Musical Explanation 2/12/16: The New York Philharmonic - Why It Sucks
(When the New York Philharmonic doesn't suck, they can shake the earth.)
Last week, I went to one of the most disappointing concerts of my life. I heard Semyon Bychkov conduct the New York Philharmonic in Mahler's Sixth Symphony and got a textbook lesson (as if I needed it) as to why the New York Philharmonic is the most disappointing orchestra in the world. I went because, five years ago, I heard a broadcast of Bychkov doing Mahler Six with the BBC Symphony that was one of the greatest performances I've ever heard of anything in my life. It was a logical, lyrical, almost Brahmsian conception of Mahler - fully rooted in German romanticism.
In this performance, the quiet moments were so beautiful that they were truly up to the standard of that BBC performance. But the New York brass blasted their way through Bychkov's delicately old-world conception with no regard for how they're upsetting those delicate gossamer textures. I have no doubt that assertive brass would work very well in a more flamboyant, Bernstein-like conception of Mahler. But every time the New York brass reared their ugly embouchures, it was as though another orchestra took over that was completely out of keeping with the interpretation. Before long, Mahler seemed again like the overlong bombastic composer everybody used to accuse him of being. Seemingly nobody, not even a conductor as great as Semyon Bychkov, can rein in these assholes. Everybody in the musical world knows: the New York Philharmonic is not an orchestra, it's a collection of egos. The Schumann 4 I heard from the Baltimore Symphony the week before was a hundred times more rewarding, and I didn't have to leave my back yard to hear it.
This is the orchestra that eats great conductors alive. They arguably sent Dmitri Mitropoulos, one of the greatest and still most underrated conductors who ever lived, to an early grave. They made John Barbirolli so miserable that he risked a submarine convoy to return to England during World War II to take over the Halle Orchestra in Manchester - at the time a third-rate orchestra. On Barbirolli's return trip, nearly half the submarines in the convoy sank.
Player for player, it is difficult to believe that the New York Philharmonic does not have the most talented orchestral musicians of any orchestra. It is practically a feeder orchestra for the most gifted graduates of the Juilliard school across the street from their concert hall at Lincoln Center. But the very talent of New York Philharmonic musicians breeds complacency. When the musician is arguably more gifted than the conductor, they don't feel they need to comply with the conductor's instruction. The result is more than just laziness, it's chaos. My guess is that there are ten second-tier American orchestras that consistently give more rewarding performances week by week than the Philharmonic does, because they're willing to work far harder at being an orchestra.
(When you compare the Toscanini of the pre-NBC years to the elderly Toscanini, it's like listening to a completely different conductor. The latter is a caricature of the conductor he clearly used to be.)
And yet, the tragedy of it is that when the New York Philharmonic is willing to work - as they were under Bernstein and Toscanini, and sometimes under Boulez and Gilbert, they can indeed sound like the world's greatest orchestra. They had a chance, yet again, under Alan Gilbert, to become something more than the mediocre ne'er-do-well House Band of the world's capital city. And they blew it. Gilbert is not a distinguished conductor of standard repertoire - who cares? That's what guest conductors are for. He was a planner of amazing musical events, the type that make classical music, that make art itself, a contemporary phenomenon rather than a dinosaur fossil. He was even the son of two New York Philharmonic violinists - he was one of their own, and they still couldn't manage to keep him for more than seven years!
The story of the New York Philharmonic is, in many ways, the story of classical music in America. Blessed by more talent than anybody knew what to do with, and yet never passing up an opportunity to pass up an opportunity. Every step forward in gaining a foothold on American life is followed by two steps back. Too much focus on virtuosity for its own sake and too little on the meaning of music. Occasionally, a visionary figure like Leonard Bernstein comes along and reminds everyone what music is capable of doing, but usually, the concerts have all the specialness of another day at a white collar office for overpaid gigging musicians.