Thursday, June 13, 2013

Against Our Better Judgment

Against our better judgment, on Saturday night Joshua and I went to Saint Paul to hear the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in concert.

We attended the concert as a favor to Joanne, an attorney at Josh’s firm. Joanne had wanted to hear the guest soloist, mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, but Joanne’s husband had refused to go to the concert—he has declared a moratorium on SPCO concerts until all current musicians are replaced and a Music Director named—and Joanne had not wanted to go by herself.

Our arrangements were all very last-minute—and, at the VERY last minute, we were joined by Joanne’s sister-in-law.

Many persons are predicting a major career for Leonard, who is just starting to obtain important engagements. Leonard has a voice of some size and some color. She is a competent musician and—singing Berlioz’s Les nuits d'été—her French was acceptable. She has an earnest and graceful stage demeanor.

“Where never is heard a discouraging word” has long been the official policy for local music reviews. In critical notices of the Leonard concert, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and Saint Paul Pioneer Press, both of which employ stringers, carried on as if a young Janet Baker had graced the Saint Paul stage. The overstatement, even puffery, of the stringers was sheerest foolishness: what Saint Paul heard was a capable singer, not a special one. Leonard will have the honorable career of a Béatrice Uria-Monzon, not the spectacular one of a Teresa Berganza.

Les nuits d'été, perhaps the most bewitching of song cycles, lacks a great current interpreter. I have heard Susan Graham and Anne Sofie von Otter, both distinguished artists, come to grief in the work. Is there an active singer that can do the work justice?

Much as I hate to say this (because I cannot stand her fundamental phoniness and smarminess), I think Renée Fleming should have a go at Les nuits d'été. Fleming’s French is faultless; Victoria de los Ángeles and Régine Crespin, among others, have shown that a soprano voice can handle the tessitura of Les nuits d'été.

The Berlioz was the main event of the first half of the program; Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 was the main event of the second half.

The conductor, Edo de Waart, gave a lightweight, glib account of the Beethoven. The SPCO needs to stop engaging de Waart; the man has nothing to offer.

Two John Adams orchestrations of piano compositions completed the program. Adams’s “The Black Gondola”, a very imaginative and very successful orchestration of Franz Liszt, opened the concert. Adams’s “Berceuse elegiaque”, a less successful orchestration of Ferruccio Busoni, opened the second half of the program. Both Adams orchestrations had premiered in Saint Paul in 1989.

The SPCO needs to engage a Music Director, a Music Director that can shape up and elevate the ensemble. In its present incarnation, the SPCO plays cleanly and in tune—and that’s about it.

My suggestion is that the SPCO go after one of the young German hotshots, Christoph König or Cornelius Meister, before their fees get out of hand—and before the Baltimore Symphony grabs one and a major European orchestra the other.

König or Meister could set the town on its ear—and provide something the Twin Cities has not had since Dimitri Mitropoulos left town in 1949: a conductor worth hearing week after week.

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