Match and Mismatch: Contrasting Conductors and Orchestras at Tanglewood

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Manfred Honeck leading the BSO. Photo Hilary Scott.
Manfred Honeck leading the BSO. Photo Hilary Scott.

Thursday, July 24
The National Youth Orchestra
conducted by David Robertson
Gil Shaham, violin

Leonard Bernstein – Dances from West Side Story
Benjamin BrittenViolin Concerto
Samuel Adams – Radial Play
Modest Mussorgsky – Pictures at an Exhibition
George GershwinSuite from Porgy and Bess (condensed)

Saturday, July 26
The Boston Symphony
conducted by Manfred Honeck
Camilla Tilling, soprano
Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano
The Tanglewood Festival Choir

Gustav MahlerSymphony No. 2, “Resurrection”

According to the song, “love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage,” and the same ought to apply to orchestras and conductors. When they do, the results are like love, but when they don’t, it’s a relief when the partnership dissolves. Two concerts at Tanglewood with two very different orchestras and conductors illustrated this dramatically. The orchestras in question were the venerable Boston Symphony working its way through another intense summer of three programs per weekend, and the extremely youthful (ages 16-18) National Youth Orchestra which first assembled this month, at the start of a nation-wide tour. The conductors were the Austrian Manfred Honeck, currently director in Pittsburg, and the American David Robertson, Music Director in both St. Louis and Sydney. Honeck was brought in as a late substitute for the originally scheduled Christoph von Dohnanyi who excused himself to deal with a family illness. Robertson on the other hand had been working intensively with his youthful band since the beginning of the month to learn and polish programs in preparation for a tour which kicked off the night before in Carnegie Hall and was enjoying its second iteration at Ozawa Hall.

It takes a special inspiration from a maestro to shake the Boston Symphony out of its routine, however polished and professional it may be. Large-scale Mahler symphonies are often the occasion for this to happen, but not always. Last season, the late Raphael Frühbeck de Burgos did it sitting down with the Third, but a few summers ago, Hans Graf turned in only a routine reading of the Fifth. This year’s “Resurrection” performance was a mixed bag, with interesting interpretive ideas foundering on missed cues, insecurely established pulses, and a lack of lyrical energy. The sound of the orchestra was strangely muted, with the signature plush strings uncharacteristically dull sounding. Honeck strove manfully, perhaps too much so, to rouse the orchestra, but pumping physical energy from the podium is rarely enough in itself. His exaggerated gestures (including a stem-winding left arm) induced some harshness, but not a genuine emotional intensification.

Interesting touches in this performance seemed Viennese in flavor. They included a very conspicuous string portamento in the second movement where Mahler marks “gliss” in the score indicating a slide, an out-of-fashion effect that was normal in Mahler’s day. Honeck also employed a stretched up-beat in the second movement reminiscent of a Viennese waltz-lilt. Finally, the brass choir was encouraged to dig in and produce organ-like sonorities in the chorale sections that brought out a connection to the symphonies of Bruckner, a comparison that used to be common before Mahler’s symphonies were well-known in this country, but one which has been subsequently disparaged as an untenable generality. In this case, however, it proved apt. The performance of the BSO brasses stood out as exemplary amidst the more desultory work of their colleagues. A more modern aspect of this symphony is the use of an off-stage band in the last movement, one which suggests the remote presence of the secular world of band music during the portrayed transition between death and rebirth; the two realms were clearly delineated, perhaps owing to a slight lack of coordination between the two spaces. The effect was almost Ivesian, but seemed unintegrated into the flow of events.

The first two of Mahler’s symphonies have always struck me as less than fully realized examples of the composer’s notion of “the symphony as a world in itself.” They seem overly focused on the subjective experience of a protagonist whom Mahler might have identified too closely with himself, a form of self-indulgence that becomes precarious in musical expression. This is the problem with some late romantic symphonies, present in the works of Tchaikovsky, and which both Brahms and Bruckner sought to overcome: a symphony is a form of collective expression, from one collective body (the romantic orchestra) to another (an audience drawn from society as a whole, which since Beethoven’s Ninth was often conceived of as a universal human congregation). As such it demands a degree of objectivity in gathering together the conflicts and contradictions of any human gathering and resolving them onto a higher plane of harmony. From his Third Symphony on, I believe that Mahler succeeded in achieving this, often by projecting his personal emotional struggles onto a larger screen.

But in the Second, the unity of the later symphonies can be elusive; the second movement is an acknowledged interpolation, the third is a song whose textual subject (St. Anthony preaching to the fish) has no obvious connection to the opening funeral march or the metaphysical experiences of the last two movements. The first movement in fact was composed nine years prior to the last two, and it predates the entire First Symphony. The last movement emulates the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth, a perilous undertaking and one carried out without the structural momentum that Beethoven achieves by extraordinary means. I have heard four different concert performances of this work, none of which have been as convincing as several excellent recordings, such as those of Bruno Walter or Otto Klemperer. These recordings approach the work with great discipline, instilling a badly needed element of objectivity; less successful performances try to match Mahler’s self-indulgence with that of the particular maestro of the day. The problem with Honeck’s reading had less to do with that, however, and more to do with a lack of clear sympathy between the performers and their leader. Its tentativeness nevertheless exposed the work’s structural weaknesses.

David Robertson leads the NYO in Ozawa Hall. Photo Hilary Scott.
David Robertson leads the NYO in Ozawa Hall. Photo Hilary Scott.

The exact opposite of that situation presented itself with the partnership of the National Youth Orchestra and David Robertson the previous Thursday night. This fine musician, previously known for his championship of complex and challenging contemporary scores, including many European works,1

was able to tune in perfectly to the wave-length of his hyper-responsive young prodigies. Members of the Boston Symphony have been playing together for decades, and that orchestra knows how to produce a cohesive and balanced sonority appropriate to any section of any work they play; members of the NYO have been playing together only since July 1, but they have been intensively rehearsed, and bring an edge of excitement to their work that includes alertness, intense awareness of the character of the music, fresh appreciation for the work of their colleagues, as well as remarkable technical finesse. The very large string section lacked the weight and sensuality of the best established orchestras, and the enthusiasm of the players occasionally bordering on over-playing and stridency; despite this, their obvious joy in music making verged on ecstasy, a state visibly shared by their director.

Whether it was Robertson or the managers of the orchestra who chose the program, the result was a brilliant display of the capabilities of these players. The Bernstein Dances from ‘West Side Story’ portrays characters the same age as the musicians, and there was something of the eternal adolescent in Bernstein’s own character. In some way, these dances might be his most successfully realized musical conception, brash to the point of arrogance, full of over-the-top display that in this context is not only forgivable but a wonderful opportunity for the orchestra to get right inside them. Igor Stravinsky and Elliott Carter have both pointed out that it is not intrinsic to the nature of a 100-piece ensemble for it to dance lightly on its feet; it takes an act of transcendence. But there was David Robertson mamboing on the podium having the time of his life, both leading and reveling in the youthful energy under his baton. The occasional fluffed note in the horn or trumpet detracted not one iota from the intensely felt atmosphere of each dance and indeed of the encompassing drama implied by their concatenation.

Having a conductor who can so clearly indicate the exact mood, sonority, and pulse of each moment is a great incentive to play at your best level; having a concerto soloist of the caliber of Gil Shaham can push you to go beyond anything you have done in the past. This great artist’s collaboration (and full engagement) had to be a life-changing experience for the players. Indeed, it was for the audience as well, since the repertory choice was unusual and apt. Britten’s Violin Concerto (1939) is full of lively rhythms and lyrical melodies, but is a serious contemplation of the fate of a world at war. Its unconventional character, especially in the passacaglia of the final movement, anticipates the mood of many of Shostakovich’s works that appeared later. Its ending, vacillating between major and minor, also anticipates the end of Vaughn Williams’s Sixth Symphony (see my review “B-list Works Shine Forth…,” NYArts, May 14 2014). There are many touches of Spanish dance flavor in the first two movements, an acknowledgement of the soloist for whom it was composed, Antonio Brosa; but also an indication of a nation whose civil war was a harbinger of even greater troubles to come for Europe. The solo was brilliantly rendered by Gil Shaham; but beyond his own part, his animated interaction with his young colleagues as both player and listener offered a clear visual counterpart to the intense dialogue between violin and orchestra that was realized by all participants in an electrifying manner. No one sat back and waited for an entrance; all ears and hearts were fully engaged from first note to last. Such a performance is enough to convince the listener that this is one of the major works of the repertory, which is not necessarily the case in lesser hands.

The remaining works on the program were both showcases for the orchestra and musically satisfying experiences. Radial Play by Samuel Adams, composer John Adams’ son, gave the performers a chance to show their comfort with contemporary scoring techniques and orchestral colors, some of which reflected the composer’s experience with electro-acoustic composition. The structure was built around central tones out of which grew the radii or expanding sonorous textures referred to in the title. It held the ear’s attention while in progress, but left scant residue. Ravel’s scoring of Mussorgsky’s piano suite emerged with x-ray clarity and vivid characterization, if not the ultimate degree of virtuosity in the solos (saxophone, trumpet) that one heard, for example, in the BSO’s memorable reading under Dutoit years ago. The elisions of the movements were dramatically timed, and the color variations in the successive “Promenades” were handled masterfully by Maestro Robertson, whose dramatic cueing technique offered his musicians a multidimensional visual image of each next event. Sight and sound merged in a gratifying way, allowing the audience to be in on the intimate process of communicative music-making. Although billed as an encore, the condensed suite from Porgy and Bess elevated the music-making to yet another plane. Although it shared its roots in the American vernacular with the Bernstein, Gershwin’s relation to his sources felt less self-conscious, more direct, and even more deeply felt, all of which was reflected in the unity and intensity with which the performers threw themselves into each moment. It was a special pleasure to watch Robertson virtually jump out of his skin in appreciation of his youthful band at every turn of the music. I can think of no higher compliment to pay than to compare their rapport with that of the Mahler Youth Orchestra and their founder/director, the late Claudio Abbado. In both cases, the quality that shone forth in their music making was the same: a sharing of love.

  1. He has appeared with the Ensemble Intercontemporain, and his recorded catalogue includes works by Boulez, Carter, Gubaidulina, Manourey, Unsuk Chin, Dusapin, F. X. Gruber, but no Beethoven or Brahms (yet).
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