Sunday, February 7, 2016

Musical Explanation 2/6/16: A Tribute to Mario Venzago

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The difference between star conductors and the B-and-C list is so negligible that you have to wonder if the difference between the conductors of the Baltimore Symphony and the Chicago Symphony is non-existent. Even in Baltimore, are three truly great conductors who regularly come to the BSO. We're extremely lucky to have Marin Alsop here, but I don't think anybody is mistaking her for greatness. She's exactly what American orchestras of today require, the more unusual the music, the more interesting she becomes. When the piece is the usual Beethoven or Mozart, Alsop sounds like she would rather be anywhere else in the world. If we want to save classical music in America, we need musicians who can build a stronger American identity within it. This country's had more great performances of European music than it's ever known what to do with. We need American musicians who can rebuild American classical music in America's image.

Fortunately, we have three masterful and underrated European conductors who come through town regularly. To single them out is not to denegrate the ever-reliable Gunter Herbig who can give us music making that's echt-German to the marrow. Or the flamboyantly virtuosic even if slightly slick Hannu Lintu, who conducts as though he can make any orchestra operate like a sportscar that can easily turn the most excitingly dangerous corners. Or the extremely un-German sounding German, Jun Markl, whose performances are so light on their feet that he can even make Brahms dance.

But I would stake that there are three true masters who come to Baltimore whom I want to hear everything they do. The first is the Spaniard, Juanjo Mena,  a wizard of color. Whether it's virtuoso Tchaikovsky and Ravel, or the heaviest Beethoven and Bruckner, every performance seems like an ever shifting kaleidoscope of sound that can move with seemingly infinite control over the entire dynamic spectrum.

If Juanjo Mena seems like a painter, then Markus Stenz seems like a novelist. The German Stenz is one of the few conductors in any generation who can seem like a genius of the profession. He has a conducting technique that is almost Carlos Kleiber-like in its sophistication, and like Kleiber, Stenz literally seems to be using his body language to tell a story through the music. Like a great novelist, he uses his amazing technique to strike a balance between the grand sweep of the music while pointing up thousands of subtle details without drawing attention to them.

There is no art concealing art in Mario Venzago's music making. The poetry Venzago discovers is more valuable even than what a conductor of genius can do. He conducts like a master musician who happened to choose conducting as his means to express music. His understanding of the music is so utterly innate that he can do all sorts of spontaneous and bizarre sounding things to the music, and make them sound even more innate and natural than had the orchestra played it through with no inflection at all. A great conductor like Stenz can give you the performance you've heard in your head but despaired of ever hearing live, but a poet-musician like Venzago can give you a performing experience you never dreamed of having, as though every moment of the music takes on a new meaning you could never discover on your own.

Now that he's in his late 60's, the fact that Venzago never became Music Director of one of the world's great orchestras is a tragedy for music, but the fact that he never became music director of the Baltimore Symphony is a tragedy for us. It's the very explosion of his charisma that prevented him from having a large career. Nobody important took a chance on Venzago because he is so un-Maestro like. He's very much a performer, and a highly charismatic one, but to watch him bounce around onstage or in interviews is a bit like looking at Robin Williams. I'm sure many people reasoned that a musician this funny and clownish could not possibly be a deep musician. But it's the very charismatic eccentricity of his persona that should announce to everybody what a brilliant musician he is. This incredibly convivial, warm, funny, and popular musician would have suffused whatever good orchestra took a chance on him with greatness.

From Venzago I've heard what I expect to be the greatest Franck Symphony of my life, I've heard what's still one of the two greatest Beethoven 5's, I've heard among the best Mozart, Wagner, Schubert, and Verdi, I ever expect to hear. Venzago is precisely the sort of joyful, spontaneous, forgotten more than we'll ever know, musician that I wish I could have been. According to an old article from the Baltimore Sun, his two favorite conductors are Toscanini AND Furtwangler. Here, finally, is a conductor who neither shortchanges Toscanini's vitality or Furtwangler's vision. All that matters under Venzago is the vividness of the experience. Under his baton, music is more than a great experience, it is a living, pulsating thing - alive with vision and intimacy.

Vision and intimacy were the two words that kept occurring to me tonight as I heard a Schumann 4 utterly unlike any I've ever heard. So many musicians plow right through the weird byways and indentations of Schumann's music - no doubt thinking of them as structural flaws that show how inadequate Schumann was to the task of making a symphony sound like Beethoven. But what if Schumann meant for this music to sound utterly different than Beethoven?

In Venzago's Schumann, no alleyway was unexplored. Every 'structural flaw' was played so far out that one began to think that these so-called 'flaws' are the most important part of Schumann's music. Tonight, orchestral Schumann was not merely a second-hand copy of Beethoven, he was his own composer, pursuing a unique vision utterly unlike anyone's. A Schumann who entered a whole new universe of poetic meaning which often never occurs to even the best musicians. I wish I could ever hear a Schumann symphony performed again like it was tonight, but I fear it will not.

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