Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Things Change over 25 Years

When I wrote that the last time I had heard the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam perform a symphony by Gustav Mahler was about 25 years ago, when Bernard Haitink was chief conductor and decided to take the work on a tour that included Carnegie Hall, I neglected to mention that Haitink tended to have a relationship as stormy as one of Mahler's tempo descriptions with the administrative arm of this orchestra. They were always looking for ways to cut the budget, Haitink always found the cuts intolerable, and he would inevitably threaten to quit if lack of budget would prevent the orchestra from living up to its well-deserved reputation. In actuality Haitink did not quit until 1988, and I do not know if he had just gotten tired to fighting the good fight over the operating budget. In retrospect, however, something started to go out of the Concertgebouw when Haitink left; and a descent that began with Riccardo Chailly now seems to be continuing with Mariss Jansons.

Perhaps it was just their misfortune to be performing Mahler's fifth symphony in Davies Symphony Hall just two days after Myung-Whun Chung performed his first symphony. However, viewed through the lens of other conductors bringing Mahler into "Michael's house," these two performances left me thinking about Michael Tilson Thomas from two different angles on the same focal point. Without any suggestion of mimicking Thomas' style, Chung helped me to understand what it was I liked about his approach to Mahler, because that was also what I liked about Chung's own approach. Jansons, on the other hand, only reminded of what I was missing while listening to that fifth symphony.

It comes down to two critical factors that are necessary to, as I put it in writing about Chung, "accept the decisions Mahler has made and let them stand." The first is to recognize that (as is also the case for, say, Hector Berlioz) those decisions are as much (if not more) about the very sounds that arise as the notes are performed; and the second is that getting to that sound involves a certain chemistry between conductor and orchestra the links the playing to the listening, not unlike the chemistry that must form among the members of a jazz combo before one can say that they are really playing jazz. Like Thomas, Chung had both an awareness of the power of sound in all its subtleties and the ability to forge the right kind of bond with the San Francisco Symphony to translate the sounds in his head into the sounds on the stage. In Jansons' case, on the other hand, I found myself wondering if he had sounds in his head or whether his only priority was to render the notes printed on the pages of the score. Certainly he did the latter dutifully enough, but there was a blandness to the experience when the only factors that really seemed to matter were the relationships among those notes determined by principles of harmony and counterpoint. Thus, with regard to the second point, Jansons seemed to know when those relationships were violated by wrong notes; but this was a matter of "quality control," rather than chemistry.

There was another sign that Jansons' approach to listening may have been more of that "one-way street" of "monitoring for quality;" and it surfaced at the beginning of the evening in the performance of "Don Juan," by Richard Strauss. This score has some very lush moments; and, when the orchestra was playing such an episode, Jansons' whole body reflected the pleasure of that moment. Unfortunately, the pleasure bordered on excess to such an extent that it reminded me of that admonishment by Erich Korngold's father, warning his son against "bathing." From my vantage point in the audience, the whole thing felt too much like a Whitmanesque celebration of the self, rather than a shared obligation of performers to share performance with the audience. Needless to say what happened during the Strauss happened much more during the Mahler and ultimately became a distraction from what was most important about Chung's approach to Mahler: recognizing the moments of climax and tuning all other moments to the ascent to and descent from that climax.

None of this seemed to phase the orchestra very much. They went about playing their notes dutifully (almost stoically) enough. Even when taking their bows (to an audience that had received them extremely enthusiastically, reminding me that, when I get into issues like these, I am probably just picking nits), they were a very subdued bunch. Perhaps that is just the way things are done in Amsterdam, in which case I am just as glad that I can enjoy they way they are done in San Francisco with greater frequency!

No comments: