Monday, November 12, 2012

A Cipher

On Wednesday evening, we heard London’s Philharmonia Orchestra in concert at Orchestra Hall in Chicago.

I last heard the Philharmonia in 2005 in London. My parents last heard the Philharmonia in the early 1990s, during one of the Philharmonia’s North American tours at a time the late Giuseppe Sinopoli was at the helm of the orchestra. Joshua had never heard the Philharmonia until Wednesday night.

The Philharmonia is a fine orchestra, and—for a London orchestra—it has a very pleasing sound.

The strings produce a rich, dark sound, much more Germanic than typical British orchestras, which tend to produce string sounds intolerable to American and Central European ears. Whether the Philharmonia string sound is a lasting legacy of the years spent working under Herbert Von Karajan and Otto Klemperer I do not know—but the string sound is not thin, anemic and colorless, unlike the string sounds of the London Symphony, London Philharmonic and BBC Symphony, all of which are hard to listen to without wincing.

The woodwinds of the Philharmonia are excellent, much better than what we are accustomed to hear in the Twin Cities, where the woodwinds of the Minnesota Orchestra and Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra are nothing more than garden-variety. That said, the woodwinds of the Cleveland Orchestra, Chicago Symphony and Philadelphia Orchestra have nothing to fear from the woodwinds of the Philharmonia.

The brass section of the Philharmonia played too loudly, which may have been a result of playing in an unfamiliar hall or playing under a poor conductor.

Esa-Pekka Salonen, current Music Director of the Philharmonia, was on the podium for Wednesday evening’s concert.

Salonen is a cipher. He is totally at sea in music from The Baroque, music from The Classical Period, Early Romanticism, full-blown Romanticism and Late Romanticism. Salonen’s reputation is that of a Modernist, yet he is equally at sea in music of Debussy, Stravinsky, Bartok and Schoenberg—as well as Ligeti, which Ligeti himself publicly noted with the greatest of consternation. Salonen cannot conduct the music even of Sibelius, his countryman, at a high level.

There is genuinely nothing Salonen can conduct with insight, style and authority—except his own music, which I rather like—and the result is that Salonen enjoys no reputation whatsoever among conducting colleagues of all generations, many of whom are quite open in their dismissal of Salonen, no matter how many rave reviews the idiotic Mark Swed has written for The Los Angeles Times.

Salonen does have one quality: energy. Salonen has shown that it is possible, in this day and age, to build a career on energy alone—although the only world-class orchestra that opens its doors to him on a semi-regular basis is Chicago.

On Wednesday night’s program: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2; and Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique.

The quality of the concert, given the conductor, was about what I had anticipated.

The Beethoven was foursquare, too fierce, too rigid, too overplayed, too monochrome, too incessant. Rhythms were inflexible and not sprung, woodwind detail was not highlighted (yet the brass had a field day), phrasing was nonexistent, expression was within the narrowest of ranges. Salonen did not understand how to build the sonata-form first movement, the Scherzo lacked rusticity and charm, the Rondo finale was hard-driven, unyielding and unpleasant. Salonen’s Beethoven was Beethoven as jackhammer.

The Beethoven was characterized by troubling ensemble lapses. Attacks were not uniform, there were false entries, the strings lost unison in fast passages. The current Minnesota Orchestra plays at a higher level of basic proficiency and accuracy than the Philharmonia. The Philharmonia shortcomings, all quite elementary, must be very worrisome to Philharmonia musicians. The orchestra surely rehearsed to the nines prior to embarking on an important foreign tour; the deficiencies on display in Chicago were without reasonable excuse.

I enjoyed the Berlioz much more than the Beethoven. ANY orchestra and ANY conductor can bring off the Berlioz—and we heard a perfectly competent performance of Symphonie Fantastique, unremarkable but effective.

Adrenaline alone will carry the Berlioz—adrenaline, without more, is no help at all in the Beethoven—and adrenaline kept the Berlioz moving and superficially exciting. Salonen’s was not an imaginative or stylish or penetrating view of the work, but the work had its intended impact; it is, after all, pretty hard to kill Symphonie Fantastique.

I believe it is obvious that Salonen is the wrong conductor for the Philharmonia. Musicians and conductor simply do not strike sparks off each other. It was mechanical, indifferent, hard-pressed music-making we heard, music-making-by-rote, music-making in which volume was a substitute for intensity. The Philharmonia/Salonen partnership must be an unsatisfying—if not frustrating—relationship for both players and conductor. The partnership needs to end as soon as possible.

Given its distinguished history, the Philharmonia is entitled to musical leadership a heap sight better than what it has now. The Philharmonia needs to bring in someone such as Christian Thielemann without delay.

There was an amazing number of empty seats in the Chicago hall on Wednesday night.

We had assumed the hall would be full, or near-full, simply because the Philharmonia’s Chicago appearance was part of a guest-orchestra series sponsored by the Chicago Symphony.

It was nowhere near.

Outside Los Angeles, Salonen is not a box-office draw.

Even in Helsinki, Salonen concerts do not sell.

Salonen needs to move on to composing full-time, and retire his batons.

If a conductor cannot build a public following after more than thirty years on podiums everywhere, there is a reason to account for the public’s lack of interest.

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