Friday, January 29, 2016

Musical Explanation 1/29/16: Zweden Conducts

If you play it loud enough, you could swear this clip from Tchaikovsky 4 was the Leningrad Philharmonic in their glory days. The skill is unmistakable, so is the virtuosity, the flash, the precision. It's not deep stuff, but the craft that goes into it is remarkable. To think that this level of virtuosity can be found in an orchestra not from Chicago or Philadelphia, but from Dallas, makes it doubly stunning. When you consider that this level of virtuosity was created in just 7 years, it begins a once-in-a-generation miracle.

There are philosopher-poet musicians who search for musical meaning, and then there are musicians who view music a bit like a military exercise. Of the conductors among this latter type, they create precision tooled instruments that inevitably seem a bit cold, but the standard and excitement of the playing are electrifying. I prefer the former, everybody should, but there's no shame in the latter - a kind of musician which always thrived in America.

America is not the land of classical music. We've had our share of imaginative European musicians who've thrived here, and there are obviously deep Americans musicians like Leonard Bernstein and Yehudi Menuhin and Charles Ives and Lorraine Hunt Liebersen, but our great philosopher-poet musicians were generally found in non-classical genres. What we've always had in this country in spades is musicians who treat classical music like showcases for their unbelievable work ethic. It may seem excessively shallow at times, but there is no shame in virtuosity. During the postwar years when Europe's culture was depleted by death, America did its best to preserve European musical traditions. Whether it was through the massive funding of the Marshall Plan or the fanatical work ethic of our classical musicians or the civic efforts Americans made to create great orchestras so we too could appreciate the world's greatest music, our country has, in our own way, done superbly well by classical music. In the best American traditions, classical music is a matter of civic pride - it's as much of a given as literacy itself that knowledge and study of absolute music will lead to a better life.

Jaap van Zweden is clearly a throwback to this postwar era - a relic who comes to us from the days of Toscanini, Reiner, Rodzinski, Szell, Ormandy, Dorati, Solti, Leinsdorf. Most of the great American orchestras became great because they had European trainers who ruled the orchestras like European dictators. Their word was law, and no dissent was brooked. A musician could be fired on the spot with no recourse. It must have been terrifying, but the results in performance speak for themselves. The explosiveness of these maestri's personalities was reflected in their performances - to this day, these are performances that may not bring you to tears, but they will leave you open mouthed with awe.

In recent weeks, it seemed almost a given that he would eventually be offered the New York Philharmonic - the worst possible orchestra you can create from the world's greatest musicians. When facing a true visionary like Leonard Bernstein or Dmitri Mitropoulos, the results could be transcendent. When facing anything less than that, the results can be too banal to merit description. To be the music director of an orchestra so cocky that they'd even run Mitropoulos and John Barbirolli out of town merits the description of an impossible job.

Their recent history has been a catalogue of missed opportunity after missed opportunity. Their current director, Alan Gilbert, was the child of two Philharmonic musicians. It was hoped that their days of hopping from one itinerant music director to the next were finally over. Gilbert is not a great conductor of mainstream repertoire, but he is a superlative one of modern repertoire who vastly expanded what they played.

The history of American music has yet to be written, and in our era when the lines between classical and popular music are increasingly blurred, Gilbert could have been an ideal figure to minister something like a merging of these two cultures that need each other so desperately. He is a fearless champion of the most complex scores, and for the first time since Pierre Boulez, the New York Philharmonic's events were noticed by people outside the bubble of their dying subscriber base; it should have been a Golden Era. Unfortunately, the conservatism of old was still powerful enough to win out.

Zweden comes to the New York Philharmonic as the ideal conjurer of the old America. New York could have done much worse, he will perform new music and ensure that this brilliant but lazy orchestra will never sleep through their performances. There is no question that he is an extraordinary musician - accepted at the Juilliard school when he was just sixteen, three years later the concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. His craft as a musician is beyond question. His dictatorial temperament is also beyond question, as explosive fights in Dallas have now gone public. There is simply no way that this famed 'conductor killer' among orchestras will not clash with this famously authoritarian figure. To be sure, there will be highlights in his tenure, but the real performance will be how he leaves.

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