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Symphony of a Thousand Critics

New York
Carnegie Hall
10/25/2004 -  
Gustav Mahler: Symphony #8
Jane Eaglen, Soprano
Hei-Kyung Hong, Soprano
Heidi Grant Murphy, Soprano
Stephanie Blythe, Mezzo-Soprano
Yvonne Naef, Mezzo-Soprano
Vinson Cole, Tenor
Eike Wilm Schulte, Baritone
John Relyea, Bass-Baritone
Tanglewood Festival Chorus
John Oliver, Conductor
American Boychoir
Fernando Malvar-Ruiz, Music Director
Boston Symphony
James Levine (conductor)

Just a trio of seasons ago, the big three orchestras of the eastern United States found themselves in need of new maestros at a time when the selection pool seemed to have only a shallow end. Except for Philadelphia, where the brilliant Wolfgang Sawallisch was simply retiring, these organizations had painted themselves into this embarrassing corner, the New York Philharmonic giving the bum’s rush to the distinguished Kurt Masur and the Boston Symphony finally taking revenge on Seiji Ozawa for leaving the Brahmin soccer moms without a nutcracker while he took his fine ensemble on a December tour of Asia. At the same time, the other two orchestras of similar quality in this part of the world also made eerily similar changes at the top, the Cleveland Orchestra hiring Franz Welser-Moest and the Pittsburgh Symphony opting for no one. After much public disfunctionality, all three concentrically local institutions hired big names, two of whom have now begun their tenures most distressingly. Lorin Maazel arrived in New York under a cloud of arrogance and proceeded to flaunt his micromanagement style to the extreme point wherein his Philharmonic performances are now merely self-congratulatory reshapings of the classics, many individual phrases elongated or deconstructed for the sake of this frustrated composer’s idea of maximum impact. Christoph Eschenbach, hired in Philadelphia over the objections of the players and without the advice and consent of the board, has begun a questionable renovation of that signature fabulous sound, seeming to favor glitz and glamour over strength and substance, and turning many locals into Cassandras wandering about Broad Street lamenting the passing of the good old days under Ormandy. And, just in case one was hopeful that this situation was but a temporary band-aid, both Eschenbach and Maazel have recently been signed to contract extensions, the former until 2008 and the latter 2009. This reviewer, for one, has given up his seat on the New Jersey Transit train that connects the two cities.

However, on the Acela to Boston there is still enthusiasm. James Levine is taking over the BSO and that could be exciting. Left in fine shape by caretaker par excellence Bernard Haitink, the Bostonians could be primed for a grab at their previous greatness. Skeptics are concerned about maestro Levine’s health and commitment. Here in 2004-2005, he has already angered the Back Bay community by declining to conduct his own inaugural opening night concert, citing previous engagements at the Metropolitan Opera (please don’t try and tell me that, as the new music director, he couldn’t have rescheduled the BSO’s first evening of the season). Levine is an enigma: proving just this past season that he is still the best Wagnerian conductor on the planet, his orchestral concerts with the MET ensemble are not as crisp as they once were, and his stint with the Munich Philharmonic was simply disastrous. Will he have the energy to conduct in the Lincoln Center pit and at storied Symphony Hall? One thing is certain: in the game of musical chairs that is modern concert life, James Levine will always be the winner because he never actually gets up from his seat.

Forget first night at the Met or Renee Fleming opening Carnegie Hall; last evening was the event of the season. The Carnegie press office told me that there were an unprecedented number of ticket requests from reviewers. Everyone who is anyone (and many who are not) in the print media were ensconced in the best seats, taking away precious profit margin from the hall. I think that I spotted both Hanslick and Korngold in the crowd. The piece was the Mahler 8 and, because Levine is Levine, the soloists were all denizens of the dress circle of the opera world, even though their individual parts were small. But as any sports fan can tell you, an all-star team often does not perform well as a unit.

Levine may spend most of his life up the street at Lincoln Center, but of course he has conducted many times at Carnegie in the past. Therefore he knew that the most distinguished performance space on the planet has no organ – didn’t put one in when they had unlimited Andrew Carnegie money and, even more scandalous, ignored the problem during the extensive (and expensive) renovations under Isaac Stern. In any case, this Mahler 8 started off with a pedal point more reminiscent of a garage band than an elite instrumental ensemble.

And it got worse, much worse. At intermission – that’s right, intermission - a critic friend described the sound of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus as unfriendly and this was spot on. My own image was “hard edged or serrated”, but unfriendly is even more accurate. Recently in these pages I praised the glorious mezzo Dolora Zajick for her remarkable ability to be heard clearly above the assembled throng at the Met’s current Aida, so I would be remiss not to mention the even more prodigious vocal power of Jane Eaglen to be so audible in this current setting. Problem was, her sound was simply awful, ugly and screechy. Her augmentation by sister soprano Hei-Kyung Hong was unfocused and unpleasantly melismatic. To be fair, there were some impressive moments from some of the other soloists. John Relyea was commanding and Vinson Cole sweet, having replaced Ben Heppner who in turn, fresh from bad notices from the Boston performance of this same work, called in sick. But overall, this was just fingernails on the chalkboard bad.

Now, about that intermission. Fidel Castro fell the other day and this was big news on American television. Like the Pope and Mr. Levine, he is on constant health watch; every tic and twitter is recorded and analyzed. But Levine is only in his fifties, and these constant rumors of enervation can tire us out as well. It was generally assumed that the inclusion of a twenty-five minute break after a twenty minute first movement (Levine, to his credit, kept the pace brisk) had to have been engendered by the conductor’s inability to stay out there center stage for the duration. However, the mood was certainly ruined, the transition from 9th century hymn to 18th century poetry rendered moot, the “orchestral interval” simply an entr’acte. Inexcusable.

But the rest seemed to do Jimmy good. The second part was notable for some moments of extreme beauty and some very fine touches. Heidi Grant Murphy and a brass choir in the rafters were effective, as was the gorgeous floating world of Yvonne Naef as Maria Aegyptiaca. Although the electronic organ had been a bust, the combination of piano, celesta and harp was appropriately heavenly and the orchestra, except for some brass fuzziness, was supple and compliant. There is still work to do there, but isn’t that why they hired Levine in the first place?

On a personal note, I would like to take the opportunity of this, my 499th review for concertonet, to thank each and every one of my readers for their kind attention. For my 500th, I’ll try and spend at least a few moments reflecting on lessons learned. And for those of you who are willing to stick with me, let’s have a real celebration forty years from now at Mr. Levine’s actual farewell concert.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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