Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Proms Concerts

I have a guest writer for this post.

With reference to the four Proms concerts we attended in London, I convinced Andrew’s father to write a description of what we heard. He agreed to do so, on condition that I never repeat my request.

The Royal Albert Hall is so large and so cavernous that the listener, entering the Hall, cannot help but be skeptical that the Hall will prove satisfactory for an orchestral concert.

And the acoustics of the Hall are not good. In some parts of the Hall, such as the stalls, the acoustics are very poor, perhaps fatally so. In other parts of the Hall, such as the loggia and second tier, the sound is much better, but reverberation time in the Hall is problematic no matter the seat location. Reverberation time is too long, and reverberation time is different in different parts of the Hall. One can never be certain that listeners in different parts of the Hall are hearing the same thing. In truth, the Hall should not be used for orchestral concerts.

Nonetheless, as happens in any hall, suitable or unsuitable, the ear quickly adjusts. The four orchestras we heard in The Royal Albert Hall sounded much the same as they do in other concert venues, lacking mostly “presence”, which suggests that I should not make too much of the Hall’s deficient acoustics.

The two American orchestras we heard did not make a good showing, but neither did the Vienna Philharmonic. Only the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra managed to cover itself with glory, and that glory was not unqualified.

The Vienna and Leipzig orchestras both played on weeknights, but—other than day tickets—all tickets to their Proms appearances had sold out long in advance of their concerts. The San Francisco and Boston orchestras both played on weekend nights, but their concerts did not sell out. The American orchestras played to nothing approaching full houses, and much of the audience in attendance on both nights concentrated not on listening to the music but on spreading tubercular material.


The San Francisco Symphony’s performance of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony simply had to be written off. The playing was rough—a good youth ensemble would surely have offered a more accurate presentation of this score—and the orchestra never mustered the full array of sound required by Mahler, from fully-supported pianissimos to fortissimos filling the hall with splendor. The orchestra provided one of the least satisfactory Mahler performances I have ever heard. I have no idea what Michael Tilson Thomas was trying to do in this score, and I have little doubt that Michael Tilson Thomas had no idea what he was trying to do, either. By any standard, this was a provincial performance by a provincial ensemble and it should never have left the confines of Davies Hall.


The Vienna Philharmonic can play Schubert’s Symphony No. 5 and Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4 in its sleep. Awake and under Daniel Barenboim’s guidance, however, the Vienna Philharmonic had trouble negotiating its way through either work. I note this despite the fact that some members of the orchestra appeared to be slumbering through much of the performance.

It was clear that the members of the Vienna Philharmonic did not like Barenboim and had no interest in playing their best for him. There were some entrances so ragged that they had to have been deliberate, and others so shockingly late that they had clearly been mapped out in advance, created to raise Barenboim’s hackles.

The Vienna Philharmonic does this sort of thing whenever it dislikes a conductor, or has any kind of grievance against him. This behavior is very disrespectful toward its audience.

Years ago, I swore that I would never again attend a concert of the Vienna Philharmonic on tour. In the early 1990’s, I heard the orchestra intentionally undercut Claudio Abbado in a performance of the Bruckner Fourth on the U.S. Eastern Seaboard. After that tour concluded, Abbado swore never again to tour with the orchestra, and he has kept his vow.

I have been unable to keep mine, however, because the sound of the Vienna Philharmonic is so beautiful that I cannot resist the opportunity to hear the orchestra in person, no matter how slovenly the playing may be.

And the playing under Barenboim was pretty slovenly when it wanted to be, and pretty impressive when it wanted to be, although the latter was in rare evidence. The members of the orchestra roused themselves to provide a satisfactory finale to the Bruckner after marking time through the first three movements. It was a case of too little, too late. The Schubert did not work, and it did not work because Barenboim was too interventionist. He should have simply let the players play.

The Vienna Philharmonic on tour bears little resemblance to the Vienna Philharmonic at the Musikverein. When touring, many of the finest players remain in Vienna. Tour programs do not replicate programs the orchestra has played in Vienna. Tour conductors are seldom the same conductors who appear with the orchestra in its famed subscription concerts.

On tour, the Vienna Philharmonic plays for money. It selects high-profile conductors who may or may not have any association with the orchestra in Vienna (Barenboim does not) and tours the world for several weeks each year, always playing typical Viennese fare. The orchestra plays far more concerts on tour than it plays concerts in Vienna, and it does so because these tours are highly profitable for members of the orchestra.

The Vienna Philharmonic’s Proms appearance delivered what the orchestra generally delivers on tour: lots of sweet sound amid sloppy ensemble and disinterested music-making. The concert was pleasurable and irritating in equal measure.


The Boston Symphony concert was too long. There were two extended works on the program, either of which would have provided a satisfactory centerpiece in its own right: Bartok’s Concerto For Orchestra and Brahms’ Symphony No. 1. Preceding these two works was a ten-minute work by Elliott Carter, Three Illusions For Orchestra.

The Proms audience became restless during the concert, and not solely because of the concert’s length. James Levine has never been an effective conductor of Bartok or Brahms, and neither work showed him or the orchestra to advantage. The orchestra did not play at a high level of ensemble, and the interpretations were heavy and dull, unimaginative and undramatic, lacking personality and tension. I have never heard less compelling renditions of either work.

The sound of the orchestra was not pleasing, but I hesitate to blame the orchestra, because I no longer know how this orchestra sounds, having not heard the BSO in its own hall since 1997 and having not heard the BSO in Carnegie Hall since 2001.

It was obvious that Levine was going for a richer string sound than Seiji Ozawa, but I hesitate to judge the quality of that string sound from a single hearing in The Royal Albert Hall. It was clear, however, that the string ensemble overwhelmed the woodwinds and brass, which did not succeed in penetrating the massive wall of sound provided by the strings. This is consistent with the sound of Levine’s other orchestra, the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, which is similarly string-dominated. This sound picture proved fatal in music of Bartok and Brahms. (There being empty seats, we changed our seats at intermission, but the orchestra’s sound did not improve.)

By any measure, the Boston Symphony is no longer an impressive orchestra. In terms of sheer technical achievement, the Boston Symphony of today plays at a lower level than the current Minnesota Orchestra. If someone had told me, 25 years ago, that such a state of affairs would ever occur, I would have laughed.

The decline of the Boston Symphony from greatness to mediocrity is the most significant event in the world of music over the last thirty years. Longtime concertgoers in Boston—indeed, longtime concertgoers everywhere—seethe at the loss of such a great orchestra.

When the Meiningen Orchestra deteriorated and fell from prominence in the late 19th Century, the Berlin Philharmonic rose simultaneously to take its place. No American orchestra has risen to take the place of the Boston Symphony. If a replacement materializes in coming years, which is unlikely, it will occur in Dallas, under Jaap Van Zweden.


I have never believed that the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra matched the excellence of the Berlin Philharmonic or the Dresden Staatskapelle, both of which have unique sound qualities and a unique way of making music that Leipzig has never been able to duplicate.

Riccardo Chailly may be on his way to changing that.

From a single Proms hearing, it was clear that the Gewandhaus has been invigorated, almost beyond belief, compared to the Kurt Masur and Herbert Blomstedt years. Under Masur and Blomstedt, the orchestra had a very cultured but slightly anemic sound and a very reticent way of playing. The strings were always the orchestra’s glory, famed for lightness of articulation and homogenous sound. The woodwinds were always variable, with unpredictable intonation, and the brass generally reluctant to make its presence known.

The Gewandhaus of Chailly has a more robust sound. The strings retain their meticulous phrasing, but the string sound is richer and warmer. The woodwinds are more confident, and more willing to allow themselves to be heard and to dominate when called for in the score. The brass ensemble has been completely transformed and now plays with great brilliance when required. The entire orchestra plays with a muscularity and freedom it never had before, and yet the old-world transparency, blend and refinement have somehow been retained.

This is a mighty impressive orchestra, and it is an orchestra with a mighty impressive sound.

Its sheer musicality is its greatest asset. The musicality of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra puts our U.S. orchestras--the fabled Cleveland Orchestra aside--to utter shame.

If Chailly remains in Leipzig long enough, Leipzig will replace Berlin in Germany’s orchestral pecking order, joining Dresden at Germany’s orchestral summit. Some European musicians believe that this in fact has already occurred.

Everything is not yet perfect with the orchestra. The clarinet players are not as fine as their flute, oboe and bassoon counterparts. The trumpets, horns and trombones do not have the spine-tingling virtuosity (or power) of the Chicago Symphony brass section. The timpani player made sure that his timpani strokes were seen but not heard (such timidity is common among percussionists in German orchestras).

All that aside, this orchestra is unmistakably going places, and the players unmistakably know it, and so did the Proms audience. This was the only Proms concert we attended in which the audience response was whole-hearted gratitude and admiration from beginning to end. The prolonged audience cheers were fully deserved.

The Beethoven in the first half of the program was not particularly impressive. Chailly began the “Coriolan” Overture at too high a degree of tension, at too high an emotional temperature, and the overture had nowhere to go. The Beethoven Violin Concerto that followed was under-characterized and almost diffident. The announced soloist, Sergey Khachatryan, had been replaced by Viviane Hagner, and she did not grab the concerto and make it her own, which made it difficult for Chailly to develop tension and interplay between soloist and orchestra. The Concerto offered some beautiful playing and little else.

The Brahms Fourth that followed, however, was sublime. It was the finest Brahms Fourth I have ever heard, and I have heard some pretty impressive conductors in this work, including Herbert Von Karajan. Chailly had to concede nothing to Karajan in this work.

Chailly’s conducting maintained a suitable level of tension throughout and yet it was never inflated. The work was dramatic where required, but the drama evolved organically from the music—it was never lacquered on with a brush. It was a deeply emotional performance, and the emotions evoked were sincere.

The culmination of the first movement was shattering, intellectually and emotionally, but it was in no way overdone. The andante was noble and deeply felt, but it was attractively understated, too. The scherzo was not overplayed. Chailly built tension in the passacaglia slowly, almost imperceptively, and he timed the climax perfectly before the symphony wound down to its quiet and unsettled conclusion.

The Brahms Fourth is not an easy work to conduct, and I have heard innumerable acclaimed conductors come to grief in this difficult score. Chailly’s Brahms Fourth was an unforgettable experience. It was, quite simply, a great performance.

If anything, even greater was the unexpected and generous encore, Brahms’ “Academic Festival Overture”, another very difficult piece to bring off. It received the finest performance I have ever encountered, on record or off. The audience response was volcanic.


  1. Very interesting analysis, Joshua, on the part of Drew's father.

    Since you were not reading the reviews in our papers, you might want to know that the San Francisco Symphony received middling-to-negative reviews (after receiving blistering notices in Edinburgh), the Vienna Philharmonic received glowing reviews across the board, the Leipzig Gewandhaus received glowing reviews (but two reviewers criticized the brass for being too loud), and the Boston Symphony received middling reviews. After suffering through the Berlioz on the first night, most London reviewers skipped Boston's second night. Ouch! What an insult!

    The reviewers were very snarky about Tilson Thomas's and Levine's capabilities. The reviewers were puzzlingly worshipful about Barenboim. Chailly got star treatment all the way, even more so than Mariss Jansons a couple of weeks earlier.


  2. Thanks, Calvin.

    We didn't read any papers at all the whole time.

    Andrew's father used to subscribe to The London Times until it changed from a broadsheet to a tabloid. He says that day was one of the darkest days in the history of civilization (he reads it online now, in any case).

    Copies of The Times air-shipped to American subscribers used to be printed on onionsheet to keep the weight down and would arrive two or three days after the date of the actual edition.

    Those days are long gone now. The era of the newspaper is coming to a conclusion.

    Thanks again.


  3. JIWON: Just in case… Daniel Barenboim does NOT participate in Bashkirova’s West-Eastern-Divan-Orchestra 2008, and therefore, will NOT appear in Prom 38-39. If you want to know WHY, please visit my blogs. I’ve been running two blogs since January: http://theartofcriticism.wordpress.com/ (Music-blog) and http://barenboimlovesknesset.wordpress.com/ (Knesset-blog)
    If you click http://theartofcriticism.wordpress.com/my-request-to-barenboim/ (My Request to Barenboim), you will find anything you want to know; about what has been happening to Barenboim since mid-90s. These blogs are now open to public, so if you think it’s valuable enough, please tell all your friends to visit these places.
    I am not a normal spammer. If anyone spreads false information about me, without finishing reading ALL my writings, I will take everything into the legal case. Thanks.