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My Dinner With Andrew

New York
Carnegie Hall
02/11/2004 -  
Marc-Andre Dalbavie: Concertate il suono
Olivier Messiaen: Oiseaux exotiques
Maurice Ravel: Piano Concerto
Bela Bartok: The Miraculous Mandarin

Mitsuko Uchida (piano)
Cleveland Orchestra
Pierre Boulez (conductor)

A Month at Carnegie Hall

Part Four

The Philharmonic –
What’s Wrong With It And Why

“The Metropolitan Opera House…attractions, social and
practical, were strong enough so that the Philharmonic had
stayed on there even after Carnegie’s Music Hall, with its
superior acoustics and seating arrangements, had opened.
And the orchestra would probably have remained at the Met
even longer if that building had not obligingly burned on
August 27, 1892, forcing an immediate shift for the next
season to the Music Hall.”

Howard Shanet, Philharmonic

After fifty years of concert going, it is very difficult to summon up out of the roseate memory a clear frontrunner for best individual evening (although, gun to head, I would have to choose Rostropovich conducting the Prokofieff Romeo and Juliet in Philadelphia). However, recalling the worst concert is alarmingly easy and it occurred right here at Carnegie Hall.

In the mid-1970’s, Pierre Boulez was the put-upon conductor of the recalcitrant New York Philharmonic and mounted a mini-festival in honor of that most famous of all Carnegie maestros Gustav Mahler. For the Saturday evening performance, Boulez chose the controversial Symphony # 7, a work that maddeningly still continues to require advocacy against charges of banality and kapellmeisterism in spite of its amazing melodic quality, rhythmic complexity and kaleidoscopically imaginative landscape. If any of the audience members from that ill-fated event were on the fence about this particular orchestral essay when they arrived at Carnegie that night, I would not be at all surprised if they swore off Mahler forever by the time that they left the hall.

Leaving problems of intonation and execution out of this narrative (and certainly, after almost thirty years, the recollection of that jarringly ugly sound may have been demonized just a tad), the most memorable and unjustifiable aspect of this particular concert was the rotten attitude of the musicians. Slouching in their chairs, willfully ignoring the conductor, talking amongst themselves, these “professionals” disgraced not only each other but their city as well. One particular incident served to freeze this inexcusable behavior in bas-relief. Mr. Boulez invited two students, I believe from the Juilliard School, to perform the guitar and mandolin parts in the fourth movement. In an inspired stroke of clarity, he seated them at the front of the stage as if they were soloists. Maestro Boulez is a highly skilled composer, passionately interested in each sonic moment. It was apparent that he was aware of the acoustical anomaly created by Mahler: the crisp mandolin is easily heard above the orchestra, but the guitar, with its gentle timbre, is often subsumed by the sound of its hundred or so colleagues. The guitar part is crucial to the Italianate serenade and, in most live performances, its ending morendo, so vital to the narrative subtext of this dramatic work, is barely audible (parenthetically, I have heard many versions of this symphony live and this is the only one to seat the players in this manner). The two young gentlemen were, of course, thrilled to be performing with a major conductor at Carnegie, and did so flawlessly, sitting straight in their seats and concentrating all of their energies on the task at hand. Their deportment only served to embarrass the louts of the Philharmonic all the more. My companion and I, scheduled to attend the Sunday afternoon rendition of the 9th, exchanged our tickets on the corner of 57th and 7th and went for an early dinner instead.

Nothing would please me more than to relate to the reader that this was an isolated incident, a blemish on an otherwise sterling career. Rather, it is the norm, the type of bad behavior that Philharmonic musicians, in a pathetically adolescent manner, celebrate as their particular idiosyncratic persona (and the music be damned). Since the 1930’s, it has been tacitly accepted locally that the greatest musical city in the world has a second rate orchestra, notoriously difficult for conductors to motivate. Many theories abound as to the reasons for this disconnect between personnel and maestros (and, therefore, audiences), the most commonly accepted, but perhaps too pat, being that the musicians’ union, like many organized labor organizations in this metropolis, simply has too much power. Whatever the root causes, this acceptance of mediocrity is enabled and even fostered by the most influential critics in town. These arbiters of taste and culture have tended for many years to reduce the argument to laundry lists of the faults of the various foolhardy music directors whose only real mistake was accepting the position in the first place. Howard Taubman of the Times was the most famous of these sophists, causing the humiliation and direct dismissal of Dmitri Mitropoulos by publishing one Sunday morning the review whose bare-knuckled title I have appropriated for this article. In recent years, the standard red herring goes something like this:

“Well, Boulez was too intellectual, Mehta (Zubin, not Zarin) too shallow, Masur too pedestrian, and Maazel too slick.”

There are indeed kernels of truth in this litany, but it hardly explains the consistently poor showing of the ensemble. When the news broke about the possible takeover of Carnegie Hall, local critics fell over themselves in the race to ignore the musical shortcomings of the orchestra. Few pointed out the significant drop in quality inherent in the move.

Maestro Boulez has certainly survived his separation from the Philharmonic, thank you very much. Last evening, during a private reception at the French consulate, he talked with great pleasure about his first major assignment after New York, the celebrated partnership at Bayreuth with Patrice Chéreau on arguably the most exciting Ring cycle of the last half century (more on Boulez and Wagner in tomorrow’s installment). Affable and engaging, he left his aloof persona behind at Carnegie Hall and discussed openly in this more intimate (and infinitely more luxurious) atmosphere his theories on the potential for synergies between architecture and music. Last season, as composer in residence at Carnegie, he ordered the seats to be removed from the parquet so that the musicians could perform in the center of the audience. This season, as guest conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, he began his stay with a new piece by fellow Frenchman Marc-André Dalbavie which also requires spatial integration of sound and listener. His expressed enthusiasm was proven warranted tonight as we were all feted to a thought-provoking exploration of the synaptic void between musician and concertgoer, note and note, chord and chord, balcony and stage. Strategically placed about the hall were harps and horns and small groups of winds. Their interrelation with their home base, manned by colleagues in a far from traditional platform positioning configuration, created a windswept, desert atmosphere that impressed and held the attention for a time, even if the piece itself was a bit long-winded.

Sonorities were very much to the fore in the delightfully complex Messiaen work. Here was Boulez repaying the favor of the great man’s tutelage with an excellent and precise performance inspired by the animated and elfin Mitsuko Uchida, who emerged from the rhythmic labyrinths triumphantly. Also very moving was her version of the Ravel, subdued and quiet, delicate and loving, the opening of the second movement a powerful study in the exultation of the eloquent whisper. One might have wished for more of a jazzy bounce in the outer movements, the way Ravel himself conducted this piece of a certain age, but this caressing approach was equally valid and considerably more intimate. The fun ended with a knockout performance of the entire Miraculous Mandarin ballet, biting and incisive, sarcastic and blowsy, integrated in a manner that showed the hand of a true master at the helm. But at over two and one half hours for the total concert experience, perhaps the suite would have been a more humane choice.

Boulez mentioned last evening that it was not his place to criticize other performances or ensembles (elder statesmanship can tame even the most ferocious of former Young Turks), and had no comment on the New York Philharmonic, past or present. It is, however, exactly my place to make such comments and all I can say is, his entire demeanor radiates the loud and clear message that he is a lot happier working with the likes of the Cleveland Orchestra.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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