Sunday, November 13, 2011


My orchestra performed Brahms's Symphony no. 3 Friday night. It will go down as one of the most satisfying concerts of my career.

Also on the program was Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra and Walton's Portsmouth Point Overture, a rambunctious work that, with all of its rhythmic complexity, is constantly darting this way and that. (In a rehearsal of this work with the Aspen Festival Orchestra back in 1982, Jorge Mester became so frustrated with the strings' inability to negotiate all of the metrical land mines that he exasperatingly placed his baton on his stand, asked concertmaster Ruben Gonzalez to take over the rehearsal, and left!)

The Walton is very tricky, and there were times early on during the rehearsal process when I wondered how much time it would take to get a five minute piece ready for performance. But once the players understood it to be an English hootenanny, we were fine. The Brahms, however, was another matter.

Kurt Masur calls Symphony no. 3 "the most personal" of the four symphonies by Brahms. It's also the hardest. And the first movement alone may be the single most difficult symphonic stretch for any orchestra.

You might say Le Sacre du Printemps is harder. Perhaps it was in 1913, or even 1923, but nowadays the best youth orchestras can handle it with dispatch. Elliott Carter's Symphony of Three Orchestras? Sure, but if you make a mistake, only you will know. Anything by Mozart, or Mendelssohn? Again, yes, but in works by these composers there are instances of great momentum, with plenty of opportunities to let go. This never happens in the first movement of Brahms's Third.

With few exceptions, you won't find youth orchestras playing the symphonies of Brahms. Youngsters do well with Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. I've done Beethoven's Fifth Symphony with orchestras at every level, from the Pacific University's town 'n gown orchestra (where some of the ladies would blow the dust off of their violins once a week), on up to the world-class Pittsburgh Symphony. I am as proud of what the former did as I am of the latter. (My brother attended both performances, and preferred that of the town 'n gown bunch.) Not all of Beethoven's symphonies are this way -- the Fourth is very difficult, and that may be part of the reason why it is so infrequently performed. But the Fifth, to quote Edmund Morris, has a universality to it. Everybody gets it.

Not so with Brahms. Many people know the music to be great, but that doesn't mean they want to spend time with it. Rachmaninoff's piano concertos will always be more popular. Brahms wrote beautiful song cycles, but those by Schubert and Schumann are the ones we often hear on vocal recitals. The piano music is astounding, but not as popular as that of Chopin, Liszt or Beethoven. That being said, you will hear the chamber music of Brahms on many programs. Same with the four symphonies.

But the Third Symphony is in a world of its own. In what other symphony from the standard repertory does a composer conclude all four movements in quiet repose? When I thought about how to order the pieces on this program, I had the brief temptation to put the Brahms first, then the Walton and Britten on the second half, so as to bring the program to a rousing close. But then I remembered what the great conductor, Bernhard Klee, told me many years ago when he commented on a program that began with the 3rd Brahms and ended with Schubert's epic Symphony in C major. He said, "This is a travesty, for nothing can come after the Brahms."

One of my first lessons at Yale with Otto-Werner Mueller was on the first movement of Brahms's First Symphony. Mr. Mueller kept stopping me because he didn't feel I was showing the right sound. (Imagine that -- a conductor actually projecting a certain kind of sound.) At the time, I thought he'd gone mad. But then he instructed me to fly to Los Angeles to watch Carlo Maria Guilini conduct the work, and I began to get the idea.

With Brahms, sound is everything. (One conductor told me that, after he lost nearly a hundred pounds, he couldn't get his orchestra to play Brahms the way he wanted. Much to his musical -- if not physical -- satisfaction, he promptly put the weight back on.) In the first movement of the Third Symphony, sound is paramount, but rhythm is king. It's in 6/4, meaning there are 3 subdivisions to every beat (instead of the customary 2), which means that within every beat there is that extra little semi-beat where something can go wrong. Additionally, Brahms is constantly thwarting the natural rise and fall of the rhythm, so that a phrase such as "When are we going to Pillsbury Hill," which has natural stress points on "WHEN are we GO-ing to PILLS-bury HILL," instead with Brahms comes out sounding, "when are WE going TO pillsbu-RY hill." After awhile, you feel like you are continually putting the emPHAsis on the wrong sylLAble.

And there is that issue of momentum (or lack thereof); in this music, you can never rest! In the middle movements, Brahms does release the tension somewhat, only to return to it once again in the volatile finale.

The late, great Carlos Kleiber was once asked to conduct a Brahms cycle with the Chicago Symphony, and he asked for 6-8 rehearsals. (Four is the standard.) The management wrote back, "Oh Maestro, you won't need that much rehearsal time, as the orchestra has recently performed all the Brahms symphonies." Kleiber's response? "In that case, make it 15." (The invitation was rescinded.)

The story may be partly apocryphal, but you get the idea. After Friday's performance, I'm certain the members of the Hartt Symphony Orchestra get the idea. Their rendering of Brahms's Symphony no. 3, and of the first movement in particular, had a majesty to it. They were rightly thrilled, and the audience (which properly waited several moments at the close of the symphony before clapping) responded with equal parts exhilaration and exhaustion. Brahms does that to you.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Gidon Kremer at the White Light Festival

Alex Ross recently wrote about Gidon Kremer in the New Yorker, where he agreed with Herbert von Karajan that Kremer is the greatest living violinist.

Very strong words indeed. But from Kremer's recent performance at the White Light Festival at Lincoln Center, I'm certain Mr. Ross felt justified in going out on that limb.

Many violinists would take exception to this belief. They complain of Kremer's penchant for performing concertos with the music in front of him, rather than from memory, as most violin soloists do. Some violinists have told me that Kremer doesn't always play in tune.

To their complaints I say so what. Listen to his music. Listen to the poetry that comes from this man.

During my residency with the Pittsburgh Symphony, Kremer was a guest, performing the Sibelius Violin Concerto. (Yes, he used music.) This was a piece I thought I knew, a piece I had performed before and several times since. But no performance I have heard or conducted can compare to what Kremer did with this masterwork.

The Sibelius concerto is hard, really hard. Some would say that Beethoven's is the hardest. (Joseph Silverstein told me that if you can get past those opening octaves, you have a fighting chance.) Others might say Brahms's, or Tchaikovsky's. But Sibelius's violin concerto is difficult for the orchestra, too.

On this occasion, Kremer played in a way that separates him from the rest. (Even Nikolaj Znaider -- who gave a brilliant performance of the concerto with Colin Davis and the LSO earlier in the White Nights Festival -- must take a back seat to Mr. Kremer.)

There was nothing technically flashy about Kremer's performance, and there was even the occasional note that was not pitch-perfect. But in the controlled frenzy of his rendering of the finale, the soulful quality to the second movement, and an earth-shattering moment in the first movement, Kremer stands apart.

It happened not in the cadenza, but after it. For those of you who may not know, a cadenza is a place where a soloist can shine on his own, independent of the orchestra. Sometimes a cadenza is brief (Bach, Mozart), sometimes long (in Shostakovich, it can be an entire movement). Sibelius was himself a violinist, a frustrated one at that; given a choice, he would much rather have been a violin virtuoso than a great composer.

This frustration is evident in the cadenza, but I had no idea of it until I heard Kremer play it. And then, when he came to the end of the cadenza, there was something Kremer did (or didn't do . . . I'm not quite sure which) which made me break down.

At the end of a cadenza, a violinist is often asked to exalt, to be heroic, and the close of Sibelius's cadenza confirms this. In any other concerto, the orchestra would re-enter with great excitement and confirmation. In Sibelius, there is none of this, as the bassoons murmur along, stuck in the mud. (They don't even have the courtesy to wait for the violin to finish before they come in.) The rest of the orchestra straggles back in, one by one, and the violin soloist follows suit, almost catatonic. Think of a child, trying to please a parent to no avail, and you get the idea.

In short, the orchestra ignores the soloist, just as late 19th century European orchestral world ignored Sibelius the violinist. In an instant, Gidon Kremer brought all of this to bear, and I soon realized that I had stopped breathing. Backstage afterwards, I fumbled, trying to find the right words to compliment Mr. Kremer. It was useless. But he knew. For him, this kind of tacit praise is probably a regular occurence.

Oh, and one other thing -- thinking that I'd like to communicate with him at some point (when the words would hopefully come to me), I asked for a way to contact him. He not only gave me his home address, he gave me his phone number.

Among the great violinists living today, whom do you know would do such a thing?

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.