here seem to be two kinds of Mahler conductors: those who scrupulously adhere to the composer’s very detailed performing instructions, letting the score speak for itself, and those who add interpretive value to those instructions, prolonging ritards into moments of stasis, dwelling lovingly on details, pulling apart the inner workings of Mahler’s original harmonic language, and ecstatically prolonging climactic moments. To put the matter up front, I am a strong partisan of the first approach, and usually have a negative response to the second.
The major news from Boston was the ascendancy of Andris Nelsons, firming up his place as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which included a quickly agreed upon three-year extension of his contract into the 2020-2021 season. This announcement was soon followed by the less happy surprise for Bostonians of Nelsons also accepting an offer from the eminent Leipzig Gewandhaus, the orchestra whose music director was once no less than Felix Mendelssohn, to take on that very position, beginning in the 2017-2018 season, thus dividing the loyalties of the young maestro (who just turned 37), though evidently with the possibility of collaborations between the two orchestras. (Remember when some people were complaining about James Levine dividing his time between the BSO and the Metropolitan Opera?)
I have read that Kurt Masur has shared concerts with his estimable son, Ken-David, several times over the past year or so, before his fall from the podium in April caused an interruption in his concert schedule. This concert at Tanglewood is, I believe, the only appearance he will make until his broken shoulder blade heals entirely. Mr. Masur is looking forward to a full recovery, and we can only wish him a rapid and complete one. Meanwhile, Ken-David is in his second summer as a Conducting Fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center. Last summer, he made a strong impression on me with Beethoven’s Leonore No. 3 Overture with the TMC Orchestra in Ozawa Hall. Unfortunately I missed his other concerts then, but this year I have heard more, with some very challenging pieces among them, including Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto and Messiaen’s Oiseaux exotiques. Everything augurs an important career ahead for Ken-David Masur and a cherishable contribution to our musical lives.
Last November Mark Volpe, Managing Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Anthony Fogg, Artistic Administrator, and members of the orchestra presented the 75th anniversary season of the festival in a low-key event, which, as relaxed and friendly as it was, brought back memories of old Boston in its restraint. No one attempted to hide his pride in this important anniversary of what is undoubtedly the key music festival in North America, but nobody did anything that would be out of place at the Somerset Club either.
Last summer two extraordinary new conductors made their Tanglewood debuts, both of whom are former concertmasters, the Finn John Storgårds and Jaap van Zweden, who held the post at the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Both enjoyed enormous successes. Van Zweden, now around fifty, turned to conducting in his mid-thirties (after a career concertmaster of the Concertgebouw from the age of eighteen!), and soon came into important music directorships in the Netherlands, those of the Residentie Orchestra of The Hague and the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic in Hilversum. Since his appointment as Music Director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in 2008, he has been making sparks fly in the U.S. with his electric interpretations and the quality of playing he elicits from the orchestras he conducts.
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.
Hats off, ladies and Gentlemen! A conductor! And a great symphony!
Vasily Petrenko’s recent electrifying week with the San Francisco Symphony reminds the listener that Gustavo Dudamel is not the sole “conducting animal” to be found on the musical circuit these days. Esa-Pekka Salonen coined the term a while back, with the impassioned Venezuelan in mind. And indeed, Dudamel is the sort of refreshing performer who has the winds jumping to their feet like jazz musicians and bass players twirling their instruments. He is all about emotion as vitality. But physically, apart from the energy with which he beats time, his manner is unremarkable.
The fascination of Petrenko, by contrast, is his ability to reflect every quivering moment of the music somewhere on his face or body, as though he were a disembodied hologram. We joke about people who are “double-jointed.” But Vasily Petrenko might as well be quadruple-sprung and then some…this is a man who’d have no trouble tapping three heads, rubbing five tummies and signalling with numerous eyebrows at the same time!
Mark Volpe and his organization pulled off an impressive feat in creating this season at such short notice. Former Music Director James Levine submitted his resignation only after most symphony orchestras, including the BSO, have established their programming for the next season and published it to waiting subscribers. Add to that the need to corral a feasible number of potential candidates for the open position of Music Director. The Boston Symphony’s 2011-12 is not only solid and nutritious, it is even rather exciting—apart from the added piquancy of the search. The fall will be mainly given over to guest conductors who have worked with the BSO for many years, or at least a few times in the past. The serious contenders for the permanent position will begin later on.