I'd never read Lloyd Schwartz, music critic of the Boston Phoenix (Boston's
alternative weekly). But I loved the following, which appeared on January 21:
During the first concert of Sir Simon Rattle's return visit to the Boston Symphony
Orchestra, near the end of the first movement of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony,
Rattle leaned over to the second violins, who were sitting in authentic 19th-century
fashion opposite (instead of next to) the first violins (you could actually hear their
"dialogue"). It was a high-energy passage and the players were vigorously sawing
away. You might expect the conductor to be waving his arms with aerobic abandon. But
Rattle was actually making a broad, slow windmill motion. My guess is that he was telling
the players not to lose sight of the long rolling line of the music, reminding them that
they were not flapping their tinsel wings in vain but actually flying somewhere. Every
bar, every phrase in this performance sounded fresh, conceived with the utmost attention
to detail. Even in a piece as familiar as the Eroica, you heard things you may
never have noticed before (like the heaved guttural moan, at the beginning of the funeral
march, of the six double basses spread across the back of the stage, or the wonderful
string embroidery under the big horn theme). And all of these engrossing details were part
of a bigger picture Rattle never lost sight of.
Last month, the BSO suffered
an unusual piece of negative criticism from outside Boston. Greg Sandow, in the Wall
Street Journal, concluded: "I've heard most of the important American orchestras.
If I ranked them -- and especially if I compared them to what they could achieve --
the BSO would place near the bottom." Sandow centered his attack on five concerts led
by Seiji Ozawa, which he called "dismaying," and bemoaned not only the lack of
interpretive insight but also the low technical standard, the "coarse,
unmotivated" playing. The BSO management counterattacked by offering sheaves of
favorable reviews from the international press, and it impugned Sandow's reportorial
authority, pointing out that his most damning quotations came from unnamed sources (though
how many musicians would ever attack their colleagues on the record?). Would the BSO front
office be so defensive if it were more confident of the orchestra's high standing?
To my ears, Sandow's
artistic evaluation is pretty accurate, whereas his technical criticism seems overstated.
The brass section has been problematic for years, and even if the top of the line-up is a
little thin, there's real depth to the BSO bench. Rattle was lucky in his Eroica
ensemble because he got the second-desk clarinet (Thomas Martin) and oboe (Mark McEwen,
who got a deserved solo ovation, surely for his moving contribution to the funeral march),
who were eloquently compatible with each other and with marvelous principal flute Jacques
Zoon. The BSO still needs to hire a principal oboist.
I have no way of evaluating
the reviews the BSO gets on tour. Maybe the performances are better away from home. But
the excitement that guest musicians like Rattle and the Met's James Levine produce here
only emphasizes the week-to-week weakness. Rattle made this Eroica the work of a
firebrand genius shaking his fist at the establishment. The famous opening chords had a
decisive impetuosity. The Marcia funebre was an uninhibited outpouring of grief, except
for the momentary glimpses of heaven. Rattle kept the Scherzo more reined in, then let it
explode in little bursts -- which made the ensuing Finale, with its teasing dynamics
(those stealthy staccatos), the even greater climax. This was a highly emotional
performance precisely because it was so rooted in the details of the score, not in a
display of superficial theatrical gestures (of a "heart-stopping pause" in the
Mahler Third Symphony, Sandow reported: "Mr. Ozawa mimed it with a riveting
conviction I didn't hear in the music itself").
I'm sure I'll be accused of professional log-rolling -- praising those who praise you,
for careerist reasons -- but, quite aside from his defense of me, isn't Schwartz a fine
writer? He's the kind of critic I most like, one who tells a story, and doesn't just
deliver judgements. I love the way he describes what he sees and hears.
Here's something else he wrote about Ozawa, last October:
This season Seiji Ozawa is celebrating his 25th season as music director
of the Boston Symphony. He's equaled Serge Koussevitzky's record with the BSO and is
currently the longest-tenured music director of any major orchestra in the world. It's
quite an achievement, especially for someone who has an audience (and, one also gathers,
an orchestra) with such divided feelings about him. Last summer, some friends asked me the
disturbing question: Have you ever heard anything conducted by Ozawa better than anyone
else has ever played it?
Over the past quarter of a century, I've heard a
handful of performances (four or five) that I've really loved, performances that have sent
me out of Symphony Hall or the music shed at Tanglewood not merely not sorry I heard them
but that took me to the place I live for music to take me. It's an awfully minimal number
for 25 years, and (to go back to that insinuating question) I couldn't say even these
performances set my absolute standard for musical satisfaction. At the top of my list is
the Schoenberg Gurre Lieder Ozawa conducted at Tanglewood in 1974, with a
phenomenal cast: Phyllis Curtin, James McCracken, and George London. Yet when Ozawa
repeated this work only four years later at Symphony Hall (with McCracken and Jessye
Norman, for a recording), it was a dud. Only Ravel's children's opera, L'enfant et les
sortileges, was just as good the second-time-around, 20 years later.
At least Ozawa has a decent record for world
premieres--slightly better than one a year, on average, though some composers have
expressed mixed feelings about either the level of first performance or Ozawa's
commitment. He's been an advocate for few new works. The barest smidgen have ever been
And then the general, week-to-week level of
performances, even after the word has been emanating from Symphony Hall about a "new
Seiji," has remained pretty low. It's true, more Ozawa performances of the central
European repertoire, especially Mahler, whom (as a major composer in the work of Ozawa's
two most famous mentors, Leonard Bernstein and Herbert von Karajan) he has obviously put a
lot of effort into studying, have been at least in the ballpark of acceptability, they
convey little of what I most admire in music.
Maybe a decade ago, I had begun to question my own
attitude toward Ozawa. Is it possible, I asked myself, that I was pre-judging, that it was
unfair to go into Symphony Hall week after week dreading the latest Ozawa undertaking?
Then one day I was listening to my car radio. I'd tuned in to a Beethoven symphony shortly
after it had begun. In a few minutes I thought this was a terrible performance:
mechanical, shapeless, empty. Who could be playing? A momentary failure of the conductor
to take note of an especially glorious little turn in the music suddenly made me ask
myself: Could this be Seiji? The more I heard, in this blindfold test, the more I became
convinced that it was. I kept driving around until the piece ended, and (you guessed it,
dear reader) my guess was correct.
It might be harder to guess now. The orchestra has
been playing well, though unevenly. Some of the best players have either retired or died.
With few major exceptions (violist Steven Ansell; new principal-flutist Jacques Zoon, who
plays with such individuality and thrilling insight), the orchestra's greatest strengths
don't reside with most of the first-desk players. The playing has less personality. The
strings have kept--maybe even increased--their wonderful glow, and the percussion section,
especially master-tympanist Everett (Vic) Firth, remains exciting. But the brasses, led by
erratic trumpeter Charles Schlueter, are more often than not a hard-hat area, with playing
much too loud and coarse, failing to blend with the rest of the orchestra. And Ozawa must
share the blame for trotting them out for crowd-pleasing finales to cap otherwise
uneventful performances. He has a bewildering good reputation for early-20th-century
masterpieces, but his performances of works like Stravinsky's Sacre du printemps, for
example, have always struck me as among his worst, lacking tension and mystery until those
final vulgar rhythmic blasts of hyper-adrenalin.
The sad situation in the classical-music world
today, though, is how few superior alternatives have appeared over the last 25 years.