Thursday, November 15, 2012

Jolts Of Electricity

Early Friday morning, we drove up to Milwaukee from Chicago in order to hear the Friday morning concert of the Milwaukee Symphony.

The program was an attractive one—music of Weber, Lutoslawski, Schubert and Liszt—and the conductor, Christoph König, alone made our drive to Milwaukee worthwhile.

The Dresden-born König, in the very early stages of an international career, is already the real thing. For König, drawing music from an orchestra is as easy and natural as stretching and contracting a rubber band.

König repeatedly hit just the right tempo, just the right equilibrium between tension and relaxation, just the right allocation of lyricism and drama, just the right shape of a phrase, just the right proportion in balancing content with form.

König is a wonder. He already makes American conductors like Marin Alsop, Alan Gilbert, David Robertson and Robert Spano look woefully inept if not preposterous—and vacuous beyond words.

König is not forthcoming about his age, but I would estimate him to be 38 years old. My estimate is based upon the length of his professional resume, going back to the 1990s, as well as the fact that he studied with Sergiu Celibidache (who died sixteen years ago).

König made his American debut in 2010, and has received sensational reviews everywhere—except in Los Angeles, where it is official policy to give good reviews to bad conductors and bad reviews to good conductors.

If I were head of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, I would appoint König Music Director tomorrow. If I were in charge of the Minnesota Orchestra, I would name König Principal Guest Conductor immediately.

The Milwaukee program began with the Overture to Weber’s “Der Freischütz”. Within the first few bars of the slow introduction, it was clear that the music was in the hands of a master. Everything unfolded very naturally, very gracefully, very fluidly—and yet there was present the precise amount of tension necessary to keep listeners on the edges of their seats. The great climaxes were thrilling, but never overdone. There was lyricism, and color, and drama in abundance. It was a great performance.

Lutoslawski’s folk song-inspired Concerto For Orchestra, from 1954, followed. Brilliant and accessible, the Concerto For Orchestra is the final composition Lutoslawski wrote in a conservative idiom. Over the succeeding four years, while exploring Modernist techniques, the composer found his unique personal voice; that unique personal voice was to emerge in the much more complex—and much more satisfying—Concerto Funebre, unveiled in 1958. Atypical as is the Concerto For Orchestra among the Lutoslawski oeuvre, the Concerto For Orchestra may now be Lutoslawski’s most-performed composition. Such is an odd state of affairs—as peculiar a situation were the uncharacteristic Wellington’s Victory to become Beethoven’s most-performed work.

The Lutoslawski was the one work on the program in which König revealed nothing special. He gave a by-the-notes reading; there was no indication that the Lutoslawski was a personal or meaningful piece for him. For the conductor, the Lutoslawski was a display piece, designed to showcase an orchestra’s virtuosity and brilliance—and nothing more than a display piece.

After intermission came Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 (“Unfinished”), in which König demonstrated for the second time that morning that he is a master of Early Romanticism.

Friday’s was the finest performance I have ever heard of the Schubert Unfinished.

In the U.S., orchestral musicians no longer know how to play Schubert (or the other Early Romantics). Performances are either exaggerated and artificial or indifferent and uncommitted. I attribute American musicians’ inability to play music of Schubert, Mendelssohn and Schumann to the rise of Mahler and, to a lesser extent, Bruckner. Orchestras that play too much Mahler and Bruckner lose the ability to play Early Romantic and Romantic music in a convincing and idiomatic fashion; everything becomes overstated, burdened with excessive rhetoric. Georg Solti discovered this while in Chicago—to his horror, the better the Chicago Symphony played Mahler and Bruckner, the worse it played the Early Romantics and Romantics—and Solti’s remedy, not entirely successful in his eyes, was to cut back significantly the number and frequency of Mahler and Bruckner performances.

König somehow got a fresh and penetrating performance of the Schubert Unfinished out of the Milwaukee musicians. The performance had lyricism, high drama, a touch of tragedy—and, above all, sincerity. Until Friday, I had thought that sincerity in the Schubert Unfinished was a thing of the past, having died with Bruno Walter.

The concert concluded with Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. On paper, it seemed odd to follow the Schubert Unfinished with the colorful and once-popular Liszt piece, but in practice it worked perfectly fine. A flashy mixture of gypsy lament and wanton display of exuberance, the Hungarian Rhapsody in König’s hands sounded more interesting and appealing than it genuinely is. The Liszt was the one work on the program in which König engaged in bold exaggeration of color and tempo (as well as some podium theatrics)—and I did not object. If the Liszt is not made for exaggeration and the exhibition of flair, no piece is.

König is one of three young German conductors projected to take the world by storm over the next ten years. I hope we get to hear him in the Twin Cities as often as possible.

In Germany, König has been asked the question why Germany produces such excellent conductors while the U.S. does not. König’s answer was a diplomatic one: he attributed German success to the superiority and depth of German musical training.

Myself, I am not at all convinced that different musical training methods account for the difference (although, in my particular field, the German/American training differential is staggering, but weighted in our favor: American lawyers receive training 1000 times better than German lawyers, who, by American standards, are not considered even to be educated).

Germans have different national characteristics than Americans. Music and poetry run through their blood more deeply than ours—and, as a people, they respond more deeply to music and poetry than we do. Americans tend to prefer lightness and humor and grace, and often find typical German characteristics ponderous and inflexible.

Germans thrive on order and predictability and stability, as well as clear demarcations of authority. Americans more highly prize openness and candor and adaptability, and possess a deep and abiding natural distrust of authority (certainly not a trait exhibited by Germans).

I believe the difference between Germans and Americans may be summed up in one sentence: The German national poet is Goethe while the American national poet is Whitman. Within that statement is rooted a multitude of thorny and complex national differences.

No one can deny that Goethe is superior to Whitman, just as no one can deny that German conductors, as a class, are superior to American conductors. König, in my estimation, is destined to join the long lineage of great German conductors, a lineage that may be traced back to the mid-19th Century.

The Milwaukee Symphony is not a distinguished orchestra. It is a second-rate ensemble, more second-rate than I had expected. The string section is not good. The principal winds are weak. The brass section lacks finesse. The orchestra has an undernourished, unsophisticated sound.

The Milwaukee Symphony would rank at or near the bottom of America’s top twenty ensembles, probably vying with Seattle and Utah for last place. With respect to European orchestras, two comparisons are particularly apt: the Oslo Philharmonic, Scandinavia’s finest ensemble, which is slightly better than the Milwaukee Symphony; and the Orchestre de Paris, France’s finest ensemble, which is slightly worse.

Under a less fine conductor, the program we heard would, I fear, have been a bumpy one. Yet König kept the entire Milwaukee audience captivated and enthralled for two hours. His was an act of alchemy.

The audience realized it was hearing something special. One could feel the concentration—and jolts of electricity—in the hall.

After each of the four programmed works, the conductor’s reception was rapturous.

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