Gunther Schuller was the toughest mentor I ever had. He expected professionalism from day one—no introductory foolishness. Gunther challenged us, particularly at New England Conservatory, to do things we thought we were incapable of. What other conservatory would put on performances of Wozzeck and Gurrelieder within a few months of each other?
I don’t think I have heard the Boston Symphony sound this full and deep since Koussevitzky. This CD inaugurates Andris Nelsons’ era at the helm of the BSO and signals a reinforcement of the orchestra’s considerable strengths in the more brooding side of the continental repertory.
It was James Levine’s many cancelations that most directly led to his (perhaps forced) resignation as the Boston Symphony Orchestra music director in the spring of 2011. But Levine has no monopoly on health problems and accidents. The glow of the two superlative concerts I attended at Tanglewood (July 19 and 20) was clouded over by the startling announcement that Levine’s young and healthy replacement, 34-year-old Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons, was unable to conduct the July 27 Verdi Requiem, his first scheduled concert since his appointment, because he had suffered a “severe concussion” after being “struck in the head by a door that unexpectedly swung open at his residence in Bayreuth, Germany.” Nelsons came to the attention of the BSO when he filled in for Levine at short notice, leading the Mahler Ninth Symphony at Carnegie Hall. But last year, Nelsons cancelled his Boston debut at Symphony Hall because his wife, soprano Kristine Opolais, was having the couple’s first baby.
There is always something a little peculiar about opening week at the San Francisco Symphony. Audiences have been away for the summer and are distractible. The orchestra may sound a bit less used to itself than usual. Sunlight in the lobby is still too bright for anyone to settle down. And programming commonly amounts either to a Gala smorgasbord or a visit to Denny’s, but seldom manages subtlety for musical gourmets. No different this year, but with a few wacky touches from the peanut gallery — about which more in a moment.
Since his renowned 1980-83 recording of Wagner’s Ring with the Dresdener Staatskapelle, Marek Janowski has acquired a cult following, especially in Wagner, not unlike Jascha Horenstein or Reginald Goodall. His steady, active tempi and decisive phrasing evoke an older performance style which goes back, it is thought, to the days of Richter, Seidl, and Mottl. Janowski, when asked if he studied historical performances of Wagner expressed his devotion to Wilhelm Furtwängler and an admiration for the Bayreuth performances of Hans Knappertsbusch, which, he points out, are not at all as slow as is generally thought. Janowski’s own mentor in conducting was Wolfgang Sawallisch, who left an easily noticeable mark on Janowski’s mature style as a conductor, with his restraint and and constant vigilance over orchestral balances, as well as the balance of dramatic flow and structure. In fact, there is a good deal in common that one can hear in the performance under consideration and Sawallisch’s 1961 Bayreuth performance. “Ein guter Meister…”
I was no less fascinated than any writer by the troops of rats Hans Neuenfels mustered for his production of Lohengrin, which premiered last year (2010). It isn’t fair or even intelligent to focus on the most obvious twist in his Neuenfels’ vision of Wagner’s first grail opera, but Neuenfels turned the rodents loose on us as bait, and in the world of theater, it is only right to jump on it with all the alacrity of one of the rats, when he or she sniffs some appetizingly ripe garbage—or bacon, as Herr Neuenfels has said. And I don’t mention this to demean the rats, Neuenfels clearly did not intend them as red herrings, but as an intellectually nutritious and tasty Vorspeise.
When any object is taken apart and reformed, does its substance remain what it was in the beginning? Nothung, Siegmund and Siegfried’s magical sword, proves stronger for having been shattered and forged anew. Does the Rhinegold itself acquire new properties through being the fatal, world-dominating ring, or when the Rhinemaidens receive it at the end of Götterdämmerung, has it the same intrinsic properties it did when Alberich stole it “twenty hours ago,” as Anna Russell clocked it?
Director Francesca Zambello, in her Americanized Ring Cycle, three-quarters of which were co-produced by Washington Opera, forged something new and wondrous from Wagner’s tremendous and often toxic masterwork. Not every bit of Wagner’s original symbolism reintegrates seamlessly into the newly fashioned work, and occasional cognitive dissonance results. Frankly, Wagner’s own sprawling cosmology—one part German myth, one part creative genius, one part tortured personal psychology—leaves many questions unanswered and any number of unresolved contradictions and loose ends. In San Francisco, the director and her designer colleagues shaped a remarkable production that transcended its occasional awkward moments and that touched the heart in ways I’ve never known this uniquely ambitious epic work to do before. The striking and varied stage pictures are the work of Michael Yeargan, the always illuminating costumes are by Catherine Zuber, the colorful, refreshing, and often exquisite lighting is by Mark McCullough. The many projections, used as backdrops and show curtain, were created by Jan Hartley. I didn’t find every element equally successful, but I left the theatre believing that this production had the mystical power to make the world a better place. The staging is that good.
I yearn for the day when a thoroughly sympathetic view of Schumann emerges, one supplanting the lingering idea, passed on from biographer to musician to music-lover and back, insinuating that his music, while selectively inspired, was hampered by enough contrapuntal inexperience, unevenness in motivic invention, formal insecurity, and outright incompetence in orchestration that it should not be considered in the same sphere with Chopin’s, Liszt’s, or even Brahms’s.