Music / The Berkshire Review in Boston

Myung-Whun Chung and Garrick Ohlsson in Weber. Barber’s Piano Concerto, and Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique”

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Myung Whun Chung
Myung Whun Chung

Boston Symphony Orchestra
November 10, 2011, Thursday 8:00 pm
Symphony Hall

Myung-Whun Chung, conductor
Garrick Ohlsson, piano

Weber ‑ Overture to Der Freischütz
Barber ‑ 
Piano Concerto
Tchaikovsky ‑ 
Symphony No. 6, Pathétique

Many things go toward the making of great conducting—knowledge of music and of how people play instruments; ability to communicate to orchestra musicians, through both technical and less tangible means; the inspiring of respect; a way with audiences and a sense of what will reach them. Much else, no doubt. Most important, in the end, is vision—a considered and impassioned sense of just how a work of music should sound and move and take shape, with a determination to elicit this from an orchestra and put it across to listeners. Here we go beyond the playing of a score, however expert and in however proper a style. The piece and the performance speak, every detail a part of the whole, and all proceeding from a deep human center. Myung-Whun Chung brought the Boston Symphony Orchestra to this level of performance with the Tchaikovsky “Pathétique” Symphony in the current series of concerts.

Chung conjured a wonderful rich, bleak sound from the strings, beginning low and dark, and had them achieve marvelous layering and rise to great, never coarse, intensity as the piece progressed. Bassoonist Richard Svoboda and clarinetist William Hudgins soon emerged as heroes of the occasion. The trombones and other brass played gorgeously. Timpanist Timothy Genis maintained a quiet tension under everything, at times flaring out, of course, in the big part this piece gives to his instrument. All the orchestra seemed to be sitting on the edge of their seats, focusing intently on the conductor and the way he was having the work unfold. Chung gave us a first movement that sounded entirely fresh and original—one was constantly hearing new things, dissonances and odd colors emerging, rhythms interrupted, unnerving alterations of light and dark. Mahler, Debussy, even Schoenberg, were in the air. And there were moments of time-stopped all but silence, as if a void had opened. Everything took an uncanny inevitable emotional shape entirely right for Tchaikovsky’s turbulent feelings of now despair, now desperate lyricism, which he has worked into his own peculiar, stressed version of classical sonata form. The middle movements are whistling in the dark, though extraordinarily beautiful and inspired whistling. The Allegro con grazia “waltz” in 5/4 rhythm dances off into the world of the Tchaikovsky ballets, but here properly kept its all-is-not-quite-right and muted quality. The third movement manic fast march that ensues always garners applause, as if the symphony has ended. Here the movement was played brilliantly and reached an explosive ending, but the applause was only a sprinkling, because Chung was maintaining such a strong sense of how the piece must go forward—into that black hole where the final Adagio lamentoso starts and where it, and the entire piece, will end.

The program had opened with Weber’s Overture to Der Freischütz. This was fine, perhaps a little big, a little coarse. There followed the Samuel Barber Piano Concerto, featuring pianist Garrick Ohlsson. This concerto, dating from 1962, is one of Barber’s best pieces, modernist but highly listenable, concentrated, full of invention for both piano and orchestra, alternately anguished, lyrical, and insouciantly charming. Ohlsson is a marvelous pianist, with a big sound, able to play anything, to render any kind of passage work, any mood that is called for. He, Chung, and the orchestra worked in the same spirit here, but it was a little too light and detached a spirit. They made the piece sound French or Stravinskian, and it “showed its seams” more this way—one was aware of the composer cogitating and crafting, rather than pouring his heart out. Barber has his French side, but all his best music has a raw, committed, emotional strain akin to the great Adagio for Strings. Had this strain been more felt here (and the Weber Overture more moody and mysterious), the programming with the Tchaikovsky would have worked better.

The Tchaikovsky was the best thing that has occurred at the Boston Symphony so far this season, and, one is tempted to say, since James Levine was last there working in top form. Aren’t we looking for a Music Director?

For other reviews—all enthusiastically favorable—of Myung-Whun Chung’s work in the Berkshire Review, see:

The French Orchestra at the Proms: Myung-Whun Chung Conducts the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, by Huntley Dent

La Traviata at La Fenice with Sadovnikova, Secco and Meoni, under Myung-Whun Chung, by Michael Miller

Myung-Whun Chung conducts the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France in an All-Ravel Program, by Steven Kruger

3 thoughts on “Myung-Whun Chung and Garrick Ohlsson in Weber. Barber’s Piano Concerto, and Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique”

  1. I attended the Friday night performance, and the orchestra played their hearts out for him. Chung draws an emotional immediacy from his orchestras which contrasts with the pre-packaged offerings we usually hear. I heard him conduct the Mahler Sixth in Seoul in October, and his ability to build large phrases was revelatory. He carries a twenty year recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon which he could apply to the BSO. if he is offered the directorship.

  2. Judging by the extraordinary number of readers of Dr. Warren’s review and the comments I have received—only one, so far, for posting—Myung Whun Chung’s reading of the Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” seems to have stirred up powerful feelings among the Symphony Hall audiences. I had hoped to attend myself on Saturday evening, but an unexpected circumstance kept me in Williamstown. I did, however, listen to the WGBH broadcast on the Internet. Once I got over my annoyance with the cloying folksiness and odd organization of the site, “Classical New England,” as well as the ham-fisted limiting of the dynamics and bass of the broadcast—either through misapplied electronics or an incompetent engineer—I could appreciate what an extraordinary concert it was. The orchestra had a decidedly French sound, which is hardly inappropriate in Boston, and not surprising, given Maestro Chung’s work in Paris. They seemed to outdo themselves for Chung, with transparent, mostly unanimous strings, and gorgeous woodwinds, as Dr. Warren has observed, which luxuriated in the conductor’s carefully considered variations of tempo. Not being present in the hall, I found these tempo decisions revealing and expressive, although they lacked the sense of naturalness and inevitability of Furtwängler’s, Munch’s, or Mravinsky’s recorded readings. (One could say the same of Levine’s less-compelling “Pathétique” at Tanglewood at few years ago.) I was most impressed by the orchetral detail, the clarity of the textures, and above all the exploratory character of Chung’s approach, making the familiar war-horse as fresh for us as it is for him. I believe I’d have been more drawn into Maestro Chung’s tempi, if I’d been in the hall, hearing the full glow of the sound. The Barber was generous, large-scale, and stylish, and the Freischütz Overture had lost the all of the roughness noted by Dr. Warren at the Thursday performance.

    Of course I was listening to the concert through the swarm of microphones that have been in place at Symphony Hall and Tanglewood for some years. While orchestral detail—and concomtitant instrumental disasters—come through with excellent clarity and presence, the limiting of climaxes and bass notes is absurdly aggressive. Do radio listeners hear this as well? I used to listen to BSO broadcasts almost every week, when I lived in Cambridge in the 1970s and early 1980s, even when I attended the concert, and on a high-quality system, and they were much more satisfying than what is currently offered. The basic three-microphone arrangement—presumably based on RCA’s “Living Stereo” configuration—produced a homogeneous sound that was a much fuller representation of the Symphony Hall acoustic, and the use of limiting was more sparing. Of course the committees behind this technical “progress” will hardly be inclined to turn back the clock.

    In recorded music—I mean real music, played on acoustic instruments in a space inhabited by humans, simple is always better. I have yet to hear a multi-miked recording or broadcast that could rival a coincident pair, ORTF configuation, or Symphony Hall’s three widely paced omnidirectional microphones of yore. Back at that time WBUR used to have an addictive Saturday morning program called “Shop Tallk,” in which audio expert Peter Mitchell and a humanistic interlocutor, psychiatrist Richard Goldwater, used to discuss issues in the world of audio. One of their most fascinating broadcasts was an interview with the sound engineer who had recorded a Mahler Symphony conducted by the great Jascha Horenstein. It was issued on a small label, and the multi-miking required by the company was fairly unobtrusive. However this engineer made a simultaneous recording using only a pair (I forget the configuration.), and the superior balance and blend of the sound was far from subtle. After a few comparative snippets, the entire symphony was played in the engineer’s private version. Whoever heard that could have no doubt about the proper way to record an orchestra.

    As I think back on other BSO broadcast I’ve heard over the Internet in the past few years, this is the only one that exhibited the defects I’ve mentioned to such a deleterious extent. Levine’s performances of Mozart symphonies were transmitted in excellent sound, not too far behind the near-audiophile quality of the recordings, as they were released. But this was Mozart, played by a reduced orchestra. Myung-Whun Chung is known for his extreme dynamic range, and that may be the reason. Bandwidth costs money. Has WGBH been cutting corners here?

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