Just a word about why my wife Anne Midgette and I ended up with side by side reviews in the Washington Post this morning, even though I’m not a writer there. (She, of course, is the Post’s chief classical music critic.)
This isn’t the start of anything regular for me. I just filled in to solve a problem. Because of disruptive snow last week in Washington, the National Symphony’s schedule changed, and neither Anne nor any of her regular freelancers was available to review a reschedued concert. I offered to step in, if the Post approved. And then sadly had to give a bad review to a performance I’d expected to enjoy.
Such a disappointment
Those were the first words of my review, and I was truly disappointed. I’d expected to love an evening full of bonbons — fun Spanish pieces by Falla and Turina, plus the Villa-Lobos Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5 (how can anyone resist that melody?). Plus something from outside the classical world that I thought would be extra wonderful, a Portugeuse fado singer.
But the whole thing fell flat. You can read my review (here’s the link again) to see why.
Here, though, I’d like to say a little more, because in the Post I had very little space. This is no one’s fault, as I well know after working for decades as a journalist. You use the space you get, compressing what you have to say.
But no matter how well you compress, things get left out. So with more space, I might have said that the soloist in the Bachianas — though she did sound wan, as I wrote in my reivew — did briefly come to life in the hummed repeat of the unforgettable melody. A hush came over the music (until, sadly, the singer lost control of the final high note, and abruptly had to shorten it).
I also might have smiled a bit more about a 1986 piece by Cristóbal Halffter. I wrote that I liked the way bursts of noise teased some rich orchestral reiminaging of music from the Spanish Baroque and Renaissance. But with more space, I would added — remembering the European modernist pieces I’ve heard over many years — that the precise way that Halftter scored orchestral noise was a European modernist cliché. Which made the piece no less effective, but I did smile to myself. “Oh…those sounds again!”
And about the orchestra…
But what I most wish I could have said more about is the orchestra. Which I flagged in the review as the biggest problem at the concert. It played out of tune, really notably so, and (as I wrote) without much spirit.
To some extent the players had my sympathy, because the snow left them without one of their scheduled rehearsals. And then (as I didn’t have room to write) with one that had to be held the afternoon before the concert, which creates more of a rush than anyone would like.
All of which makes special problems because the music wouldn’t have been familiar. The Hallfter piece and the arrangements for the orchestra of fado songs would surely have been new. And the other works wouldn’t have been things the players know the way they know Beethoven and Brahms. Younger musicians in the orchestra might never have played some of those works at all.
And then the Villa-Lobos piece is tricky to play, because it’s scored only for the cellos, divided into many quickly moving parts. Losing a rehearsal, with this on the bill, wouldn’t have been welcome
Going into more detail
So if I’d had more space to talk about the problems in the orchestra — which I wish I’d had — I’d certainly have mentioned the Villa-Lobos. The cellists just didn’t sound together. Which seemed especially unfortunate because I could also hear what good cellists they were, taken individually. Quality musicians. But as a group, they hadn’t gotten it together.
Two other things in the performance were red flags for me, signs that the musicians — for whatever reason — weren’t playing as well as they might. There were, to start with, moments in the Halffter piece where the orchestra, loudly and, I’d hope, happily, were playing figurations on simple major triads. (This, in the piece, was the reimagined sound of a brass band.)
Which means that, for longish intervals, they played one unchanging major chord. So how hard should that be for the winds and brass to get in tune, however richly it was scored? Of course they heard what chord they were playing. Of course they know how to get a major chord in tune. So why didn’t they do it?
I remember a moment in a live performance of Berg’s opera Lulu, conducted by Karl Böhm and recorded on Deutsche Grammophon, which deacdes ago was the go-to recording of the opera. At one point, in the middle of the opera’s 12-tone writing, the orchestra converges on a C major chord. At first, in this performance, the chord is a blur. Then it comes together. You can almost hear the players saying, “Oh! C major!” And so they pull it into tune.
That’s what I would have thought the NSO players might have done, with the Halffter major triads. No matter how new the piece was to them.
And the second revealing moment — or collection of moments — came in the orchestral introductions to the fado songs. The arrangmenets didn’t sound very complicated, though that doesn’t mean an outsider should decide they’re easy to play. Maybe they were trickily scored — or badly scored — so they involved blends of instruments that aren’t obvious, and need some care to play. (My own music often is like that, something I fault myself for.)
But even so, did these introductions have to sound so ugly? So blaring, and so badly out of tune. Of course I wasn’t there, wasn’t at rehearsals, haven’t seen the scores, and haven’t played in orchestras myself. But still I have to ask why what sounds like direct and simple melodic writing wasn’t rendered with more care.
But what about…
…the conductor, Jesús López-Cobos? As I said in my review, surely he deserves some blame, despite his long inernational career. (And what I’d assume is his deep knowledge of the Spanish repertoire.) Again, what a conductor does can be risky for an outsider to judge. But anyone who knows orchestras knows that some conductors, by theier mere presence, get musicians excited to play to the best of their ability. Or even beyond that!
And then there are things conductors say at rehearsals, to fix problems that come up. Is the orchestra out of tune, or not together? At a Cleveland Orchestra rehearsal, I once saw Christoph von Dohnányi deftly fix exactly those problems in the chamber version of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll. He didn’t rage, he didn’t criticize. All he did was say, in a friendly way, “This is chamber music. Why don’t you sit a little closer together?” Even the Cleveland Orchestra has its off moments, and this had been one. The sound had been wretched. And with those simple words, Dohnányi made it glow.
Now, granted, he was the orchestra’s music director, and was at ease with the muscians (though earlier in the rehearsal he’d gone sharply after two young clarinetists, who’d been talking while the rest of the orchestra played). And of course this was the Cleveland Orchestra, which in those days was on top of the orchestral world.
But orchestras can snap to attention with guest conductors, too. As the NSO clearly did when I heard them withHerbert Blomstedt. They sounded radiant, thrilled to be playing. And beautifully in tune. The horns, in the scherzo of the Eroica symphony, played with golden joy that I’ll never forget.
The Cleveland Orchestra, too — when I was working with them on various projects — loved Blomstedt. He made those musicians just about sing and dance. Which wasn’t their style. Normally their great virtues were taut ensemble, subtlety, and a burnished sheen. But with Blomstedt they transformed themselves. (And, I was told, gave him a standing ovation at the end of his last rehearsal.)
Cutting to the chase
So another conductor might have galvanized the NSO. Or at least gotten them to listen to each other more. Even with all the difficulties — lost rehearsal, unfamiliar music — that couldn’t be avoided.
But I also thought, writing my review, that even without help from a conductor the musicians on their own should have done better. Some orchestras, I said, would insist on playing well no matter what went wrong.
I’ll admit that I was thinking of two uncommon orchestras. One is the Berlin Philharmonic, whose players, one of them once told me, signal each other when they hear a problem the conductor isn’t fixing. The other is the Cleveland Orchestra. Two decades ago I wrote a piece about their institutional culture, and in the 2000s I worked with them on several projects. Their musicians prided themselves on playing well no matter what. If a conductor didn’t meet their standards, they’d still play well, because now they felt even more responsible for the performance.
But maybe these are unfair comparisons. Other orchestras may not have those virtues. The internal culture at more than a few American orchestras doesn’t allow for what I’ve described in Berlin and Cleveland. Often enough I’ve heard orchestral musicians, either talking to me, or to others in conversations I’ve been part of, complain about conductors with bitterness that has to be heard to believed. It’s almost like a culture of self-described victims. Which surely doesn’t do anyone any good. Healthier to take pride in what you do, even if you have to do it when conditions are unpleasant.
Which brings me back to the NSO. I’ve heard them enough to know that, overall, they just don’t play as well as muscians of this high caliber should. There could be many causes for this, starting with their current music director.
But at some point this becomes a problem the musicians should address. Even if they don’t know a piece, even if the conductor isn’t helping, the musicians (as in the examples I gave) should hear what’s going on. And do everything they can — everything they’ve ever learned to do, playing chamber music and in orchestras, as professionals and even as students — to pull things together. And (though, once again, it can be risky to make judgments from the outside) at the concert I reviewed, I didn’t think I heard that happening.