I’ve never seen such a crush of classical music personalities, as at the two concerts in New York this week by Dudamel and the Venezuelan youth orchestra. And then came three concerts by the Berlin Philharmonic, which of course has close ties with the Venezuelans. These five concerts together were the hottest classical music ticket in New York, and also meant a lot for the future of the field. I’m reviewing it all for the Wall Street Journal, so here I’ll skip any comments on the musical performances. But as for the future of classical music — on that I’ll have a lot to say.
First Berlin. Then, in another post, Dudamel.
The most astonishing thing about the Berlin players is that they move when they play. You can see the violinists putting their entire bodies into many bow strokes. You see them bend forward, then swing their bodies back. The basses were especially dramatic. The principal bass at Tuesday night’s concert all but spun his instrument during the Mahler Ninth. He just about danced with it. Sometimes the entire section almost danced, each player in his own way. And meanwhile, especially in the Mahler Ninth, the strings produced the biggest, deepest, most powerful and moving sound I think I’ve heard from any orchestra. I hope string players in other orchestras won’t be offended if I say they might as well cut their bows in half, because compared to the Berlin Philharmonic, they don’t seem to be using their entire bows. The Berlin sound was arresting, vivid, totally alive.
The basses could have moved the earth. And of course the strings — and the entire orchestra — could play softly, too. Together the Berlin musicians made Das Lied von der Erde(which I heard last night) sound like chamber music, so transparent, so vital, so wonderfully committed and unanimous.
Are the sound and the movement related? Of course they are. If you put your body into something, you get more power, more freedom, more control. I think everybody knows that. It’s true in sports, it’s true in dance, it’s true in walking down the street. If you hold your body stiffly, you’ll get tired. If you move freely, swinging you arms, if you fee like it, you’ll get a surge of energy. You could see the power of this, in the singers in Das Lied. Thomas Quasthoff swayed when he sang, moving the music with his entire body, not simply with his breath. His sound was supple, fluid, clear, astonishing. Ben Heppner stood there stiffly, and his voice was stiff. Of course you get more freedom when you move.
I know a bodyworker, an accomplished rolfer in New York, who works with dancers and musicians. He says he loves the Berlin Philharmonic. He had no idea that the musicians own the orchestra, that they’re the ones who’re in control. He just sees from the way they hold their instruments, he says, that they love playing more than other orchestras he sees.
So here comes the punch line, a truly brutal one. Classical musicians are taught not to move. I’ve heard that from my Juilliard students. Their teachers tell them not to move when they play. It’s undignified, they’re told, it’s not artistic. And after last night’s Berlin concert, after Das Lied, I ran into a musician I know who plays in one of America’s big orchestras. He was terrifically moved by the concert, and, like me, he’d noticed how the players move. He loved it, and understood, just as I did, how the movement helps the Berlin Philharmonic produce its sound. But at his orchestra, he said, he and his colleagues are forbidden to move.
This rigidity has got to go. We hear that in Berlin, the Philharmonic attracts a younger audience, that there’s excitement at their concerts. And no wonder. It’s not because of marketing, or gimmicks. It’s because they’re exciting to hear, and also to see. You know they care. You know they’re excited by the music. You can see it. Carnegie Hall was electric with their presence, as it was with the young Venezuelans, but never is — just never — with most other orchestras. (From my seat downstairs, I couldn’t see the winds and brass. They may have been — probably were — moving just like the strings, but I couldn’t tell.)
A footnote about some lovely musical details, the kind of thing I’d never have space for in a newspaper review. For Mahler’s Ninth (though not for Das Lied), the two violin sections sat opposite each other, with the violas on the inside. This is standard seating in some orchestras, and it’s always an option, especially powerful in music where the two violin sections are deliberately contrasted. You hear the contrast — or interplay — much more clearly.
But at the end of the Ninth, the seating paid another dividend. On the last page of the score, the violas play — from inside the musical texture — play an important motif, a little turn around A flat. They play it several times. It’s the last thing we hear in the piece, a close that’s anything but final, as if the music, rather than concluding, had simply faded away. And with the violas now sitting on the inside, the sound came not just from the middle of the orchestral texture, but literally from the middle of the orchestra. That made it more evocative. You couldn’t clearly see where it was coming from; it faded from the ear invisibly. And then something equally evocative was done with the solo cello line toward the end of the piece, the one that starts at measure 148 in the score. At measure 156, the line becomes prominent, though it’s marked ppp, as is everything that’s going on just then. The Berlin Philharmonic’s principal cellist, sitting at the front of the section, played it gorgeously, with clarity and quiet radiance (though above all with the inwardness the Germans call “innigkeit”. You could see him clearly.
Then, at measure 161, the score directs the solo cellist to play two notes muted, filling out the harmony otherwise created by the second violins, the violas, and half the rest of the cello section, also muted. But now the principal cellist didn’t play. The solo migrated to a back-stand player, who barely could be seen. This, of course, helped with one technical detail. The principal cellist didn’t have to put his mute on, maybe creating a visual distraction. But the move also helped the cello notes — now far less vital than the line the principal had played — take their place (like the viola turns) in the middle of the texture.
Maybe this is standard practice. Or maybe it’s a Berlin innovation. It’s smart and sensitive, either way.