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Froth Still Bubbling


Kristine Opolais and Jonas Kaufmann emote for Andris Nelsons (Chris Lee photo)
Kristine Opolais and Jonas Kaufmann emote for Andris Nelsons (Chris Lee photo)

The latest installment in the BSO’s marketing of its new, young maestro came in the delayed broadcast last Friday of the September 27th début of Andris Nelsons as the 15th music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra as interpreted and disseminated by PBS’s Great Performance Series. I’m borrowing and adapting my headline from Lee Eiseman’s review [here] of the live performance last September. But unlike Eiseman, I’ll concentrate more on the made-for-TV character of the event, its explicit texts and implicit subtexts, than on the performances themselves. The BSO gurus have created and shaped a package of images and sounds, hopefully targeting and engaging audiences beyond the usual subscriber base.

As we all know it’s a brave new world out there, and classical music is struggling to find an “in” with younger people, in an entertainment-based American society increasingly indifferent to the existence of high culture and to the music and art of the past. In this case, it’s clear that BSO management wants to stress the “people” aspect of their new appointment. The telecast began with a large outdoor banner of Nelsons’s image waving in the air outside Symphony Hall. And the musical performances themselves were punctuated with offstage comments by Nelsons and by his main collaborators, soprano Kristine Opolais and star tenor Jonas Kaufmann. Apart from their unquestionable talent, all of these artists look great in closeup on TV.

Nelsons’s commentaries centered on his personal enthusiasms in relation to the works he performed, his childhood, his partnership with Opolais, and their young daughter. The fact that his wife figured prominently in Nelsons’s inaugural concert, independently of the fact that she performed very well, surely has a lot to do with the wish to create a human face and a normal identity to the BSO’s leader on this go-around. And so, we got a lot of onstage family. But the resulting focus on brief, “greatest hits” opera excerpts for much of the performance, pushed the orchestra itself into a background, supporting role—somewhat unfortunate, in my view, considering the intrinsic importance of the inaugural event.

One of Nelsons’s later interview excerpts had him urging us all to make “classical music” (hmm, I become increasingly uncomfortable with that term) an important part of life; and who could argue with such a wish? I do note, however, that just beneath the marketing department’s intent to get us acquainted with an appealing and gifted young couple, we were offered a deeply conservative style of “light classics” programming, entirely Eurocentric, that would have been perfectly appropriate in Symphony Hall a century ago. Not so very forward-looking, in my view. The corporate, market-driven packaging, combined with the retro, Belle Époque programming style, left me feeling a little uneasy, even as we wish Nelsons well in his undertaking.

I found the orchestral and vocal sound I experienced via WGBH’s stereo signal to be cramped and compressed, with no sense of space or air. Seemingly an excessive use of noise reduction created a “deadness” in the spaces between the notes. The Tannhäuser prelude began too slowly, without the necessary sense of a forward-moving procession, but the effect in the hall, with its excellent acoustics to sustain the players, might have worked much better than what we got in our living rooms.

Joel Cohen is Music Director Emeritus of The Boston Camerata and Artistic Director of Camerata Mediterranea.


4 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. I agree with most of what is said above re programming most of all, but I don’t see how snippets of interviews with the star performers reflect any but the most traditional marketing to the usual audience. The fact that all are by some yardsticks young? It’s perfectly routine fare. Including some members of the orchestra was refreshing: Elizabeth Rowe, James Somerville, Malcolm Lowe are those I recall. An actual portrait of an orchestra member — the newest or youngest — might have addressed a marketing gap, but I don’t think marketing has a clue in any event.

    The opening history of the orchestra via its roster of music directors was embarrassing. Karl Muck’s internment as a enemy alien during World War I — just dropped as a fact…..and on to the French! There’s actually a gripping story there that should be told someday, especially the role of John R. Rathom, the rabid anti-German yellow journalist at the Providence Journal, the Rupert Murdoch of his day and then some. To see what Muck and Higginson were dealing with check out his bio on Wikipedia:

    The camerawork was humdrum, far from the best, and not helped by the spacious seating of the orchestra. Why the double extension for these works?

    Here’s the innovation I would have like to have seen for this broadcast. The soprano and/or her husband should have admitted that this Liebestod did not represent her best work and destroyed the tapes.

    And I have to note the caption on the photo above: “Kristine Opolais and Jonas Kaufmann emote for Andris Nelsons”. I thought they were performing a Puccini duet for the audience, and doing so in character.

    Comment by Raymond — May 31, 2015 at 6:30 pm

  2. There was more than the usual interaction between the conductor and the singing couple. Hence the caption

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — May 31, 2015 at 7:52 pm

  3. Joel hits the nail on the head- but there is so much more that needs to be said.
    Yes, the “younger-hipper-hotter” marketing triumvirate is a virus that is going around the classical music community at the moment, especially in Boston, of course deriving from pan-institutional panic about the empty seat crisis. It infuses “classical culture” with elements of pop-culture mores and aesthetics in an attempt to attract a younger but equally affluent audience.
    At its root, however, this is a lazy, cynical attempt by classical music organizations to maintain socio-economic status-quo of their “preferred audiences” without making any effort to develop meaningful educational programs that will, if well-planned and staffed with dedicated teaching artists, eventually fill seats.

    Comment by Ian Pomerantz — June 1, 2015 at 2:05 am

  4. La meme chose >40 years ago with Ozawa, beads, hair, marketing virus, attendance concerns.

    Comment by David Moran — June 1, 2015 at 11:32 am

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