A Beguiling Marriage of Conductor and Orchestra
Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall
Schoenberg: Chamber Symphony No. 1 in E Major, Op. 9
Mozart: Sinfonia concertante in E-flat major, K. 297b, for winds and orchestra
Brahms: Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68
Richard Woodhams (oboe), Ricardo Morales (clarinet), Daniel Matsukawa (bassoon), Jennifer Montone (horn)
The Philadelphia Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach (conductor)
In a rich, quirky and brilliant performance last Wednesday night at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Orange County, The Philadelphia Orchestra easily lived up to its century old reputation as one of the world’s greatest orchestras. The German conductor and pianist, Music Director Christoph Eschenbach (an important musical figure in Paris for the last decades), led the ensemble. This particular marriage between conductor and orchestra was fascinating to see- there was tremendous wattage on each side of the podium. It is not a marriage that will last, as he is leaving Philadelphia soon. But the particularity of the relationship was mesmerizing. Eschenbach’s extraordinary awareness of detail and nuance blended with an extremely highly developed style and personality on the part of the orchestra itself. Each of these qualities on both sides showed itself differently in the various pieces. In the Schoenberg the combination was not great. In the Mozart Eschenbach was amazing in his focus, opening up a glorious space for the soloists to perform. Their Brahms was magnificently alive, the best of several major performances that I have attended over the last few years.
The view and the sound from my seat in the dress circle on the third level were both excellent. We were perched directly above the conductor, stage right, and could see every trace of his movements at extreme close range, due the narrow width of the hall. The radical verticality of our sightline, reminiscent of the much smaller Salle Cortot or Théâtre des bouffes du Nord in Paris, was extraordinary. I would highly recommend these seats to anyone interested in an intriguing and intimate view of the conductor. For this concert, the acoustic was also very good in these seats, although clearly different from seats farther back in the hall. The angle or the presentation of the sound was distinctly altered. The reverberation chamber doors surrounding the hall were more closed than I have often seen them in the past, with about a 6” opening on the floor level (the two lowest levels behind the stage) and then an 18” opening for all the others. My companion, an architect at his first concert in a Russell Johnson acoustically adjustable hall was immediately engaged. “Is the hall itself an instrument?” James asked. “Aren’t there too many variables here? This seems to present equations that are too difficult to solve.”
Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1 in E Major, Op. 9, is scored for only 16 instruments, which may have been the reason that the doors were more closed than for other concerts. “The sound is a little thin,” James remarked at the end of the piece, “or the orchestra is a little thin, or perhaps it is where we are sitting.” It could also have been the way the sound doors were positioned. But I suspect that he was reacting to the performance itself. Eschenbach and the Philadelphians are clearly not soul mates, and there is a reason that he is leaving the city after such a short time. While their short-lived marriage is beguiling, the drawbacks to the relationship were most apparent in the Schoenberg. The rebellious spiky quality of the music was toned down, the smooth Philadelphia sound rounded off the sharp modernist edges. The high screechy notes on bass and cello swirled about the hall, a modern orchestral song, jittery and tuneful, teeming with anxious melody. But the angst was mostly held in, leaning toward Wagner rather than Shostakovich. Every note was well played, but the performance was never impassioned or unleashed. The ensemble exhibited consummate skill, but they were out of their element. Eschenbach let the players take center stage and never drew them into any supreme intensity. Were they trying to make Schoenberg palatable?
The Mozart Sinfonia concertante in E-flat major, K. 297b, for winds and orchestrawas a completely different story. In the Mozart, the Philadelphians melted hearts within the first three bars. The orchestra was so much in its element that it almost seemed that the conductor would not matter. A recent and widely read article in the Wall Street Journal argued that the world’s great orchestras nurture and maintain their traditions independently of their conductors. The writer asserted that a felicitous relationship between an orchestra and its maestro can give rise to great music for a limited period, such as when Simon Rattle was in Birmingham. But that great orchestras must be built over many decades, and the recent excellence of Los Angeles under Salonen or San Francisco under Michael Tilson Thomas is no guarantee of great music over a long period. This concert certainly lent weight to that argument. The Philadelphia Orchestra collaborated in a fascinating way with Eschenbach, but their particular tradition of excellence seemed completely independent of him.
If for Schoenberg the sound felt thin, the Mozart could not have been more rich and organic. The tone of the woodwinds rivaled Sabine Meyer on the clarinet. From our perch high above the stage the blend of sound was unusual, but not at all unpleasant. Whispers of overtones seemed to come in and out of focus slightly differently, but clarity, intimacy and volume were never in doubt. The soloists were splendid, as if they were a quartet of human voices from one of the great Mozart operas, with timbres to match Ernst Haefliger or Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. It was not just that they could play the music flawlessly but that each of them brought something completely individual to the part, something particular and unique, never to be heard again in any other performance. The level of energy and bounce was hard to maintain through the entire piece, but at the end the quartet drew us right back into the drama, the loquacious clarinet chatting away. We were fortunate to hear this marvelous rarity, seldom performed but intimately familiar. There were roars of applause and even the tapping of bows for Eschenbach’s sensitive accompaniment.
As if a magus stepping magically from the 19th century into the 21st, Eschenbach conducted Brahms’ great First Symphony without a score. He drew every intricate inner pizzicato, elicited an enchanted dexterity of trumpet and horn. In the overwhelmingly powerful opening bars, he created the heartbeat of a young god rising from the sea. In their concentration and abundance of strength, the oboes, clarinets and bassoons were incredible. At the pause at the end of the first movement, the audience was stunned into absolute silence.
Although this relationship between conductor and orchestra is imperfect, it reached a certain greatness in this performance. Once again, the soloists, particularly the woodwinds and the concertmaster, rose to extraordinary heights, creating passages and moments that would grace the earth only once. In Brahms’ First Symphony, this marriage proved superior to any of several major interpretations of the last few years, including Los Angeles with Christoph von Dohnányi at Disney Hall, Cleveland with Franz Welser-Möst at Carnegie Hall, or New York with Marin Alsop at Lincoln Center.
In the final movement, the timpani fell like the hammer blows of a god. The horns and trumpets carried their deep sound from the depths of another century. The blend of the brass was heartbreaking. How did they learn to play so extraordinarily together, at such a level of excellence? How is that level of skill passed down and forward? It was a little disappointing that the audience began their applause too soon at the end. But the encore of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance Number Five was the real thing, full of swagger and grace, even better than Loren Maazel with the Italian Sinfonia Toscanini, who offered the same encore here a few months ago. It was frustrating to miss Matthias Goerne who cancelled his performance of Schubert songs with this tour, but the evening was satisfying in every way.
Thomas Aujero Small