As life in the city slows down, life in the country west of Boston ratchets up. I went out to the Berkshires to catch as much as I could of Tanglewood’s fiftieth Festival of Contemporary Music, this year curated by Boston composers and longtime Tanglewood faculty members John Harbison (a composition fellow in 1959) and Michael Gandolfi (a fellow in 1986).
David Zinman led this weekend’s Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts, where the big event was the world premiere of John Harbison’s Symphony No. 6, commissioned by the BSO and capping its survey of the Harbison symphonies last season and this. Zinman is a fine conductor, and all went well. He is not a great cultivator of sound or of refined playing, but he has a remarkable sense of musical structure; makes clear, sharp phrases; and sustains a strong rhythm, complex when need be. He opened with Weber’s Euryanthe Overture, which sounded fresh and interesting in Zinman’s hands. It is basically a traditional sonata-form piece, but with unusual moves in development of material, and so made a good prelude to an evening of such music. Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C followed, with soloist Leif Ove Andsnes giving what might be called a “nice” performance—nice tone and phrasing, all a bit polite and restrained, not fully letting go with Beethoven’s prankishness and oddity.
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.
Whee! Paree. A general moaning arose from music reviewers, starting around forty years ago, about French orchestras. They no longer sounded French. No more pinched oboes being played through the nose. No more horns sounding as if they were warbling underwater or inbred with the saxophone clan. No more lean, on-the-dot precision in the strings. As they lamented this loss, the same bemoaners forgot that they once carped about the very sound that was fading away. Uncharacteristically, the French were listening.
If Carl Maria von Weber occupies an esteemed position in music history textbooks, his works make only rare, fleeting appearances on opera programs outside Germany, even Der Freischütz, considered to be his only work with a sufficiently convincing libretto to merit staging today. As for Weber’s popularity in the United States, I expected to find that Der Freischütz had been a standard at the Met earlier on in its history, perhaps up until the 1960’s, when its theme of good triumphing over evil would have begun to grate, or at least before the First World War, when anti-German sentiment put a damper on such Teutonic entertainments. To my surprise I learned that, except for the 1880’s, the 1920’s and a 1971-72 production which never lasted beyond its first year, Der Freischütz was largely confined to individual arias performed at concerts, which were more frequent at the Met before the Second World War. (Weber’s Euryanthe received four performances in 1887, and Oberon was staged—very successfully, it seems—in 1918 with all dialogue removed and the remaining text refashioned.) Der Freischütz has been kept alive primarily by recordings, a famous one under Carlos Kleiber from 1973, a radio recording under Carlos’ father Erich, and a magnificent Salzburg performance under Wilhelm Furtwängler, not to mention Kubelik, Jochum, and a recent one under Harnoncourt.)
My immediate reaction to Michael Miller’s commentary on the Karajan centenary [Oh no! He’s not back again, is he? – May 2, 2008] was rather choleric, but I’ve settled down a bit since then and can write this from a relatively balanced perspective.