Saturday, November 5, 2011

Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra at the White Light Festival

Maestro Colin Davis and the LSO did an all-Sibelius program at the White Light Festival at Lincoln Center last month. The program: Violin Concerto, with Nicolaj Znaider, and Symphony no. 2. The wondrous playing at this concert made me wonder why the London Symphony is not more frequently mentioned in the great orchestra discussion.

Who are they? Certainly the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, and depending on your point of view, members of the Big Five, such as the New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony and Cleveland Orchestra. (Philadelphia and Boston, in particular, are truly great, but the former's financial problems and the latter's very public search for a music director have put a temporary chink in their armour.) Others have their favorites, such as the Concergebeow of Amsterdam, or other top orchestras in the U.S., such as those in St. Louis, Atlanta, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh. After a recent appearance in Carnegie Hall, the music writer Alex Ross insisted that the Minnesota Orchestra (under the leadership of Osmo Vanska) be a part of that discussion.

Except for a few of these, I have heard all of the above-listed orchestras live in performance, most of them in their home hall. Except for a rehearal I attended ten years ago at the Barbican in London, where Colin Davis rehearsed Berlioz' Beatrice and Benedict in preparation for a concert performance, I had never heard the London Symphony in person. What I heard a few weeks ago made me think that Avery Fisher Hall is one of the great acoustic wonders of the world. (Believe me when I tell you it is most certainly not.) On this night, the LSO sounded like the greatest orchestra I have ever heard in my entire life. The entire concert was a revelation.

Let's start with the Sibelius Violin Concerto. But first, a little background.

The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra is noted for their performing without a conductor. Although it sometimes lacks for a singular interpretation, it is a remarkable ensemble. And there is one thing that this orchestra does as well if not better than any other conductor/orchestra combination: accompany. It pains me as a conductor to write these words, but the Orpheus has a way of tapping directly into the soloist that maestro-driven orchestras cannot do. When things go awry, orchestra players can be divided over whom to follow: the conductor, or the soloist? Because, sad to say, the conductor sometimes just gets in the way. Famously, before a 1962 performance of Brahms's Piano Concerto no. 1, Leonard Bernstein introduced the piece by warning the audience how he and the pianist, Glen Gould, were distinctly at odds in their collaboration. The message was, 'listen at your own peril.'

The Orpheus can accompany any of the concertos by Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, etc. Not so the Brahms, if only because it demands a large orchestra. Same with the Sibelius.

And on this October night, the collaboration between Colin Davis and Nicolaj Znaider was a thing of beauty. Among the great conductors in the world today, Davis is renowned for his lack of ego, which serves him particular well when accompanying. There is a great deal of give-and-take in conducting an orchestra with a soloist. But the Sibelius concerto (which I have led several times in the last year alone) makes unusual demands of the conductor, as the piece puts a high premium on rhythmic elasticity, ensemble control, and balance. The audience wants to be able to hear the soloist at all times. The Sibelius concerto is a challenge in this respect, occasionally requiring an orchestral dynamic level bordering on inaudibility. And with someone like Znaider -- who invites you in, rather than throwing his sound out -- the conductor must go to even greater lengths to make sure the soloist can always be heard.

On this night, Davis went one better -- he had the LSO playing like a chamber ensemble, as if the players were huddled together in a large sitting room, sharing music together, intimately, confidently. From where I sat, it appeared that Davis was hardly moving, inviting the players to listen, rather than follow. I forgot that there were nearly one hundred musicians on the stage.

The Second Symphony was something else. (For the second half, I moved closer to the stage for a better view.) From the beginning, the LSO sounded less like an ensemble firmly in the command of a venerated maestro than a great orchestra unleashed. With his gestures, Davis seemed to be telling the players, "you know how this goes, so go ahead and play it, and I'll be here when you need me." And this could likely only happen when an orchestra and conductor have been working together for more than a generation, something that no longer happens with the major orchestras of the world. Smaller orchestras are prone to having one sitting music director for twenty five years or more, but the legacies of Szell/Cleveland and Ormandy/Philadelphia are a thing of the past.

On this night, however, I was reminded of what can happen between a great conductor and great orchestra when their collective history goes back nearly fifty years. How else can you explain the orchestra knowing everything Davis wanted of them, before he even asked? Don't get me wrong. I know the LSO has recorded the Sibelius symphonies with Davis, and that touring orchestras arrive in one's city as finely chiseled Swiss watches, ready to go. I get all of that. But on this night (which was, to my surprise, not sold out), something else was at play, a collective esprit de corps, a willingness to take a different trail that was not clearly marked. What I am saying is that the orchestra played as one. On a good day, a conductor standing in front of a orchestra hopes to have a simple majority of players in his court. On this evening, the players' trust in Davis was total.

Immediately after the performance of the concerto, Znaider returned to the stage for an encore, which he dedicated to Colin Davis. This gesture was extraordinary, but in context, quite appropriate and fitting.

I have been thinking of Gideon Toeplitz, the great orchestra administrator who died last month. Gideon was also at that rehearsal ten years ago, and he introduced me to Colin Davis. My memory of meeting him is mostly of the man's warmth and humor. When he steps off the podium, he no longer commands a room the way Dudamel and Gergiev do, wherever they go. Davis is, for me, a model of the ideal conductor of our times. My fear is that, given how many orchestras are running scared today, in search of the perfect panacea, or a maestro with a capital M, the grace and manner of Colin Davis may soon become a thing of the past.

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