses, by and large, were not too far off the mark (Hart could not have been expected in 1979 to foresee the rise and emergence, respectively, of Riccardo Chailly, Ivan Fischer and Simon Rattle). De Waart, of the conductors selected by Hart, is the figure whose career least turned out to warrant Hart’s spotlight.

Within a few years of the publication of the Hart book, it was all over for de Waart. The important engagements had ended—de Waart had proven himself not up to the task—and de Waart lost his management, his recording contract, and his high fees.

De Waart found his name stricken from the “A” list of conductors, and has had to endure a steady downward career regression ever since. Among conductors, de Waart may have suffered the most unusual—and most disappointing—career of recent decades.

Unaccountably, the SPCO has engaged de Waart to conduct six weeks of SPCO concerts this season—and, of greater regret, de Waart has been assigned prime repertory.

I believe this is a mistake. De Waart is not a box-office draw in the Twin Cities. There is no area of the repertory in which de Waart excels. De Waart performances, under the best of circumstances, cannot be described as anything more than competent. The SPCO slots given to de Waart should have been granted to young up-and-coming conductors from Germany and Austria.

Of more critical importance, the SPCO needs to address its Music Director issue.

The SPCO currently operates without a Music Director. Its most recent Music Director, Andreas Delfs, failed to work out—but the orchestra should not have used that failure as an excuse to eliminate the post of Music Director. The playing of the SPCO is now alarmingly impersonal and uninteresting. The musicians are in serious need of a jolt of inspiration—and, if that jolt does not come without significant delay, the SPCO will soon devolve into the Midwest equivalent of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra: an ensemble not worth hearing.

The SPCO needs to select and engage a Music Director as soon as possible.

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