Sunday, March 29, 2020

Mena Visits the Detroit Symphony Orchestra

The first and second flutists in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (from the Web page for the current DSO concert season)

Once again I decided to follow up on Alex Ross’ Web page of video streams of concert performances maintained on his The Rest Is Noise blog. This time my curiosity took me to Live from Orchestra Hall, the archive of online performances by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO). This was not my first Internet-based visit to DSO. In September of 2012 I was able to view a performance of David Del Tredici’s “Final Alice” conducted by Leonard Slatkin, writing an article that (probably due to “technical difficulties”) I seem to have been unable to archive. At that time I was familiar with both the music and the conductor and was as satisfied with the video work as I was with the performance.

Slatkin is now the ensemble’s Music Director Laureate, and DSO is awaiting the arrival of conductor Jader Bignamini to begin serving as Music Director by launching the 2020–2021 season. This morning, rather than view one of the archived performances of Bignamini, I decided to go with familiar music, a familiar soloist, and a conductor about whom I knew absolutely nothing. That conductor is Juanjo Mena, who has an extensive track record in both Europe and the United States and is currently Principal Conductor of the Cincinnati May Festival. The soloist was James Ehnes playing Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 64 violin concerto in E minor. That concerto was framed by two symphonies, Haydn’s Hoboken I/44 in E minor (mourning symphony) and Franz Schubert’s D. 944 (“Great”) symphony in C major.

My guess is that Ehnes has given so many concert performances of the Mendelssohn concerto that he could probably play it in his sleep. Nevertheless, the attentive interplay of soloist and conductor could not have been better. Mena clearly understood how Ehnes would phrase his thematic material in his cadenza performance, and he know how to make that phrasing consistent with the interactions between soloist and ensemble.

While Ehnes brings a down-to-earth personality to his expressive interpretation, Mena could not be more overt in his expressiveness, particularly through his face. As a result, the video document of this performance had a decided advantage over the audience in Detroit’s Orchestra Hall, who could only see the conductor’s back! Judicious camera work similarly revealed a strong dispositional bond between the conductor and every member of the ensemble. In many respects this was a video document that augmented any impressions one may have had from a physical experience of this concert.

Mena’s engagement with the ensemble was just as compelling in the performance of D. 944. In the wrong hands this can be a very unwieldy beast with prodigiously extensive expositions and even lengthier developments. Mena chose not to take the repeats of any of the long sections, and this was definitely to the benefit of those having to sit still in the concert hall chairs.

Nevertheless, neither the overall sense of expanse or the intensity of the rhetoric was short-changed. Mena conducted as if this was his number-one favorite in his personal repertoire. The members of the ensemble caught that bug and willingly reinforced it. Schubert deserves such attentive execution more often.

The Haydn symphony has its own repertoire of twists and turns. The most interesting of these is probably the minuet movement, which is structured as a canon. Any sense of mourning is confined to the minor-key rhetoric of the first movement, after which Haydn goes back to his more familiar jovial self. Mena found an appropriate way to reduce the string section that would balance well against the remaining instruments. Slatkin was fond of saying that there was no such thing as “too much Haydn;” and Mena’s reading of this particular score suggested that he was of the same opinion.

As might be guessed, Ehnes took an encore after his concerto performance. His selection was the D minor sonata, the third in Eugène Ysaÿe’s Opus 27 collection of six sonatas for solo violin. The only one of the six to be given a title (“Ballade”), it was written for George Enescu and is virtually a devil’s brew of near-impossible technical challenges. Ehnes has clearly internalized every detail in the score along with having worked out the most effective ways in which to finger them all. His command of the resulting execution was so compelling that I was not surprised to see one of the second violinists staring with rapt attention to his every physical movement.

On the technical side the Web site for this concert leaves a few things to be desired. As one may deduce from the above hyperlinks, there is no single Web site for the entire concert. Nevertheless, there is an automatic linking process that will change the Web site for the Haydn symphony to that for the Mendelssohn concerto. However, this automation of the ordering has a major flaw in that the concerto is followed by D. 944, with Ehnes’ encore at the tail end of the sequence. Anyone that has been to enough concerts knows that the encore follows the concerto, which is then followed by an intermission!

However, that is almost my only quibble. There were a few moments when the camera was pointing in the wrong place, but they are almost too insignificant to mention. I got the impression that the video crew was working with a fixed array of cameras with zoom being the only variable on any individual camera. My guess is that the cameras had to be repositioned when the seating pattern changed; but the crew seemed to work perfectly well without horizontal (or vertical) planning at their disposal during the performance. The only other shortcoming was the absence of a hyperlink to program notes. However, I assume it was taken as axiomatic that those interested in further information would probably be able to find it with Google!

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