Musical Events

Battle of the Bands

An orchestral marathon, at Carnegie.

by Alex Ross March 22, 2010

Osmo V

Osmo Vänskä, of the Minnesota Orchestra, creates a unanimity of feeling.

In the space of thirty-one days, from the end of January to the beginning of March, Carnegie Hall held an unofficial orchestral Olympics, presenting thirteen concerts by symphonic ensembles from six states and three foreign countries. Night after night, moving trucks pulled up to Carnegie’s stage door, delivering the bulkier items in the orchestras’ armories. Multilingual smokers in concert garb gathered at the side entrance, looking like period-film extras on break. In attendance were the symphony orchestras of Chicago, Boston, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh; the Minnesota Orchestra; the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig; the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam; the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra of St. Petersburg; and, representing the home town, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and the New York Philharmonic, the latter on a one-night furlough from the duller confines of Avery Fisher Hall. The conductors were Pierre Boulez, James Levine, Paavo Järvi, Manfred Honeck, Osmo Vänskä, Riccardo Chailly, Mariss Jansons, Valery Gergiev, Roger Norrington, and Alan Gilbert.

The impulse to pit one orchestra against another is as regrettable as it is irresistible. In 1928, Wilhelm Furtwängler, the most relentlessly deep-thinking of conductors, bemoaned what he considered the American habit of “seeing things from the point of view of sport,” but even by then the “Who’s on top?” tendency had become universal. Not long ago, the British magazine Gramophone asked music critics to rate the world’s orchestras, and when the results were published there were whoops in some places and laments in others. The burghers of Amsterdam took quiet pride in the fact that the Concertgebouw placed first; their rivals in Berlin and Vienna fumed at being second and third; and Philadelphians were scandalized to find their honey-toned group nowhere in the top twenty. (I participated in the poll, but I am not about to reveal my list, for fear of being detained by the Austrian or the Pennsylvanian police.)

The survey was impressionistic, to say the least, but it touched on substantial issues. Orchestras do gain or lose ground over the years: a music director may instill confidence or sap it; newly hired players may add heft to fading sections or fail to grasp long-held traditions; the audience may add electricity or drift away, making even brilliant concerts seem wan. Philadelphia has been suffering from a lack of steady leadership, its cause not helped by a marketing campaign built around the inscrutable slogan “Unexpect Yourself.” The Cleveland Orchestra has gone through financial woes and labor friction, although in technical terms it remains impeccable. Chicagoans—whose orchestra is No. 5, according to Gramophone—worry that one or two weak links have appeared in their legendary phalanx of brass.

For the most part, though, the events I saw during Carnegie’s informal tournament—I missed St. Luke’s and the Pittsburgh—achieved a striking consistency, in ways good and bad. Rhythms were executed with admirable precision (Cincinnati danced militantly through Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra); string sections emitted lush sounds (the Concertgebouw made of the slow movement of Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony a bubble bath for the mind); and climaxes were turned up to eleven (the Gewandhaus’s renditions of two Beethoven overtures, the “Leonore” No. 3 and the “Egmont,” caused Carnegie’s floor to rumble pleasingly). National idiosyncrasies remain—the edgy attack of German clarinets, the peculiarly pungent Russian brass, the unforced weight of the Dutch en masse—but the similarities outnumbered the differences.

You had the impression of a cultural industry operating in peak condition. Yet I couldn’t help thinking back to Furtwängler’s complaints about orchestral playing—his critique of overrehearsed performances, of “evenly accomplished perfection in all the details of a piece.” He spoke of the dying out of improvisatory playing, by which he meant collective risk-taking, a sense of music unfolding in the here and now. More than once in recent weeks, I wanted a little less polish, a little more grit. Gergiev, in his concert with the Mariinsky orchestra, was refreshingly spontaneous, his account of Berlioz’s “Romeo and Juliet” achieving at times a wonderful wildness: in the scene of the lovers’ deaths, the violins played a descending con-fuoco figure that seemed to rip the air. Alas, in a pattern wearily familiar from recent Mariinsky tours, such expressive outbursts appeared haphazardly amid stretches of lacklustre, even slipshod, playing.

What I missed most was novelty in the programming. Of thirty-two works, only five were written after 1945. Perhaps, in this cost-conscious time, it makes economic sense to stick with the warhorses, yet one of the loudest ovations of the month went to the New York Philharmonic, when it presented the American première of Magnus Lindberg’s Clarinet Concerto. The Finnish clarinettist Kari Kriikku gave a transcendent virtuoso performance, raucous and rhapsodic by turns, and Alan Gilbert and the orchestra supported him avidly. Afterward, there was a surprised buzz in the auditorium as listeners confessed to loving a sometimes furiously dissonant piece. It was auspicious to see the formerly backward-looking Philharmonic embracing new music amid a slew of greatest hits.

At the end of Carnegie’s marathon came a rather austere program by the Minnesota Orchestra: Beethoven’s “Grosse Fuge,” in an arrangement for string orchestra by the late music critic and author Michael Steinberg, and Sibelius’s choral symphony “Kullervo.” Carnegie was barely three-quarters full—perhaps because “Kullervo” is little known, perhaps because New Yorkers were orchestra’d out. If so, they erred: the Minnesotans, with the assistance of the Y. L. Male Voice Choir, from Finland, delivered a performance of uncanny, wrenching power, the kind you hear once or twice a decade.

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