in: Reviews

November 12, 2011

Podium Problems Throughout BSO Program

by

Conductor Myung-Whun Chung with Garrick Ohlsson (Stu Rosner photo)

The Boston Symphony’s November 10 performance brought together two warhorses by Carl Maria von Weber and P. I. Tchaikovsky, the former of which paradoxically hasn’t been much performed by the BSO lately, with a work long more heard of than heard, the Barber Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, with the estimable Garrick Ohlsson. On the revolving podium this week was Myung-Whun Chung, who has not conducted the BSO for fifteen years, this being only his third series of concerts with the orchestra.

The Weber was the overture to Die Freischütz, the opera that is now widely claimed to be the first German Romantic opera. (There were earlier works that might have an equal claim, including some by Spohr, but we’ll let that pass.) Der Freischütz (the Marksman) got a full staging in Boston not too long ago, a true rarity, but the overture is even by itself one of Weber’s most impressive works, with its evocations of spooky forests, overweening ambition, supernatural chicanery and true love thereby destroyed. Chung’s reading, using a full orchestral complement —period authenticity be damned — got some charming and expressive effects, like the growly soft (though not soft enough) opening. He chose brisk tempi and went for some big, stagy effects. This came, alas, at the expense of clear articulation, especially in the lower strings, and a certain lack of overarching concept, as he telegraphed his punches at nearly every climax.

Samuel Barber’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, op. 38, was arguably the high-water mark of the composer’s career, in the sense of revealing him at the apex of his public esteem, earning applause, critical praise, and his second Pulitzer Prize (not counting the two Pulitzer traveling fellowships he won in the 1930s before the prizes were awarded as such). We were present, not at the world premiere the BSO gave in New York in 1962 under Leinsdorf, but at the New York Philharmonic’s first performance the following year, when we high-schoolers lucky enough to have snagged student subscriptions were treated to a panel discussion featuring Barber, the dedicatee pianist John Browning, and, if memory serves, conductor Thomas Schippers. Barber freely admitted he was utterly incapable of playing the piece himself and expressed his awe and astonishment at Browning’s doing so, so brilliantly. So brilliantly, in fact, that Browning truly owned the work for the next forty years. Indeed, in all that time, till the pianist’s death in 2003, only two people ever played this concerto: John Browning and Not John Browning. For this reason, we were brimming with giddy anticipation that a third pianist would perform, no less than the protean Ohlsson, to put an individual stamp on the work that could lead to a true second life for it.

The fact that Barber was once America’s most popular classical composer, who clothed an awesome technical command in a personal brand of hysterical lyrical Romanticism (oh my, how the High Modernists hated Barber!), can obscure the fact that this concerto marked a new direction for him, in which he sought accommodation with the more fragmented sounds and sparse sonorities of 1950s asceticism and the coming storm of 1960s chaos. Thus, in the opening movement, which overall is in G Major, lines break off abruptly, scoring is often chamber-like in alternation with big noisy outbursts, and one can sense — as our seatmate Thursday did —that it just doesn’t hang together. The classic Barber lyricism reasserts itself in the slow movement, and the bang-up throbbing 5/8 rondo finale largely carries itself. For the whole piece to work, though, requires a grand, unified, thoughtful conception.

What transpired Thursday wasn’t even close. Not only was Ohlsson, whose technical prowess was unquestionable and probably superior even to Browning’s, unable to make himself sound much different from the somewhat aloof polish of the latter (where was the great Chopin interpreter in the slow movement?), but there were times when his expressions and bearing — something that cannot go unnoticed in such an imposing physical presence — seemed to convey the wish that this all be over soon. To this difficulty was added Chung’s own FX-oriented direction, rather reminiscent of those elements of the Ozawa years we would most like to forget. To be sure, the quality of the playing by the orchestra musicians was tip-top; with as much solo work as there is for them in this concerto, it had better be. While many solo licks deserve praise, we will here mention Elizabeth Rowe’s dusky solo at the opening of the slow movement (which in fact Barber adapted from an earlier work for flute and orchestra) and, as the usually unsung hero of that movement, oboist John Ferrillo, who frequently carried the melodic ball passed by the flute. The finale, we must admit, left us in our usual funk over how orchestras mangle the principal tune. While the episodes, in slower tempi, were fine, the cracking whip of the ostinato main subject leaves them — now the BSO included —seemingly incapable of counting to five. There is a crucial rest on the second beat, which is inevitably stretched to sound like two, making the saucy 5/8 into a dull 6/8. We lay this charge at Chung’s feet. He should have heard this problem and done more to correct it, even if it means leaning harder on the third beat.

We will, in the interest of full disclosure and the setting of expectations, say right up front that we are not big Tchaikovsky fans. We acknowledge his technical mastery, we proclaim him one of the greatest melodists ever and a brilliant orchestrator to boot. Where we cannot follow is the “too much is never enough” aesthetic, with its attendant bathos. So, with that in mind, our approach to a session in the Tchaiko ward with the Symphony No. 6 in b minor, the Pathétique, was not without discomfiture. Luckily, our attention was sufficiently distracted from the substance of the piece by the particulars of the performance that we can dispense with any further fulminations along aesthetic lines.

What we observed was, first, and most obviously, some brilliant playing. Craig Nordstrom had the unenviable (well, maybe it was enviable) task of taking the bass clarinet to ppppp (or was that pppppp?) in a first movement passage that, it may surprise you, as it always amazes us, to know, was actually written for bassoon, which not only cannot play that softly but sounds too croaky in that register to produce the intended effect. The brass, too, has much to say in this symphony and said it with great integrity and not a bit of, well, brass.

The problems, as we heard them, were, as throughout the program, at the top: Chung passed up many opportunities to squeeze any shiver-inducing pianissimos from the ensemble and lurched from moment to moment without a sense of grand sweep. His tempi, on the other hand, were continually and on the whole commendably brisk, notably so in the 5/4 waltz and even in the finale. The latter, of course is meant to be lugubrious, but without a brilliant sense of slo-mo propulsion can be merely deadly; thus, a faster beat, like powdered sugar, can cover a multitude of sins. Chung achieved a commendable crispness without loss of articulation in the third movement march, which, true to form, awoke some dozers who then applauded as if the piece were over. Overall, though, we saw too many trees and too little forest.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

17 Comments

  1. First, to figuratively pick a metaphorical nit: the true love in “Der Freischütz” is not destroyed, but nearly destroyed.

    I’m glad the Overture returned to the BSO repertoire, and I hope they’ll keep doing it until they get it right. To me the menacing parts weren’t quite menacing enough, and the triumphant parts weren’t quite as surgingly triumphant as they should have been. But just to hear it played in Symphony Hall was a pleasure. Maybe we can hope for the Horn Concertino sometime soon, and the Clarinet Concerto.

    In the Tchaikosvky, to me the march wasn’t as stirring as it should have been, and the finale petered out without dying away.

    I thought that Maestro Chung at least got some true pianissimos — only just above inaudible in my seat toward the rear of the first balcony on the side — in the Weber and the Tchaikovsky.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — November 12, 2011 at 7:14 pm

  2. What a ridicules Pathétique BSO just played. I can’t find any other words then ridicules. I was listening the first movement and was asking myself what Mr. Chung is trying to do with it? I did not have an idea and BSO, whatever they did was in a borderline with parody. When in second movement BSO begun to slide almost in Arabic scale and to play some kind of Pathetic Scheherazade instead of Tchaikosvky’s Pathétique it become too funny and I began to laugh violently (an advantage of listening home over FM). The third movement was butchered as well, particularly in the end. The adagio was not the adagio   but rather a lecture about abstinence by a nun in a catholic school.  Come on, that was truly ridicules! Particularly it was ridicules after BSO played very nice Pathétique under Miguel Harth-Bedoya on July 10.

    I quite like Myung-Whun Chung and he is more than a capable conductor. It would be very interesting to take his view over what he and BSO demonstrated today. Yes, I know, it is not how the game is being played… Anyhow, I will try to erase the today’s Pathétique from memory. Well, if you will be missing tomorrow laughing during the WBUR’s “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!” then switch to WCRB at 1PM and you will have more giggling to do listening the BSO show “Oy vey, Don’t Hear Me”.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — November 12, 2011 at 10:23 pm

  3. Were you people even there? I’ve never heard the BSO play that well. They usually quite frankly suck at decrescendos, and I’ve never seen a conductor coerce them into it like Chung did.

    Comment by Sam — November 13, 2011 at 4:29 am

  4. I heard the Friday performance, and the BSO musicians played their collective hearts out for Chung. He draws an emotional immediacy from his players that contrasts with the pre-packaged, antiseptic, “nice” performances we have been accustomed to in this work. I heard him conduct Mahler’s Sixth last month in Seoul, and marvelled at his natural expansion of the phrases in that work. Chung is Principal Guest Conductor of the Dresden Staatskapelle, where he has developed a deep sense of orchestral sound, very much on display with the BSO. He has a reputation of connecting well with orchestral players at a personal level.  He comes with a twenty year recording contract with Deutsche Grammaphon, which he could apply to the BSO, and a long list of distinguished recordings.  Is someone looking for a music director?

    Comment by Dan Lobb — November 13, 2011 at 6:37 pm

  5. *** Is someone looking for a music director?

    I have written that Myung-Whun Chungwould be unquestionably a wonderful candidate for BSO podium but will it be a step back for him? Does his Seoul Philharmonic nowadays is kind of “bigger” orchestra then BSO?  They might not have those “100-years old door knobs” but they have instead more contemporary plumbing, more dynamic audiences and locally bred musicians. Yes, Asian record collectors treasure and admire BSO recordings but I assure you that not the recordings the BSO did during the last 35 years….

    Comment by Romy The Cat — November 13, 2011 at 7:10 pm

  6. It seems that the tail end of my comment was taken off, and I suppose I can understand why, since it featured a curse word and no substantial actual criticism. So here it goes:

    “He chose brisk tempi and went for some big, stagy effects.” 
    The concert I attended, Chung actually played the Overture much slower than in most other interpretations, including ‘classic’ ones by Furtwangler.

    “We will, in the interest of full disclosure and the setting of expectations, say right up front that we are not big Tchaikovsky fans.”
    I’m pretty sure only the Queen is really justified in using the royal we. I think it’s pretty clear one person wrote this review, and if you, Vance, don’t like Tchaikovsky, you should take credit for that individually instead of pretending it’s a grand opinion of some collective. Anyway, the entire paragraph following this statement was pointless, and didn’t really tell me anything about the performance itself. I thought the point of this site was to tell me about performances in Boston, not some lawyer’s opinion on great masters?
    “To this difficulty was added Chung’s own FX-oriented direction, rather reminiscent of those elements of the Ozawa years we would most like to forget.”
    Ozawa was a great conductor who was able to bring out the strengths of the BSO–and frankly, the BSO does FX-oriented things best. And anyway, if you were watching Chung conduct at all, his movements were very restricted in most parts, favoring subtlety rather than these FX you are talking about. What is FX anyway? I know it’s a thing laypeople say, but is that something “we”‘re using in the journalism world these days? I know I’m probably overstepping my bounds with my final comment, but it occurs to me and it must be said. Your disparaging attitude towards both Ozawa and Chung, and your readiness to forgive anyone else that may have been at fault for these things “we should most like to forget” suggests to me that perhaps you have something against Asians. Maybe you have terrible memories of being outshone by your more brilliant counterparts at NEC? Definitely, I’m sure, at Harvard. If your writing here is to be of any indication, I can’t imagine you did very well there.

    Chung achieved a commendable crispness without loss of articulation in the third movement march, which, true to form, awoke some dozers who then applauded as if the piece were over.
    Well, I’m glad you think you are entitled to not only insult musicians, but also the patrons at the BSO. How are you so sure they were dozing? I definitely never sleep at concerts but I have had to more than once really refrain myself from clapping at the end of a brilliant movement. The whole point of not clapping between movements is to not break the concentration of the musicians, and I think the march was so brilliantly executed that many people couldn’t contain themselves. I’m sure the brass section appreciated knowing that they were capable of inspiring such a thing from the audience. But you evidently think that you are better than everyone else.

    To sum: I think people like you are the cancer of music criticism. 

    Comment by Sam — November 14, 2011 at 1:00 am

  7. *** I’m pretty sure only the Queen is really justified in using the royal we. I think it’s pretty clear one person wrote this review, and if you, Vance, don’t like Tchaikovsky, you should take credit for that individually instead of pretending it’s a grand opinion of some collective. Anyway, the entire paragraph following this statement was pointless, and didn’t really tell me anything about the performance itself. I thought the point of this site was to tell me about performances in Boston, not some lawyer’s opinion on great masters?

    In the eye of beholder, Sam. I do not share Vance’s aversion to Tchaikovsky and but I do agree that this time Tchaikovsky was very strangely “orchestrated”. Was the paragraph pointless or not is irrelevant in away. Nether Vance nor you, not even me myself, pretend that our judgments are definitive and final, or have more value than to be an opinion.

    *** Your disparaging attitude towards both Ozawa and Chung, and your readiness to forgive anyone else that may have been at fault for these things “we should most like to forget” suggests to me that perhaps you have something against Asians.

    Wow, Sam! Where this came from? Even if it was the case then why do you care? Are you sure that end of your comment was taken off? Is it possible that vampires begin slowly surround your and they just eat the end of your message? You know, they do it sometimes…

    **** I definitely never sleep at concerts but I have had to more than once really refrain myself from clapping at the end of a brilliant movement. The whole point of not clapping between movements is to not break the concentration of the musicians, and I think the march was so brilliantly executed that many people couldn’t contain themselves. I’m sure the brass section appreciated knowing that they were capable of inspiring such a thing from the audience. But you evidently think that you are better than everyone else.

    Nope, he does not think that he is better than everyone else, it is I am the one who think that I am better than everyone else. And why does it bother you? Furthermore I am lobbing state legislatives with idea to allow police officers to shoot and kill audiences who clapping between movements. Would it be fun? Probably I will apply for the job.

    Comment by Romy the Cat — November 14, 2011 at 7:23 am

  8. “Were you people even there?”
    You talkin’ to me?  You talkin’ to me?” I was indeed “in my seat toward the rear of the first balcony on the side” on that fateful Thursday evening.

    Maybe it was the much slower than normal playing of the Weber which led to my less than thrilled reaction. OTOH, I did shout “bravo” just to show pleasure that the work was played at all and to encourage them to give us more Weber, please.

    As for the Third movement of the Tchaikovsky: quot homines, tot sententiæ I guess. But as I see it the applause at the end is quite unremarkable. There are “always” people who applaud at that point. It is applause-catching music, and it is understandable that people who are not really familiar with the piece would think this must be the end of the symphony. They don’t have to have been roused from slumber nor of the opinion that the brass did exceptionally well this time.

    And a final wee point: I think Mr. Koven’s “we” is what goes under the name of “editorial we” rather than “royal we.” 

    Comment by Joe Whipple — November 14, 2011 at 12:06 pm

  9. I think that at this time, it is well to remember the best interests of classical music in Boston, and consider a music director who is able to connect with the players, who is agreeable to work with, and brings some much needed excitement to his performances. It is nearly impossible to obtain a ticket to Chung’s concerts in Seoul or in Europe, and even UNESCO has recognized the level of his humanitarian endeavours.
       Frankly, some of the other candidates for the BSO directorship have high degrees of ego and tantrums, which means a difficult tenure wherever they work. Chung is blessedly free of this.

    Comment by Dan Lobb — November 14, 2011 at 4:23 pm

  10. I love trolling.

    You old people probably don’t know what that is?

    “Nope, he does not think that he is better than everyone else, it is I am the one who think that I am better than everyone else. And why does it bother you?”

    No, I’m pretty sure I think I am better than everyone else. At least I would never say such a grammatically flawed statement like “it is I am the one” Why does it bother me? Because I care deeply about classical music and when dislikable jerks talk about classical music it gives a bad rep to all people who love classical music, and thus classical music itself.

    “Wow, Sam! Where this came from? Even if it was the case then why do you care? Are you sure that end of your comment was taken off? Is it possible that vampires begin slowly surround your and they just eat the end of your message? You know, they do it sometimes…”
    I’m glad you took my comment about Asian hatred as the joke that it was. I was hoping the vampires would laugh, in this instance. 

    Comment by Sam — November 14, 2011 at 6:16 pm

  11. Your ageism is showing, Sam. We geezers know about trolls, you young whippersnapper. At least some of us do. Sometimes we even enjoy feeding them.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — November 14, 2011 at 6:38 pm

  12. Aren’t ALL comments on blog postings essentially trolling??

    Comment by Waldo — November 14, 2011 at 11:53 pm

  13. Re: above comments.
     I wonder about people who complain about applauding between movements of an orchestral work. Do they also sit on their hands after a particularly thrilling aria at the opera? I’d be surprised if they did. Yet, though it’s perfectly ok (in fact, expected) to interrupt the dramatic flow of an opera with two minutes of applause, apparently it is not acceptable to let orchestra players and conductors know that a movement did what it is supposed to do: move you.

    If the dramatic and structural integrity of an opera is not harmed by occasional applause and cheers, why would a symphony be harmed by the same practice?  I wish I could remember who it was that pointed out that someone who can resist applauding between movements of  the Beethoven seventh must not really have been listening.  

    I think I’d rather join the applauders to express my appreciation of a fine performance than sit (smugly?) silent until the very end of the piece.
    After all, apparently the silent treatment between movements is a 20th century convention. From what I have read, it was not at all the case during the era when most of the music played now by symphony orchestras was written and originally performed.      

    Comment by Ed Dente — November 15, 2011 at 12:05 am

  14. Ed Dente,

    This is an old debate there are different views on the subject; from Glenn Gould to the valued opinions of individual football cheerleader. I am not looking to bring them all together but think about smoking. No one argues that it is your right to smoke wherever you wish. However, yours smoking also affect somebody right do be exposed to smoking. If you and I sit in the same concert hall then we have both identical rights and desire: you to applaud and me – do not hear the applauses. So, how can we rectify the situation? Well, we ban smoking in restaurants for instance…. So, you might think about not only your egotistic desire to express yourself after a nice play but also about the equally egotistic desires of somebody do not hear your expressions. Do you have a desire to express yourself after a nicely played phases or a particularly good transition in the middle of the movements? You perhaps do but you find in yourself some forces to hold yourself to the end of the movements.  So, treat the whole work as one continuing event/movement…  because it is.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — November 15, 2011 at 7:42 am

  15. “So, treat the whole work as one continuing event/movement…”

    Disturbed only by all the (passive-aggressive?) hacking, coughing and wheezing that occurs between movements? Wouldn’t you rather have applause?
    And I do believe most of it is passive-aggressive. It would have been interesting during the Levine year of Schoenberg/Beethoven to tabulate all the coughing during the Schoenberg pieces versus all that occured during the Beethoven works. I’ve got my money on Schoenberg at least two to one, (grin)

    Actually I am abivalent about between-movement applause. I’ll defend it, but I have to admit that I have never had the temerity to indulge in it myself. As much as I wanted to clap after that Tchakovsky march, I did, as I always do between movements, sit on my hands.

    Your points against applauding were well taken, and they present a cogent argument.  My thoughts boil down, I think, to two points:
    1. Classical music concerts ARE serious affairs, but when we make them SOLEMN events, we distort them.

    2. As I noted before, it may be that when most of these pieces were written, composers knew people would be clapping anytime they felt like it. Sometimes the orchestras would even be persuaded by the audience to repeat movements. Wouldn’t composers have been anticipating THAT  when they wrote, and not the church-like reverence modern audiences  demonstrate.

    However, in practical terms, I’ll keep on NOT clapping between movements, I guess. 
    (BTW, I would love to get input from musicians and conductors on this. Do they care? Do they find it distracting? Maybe I interpreted it incorrectly, but it seemed to me that they were chuckling about it when it occurred during the Tchaikovsky.) 

    Actually, what is most distubing to me at concerts is when a man or woman douses him/herself with a bottle of cologne. aftershave, or perfume and then sits down next to me. THAT really takes away from my enjoyment of the evening.           
      

    Comment by Ed Dente — November 15, 2011 at 4:15 pm

  16. The coughing etc. means they aren’t interested in the music. Obviously, when there’s no music being played, there is none to interest them. But what is really much more annoying than the between movement coughing is the fact that as soon as the music goes soft and slow, people lose interest and start thinking about their throats in sufficient numbers to guarantee us several coughs. And I haven’t noticed a correlation with the composer. They’ll cough as loudly and frequently during quiet Mozart as during quiet Carter.

    If I were Romy, I’d suggest stationing ushers around the hall with blowguns and tranquilizer tipped darts, with orders to “treat” quiet-music-coughers to an hour of comatose lassitude. Who knows, some might even get the message and load up on medicine beforehand or just stay away.

    I’m not surprised that the musicians were chuckling. They were probably thinking, “Fooled ’em again.”

    Comment by Joe Whipple — November 15, 2011 at 4:48 pm

  17. *** Classical music concerts ARE serious affairs, but when we make them SOLEMN events, we distort them.

    Are you trying to apply Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle to the observation of classical performance?

    Anyhow, I do not feel that luck of applauses makes event solemn but rather it makes event respectful. Trust me; musicians without any applauses have very clear idea about the value that they just delivered. Even heard the Gunter Wand’s Bruckner 8 live- in-church performance during 1979 where attendances were absolutely silent during entire play? The recoding of the event is available, right along with Wand’s commentaries that he never saw 3.500 people remind absolutely motionless for 10 minutes after the last bar of the symphony decayed. Nope, in case of Wand it was not Tchaikovsky march of cause but I do have some Tchaikovsky recordings that would NOT make to demonstrate animal listening instincts. Unfortunately the last week BSO play was not one of those events….

    Comment by Romy the Cat — November 15, 2011 at 7:25 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, this comment forum is now closed.