Sunday, October 3, 2021

Baltimore Symphony Review #2: James Conlon

 You want to love James Conlon. Here is a musician so ferociously intelligent and articulate, with an immaculate conducting technique that supports his musicians with absolute security. He programs all sorts of extraordinary rare repertoire, and clearly has deep knowledge of his chosen scores. He mentors young musicians and happily engages with audiences as his intellectual equals. For nearly fifty years, he has lead the world's top ensembles with absolute consistency.

And therein lies the problem, he is much too good at what he does to be great. It comes so easily to him. On the podium he gives all the information musicians need and consequently gets wide dynamics, clear textures, elegant proportions, and crisp attacks. But few phrases are shaped, and there's little attempt to adjust the textures once they're clarified. Everything is unflappably reliable and seems planned years in advance.

One regretfully comes to the conclusion that here is a musician much too interesting to be extraordinary. He seems far too aware of the perils involved to risk a great performance. The greatest conductors are creatures of instinct, not intellect. Their risks in performance often risk failure, and I'd imagine that even in the worst circumstances, Conlon is so unflappably professional that he's saved hundreds of performances from disasters. 

Such musicians are usually best in the opera house, where they can give a perfect framework for great singers to shine and risk the transcendence Conlon would generously cede to them. His movies and live broadcasts of various Italian and French operas amply demonstrate his extreme capabilities in the pit. But in the concert hall, such self-effacement has not quite the same impact. 

In some ways, this sort of reliability is exactly what the Baltimore Symphony needs. No music director has done much to raise the standard of playing since the always missed David Zinman, and should he decide to stay more permanently than his current three-weeks-a-year Principal Conductor status, we would heartily welcome the development. Conlon is over seventy now but he looks almost exactly as he did in his 20s. He's never had a full-time appointment with an American orchestra where he can show the full extent of his concert capabilites - which after fifty years of experience could floor us all.  It's pretty clear he has another 15 years of full-time work left in him, and he could do marvelous things both in Baltimore and for Baltimore. 

But the program he chose to introduce himself to us was a curiously diffuse experience. Both works, William Dawson's Negro Folk Symphony and Alexander von Zemlinsky's Die Seejungfrau, are unsung masterpieces at the very fringes of the standard repertoire - marginalized because of the discrimination faced by African-Americans in the US, and Jews in old Europe. Conlon's work on behalf of the marginalized repertoire is one of the great musical deeds of our time, and there is no price we can put on the amount we owe him for introducing thousands to the great works of Zemlinsky, Schullhoff, Ullmann, and Braunfels.  

 Conlon trained the orchestra to performances of them that were, by objective standards, excellent - and all the more remarkable for the unfamiliarity of the repertoire.  And yet if he wanted to convince people of their transcendence, he didn't put the pieces at their best angle. Both pieces need leaders who grab the bull by the horns; who shape the phrases with meaning and interpret spontaneously. They need a Simon Rattle or Michael Tilson Thomas who lead with brash chutzpah. Conlon showed how well crafted these pieces are, but he did not show what was transcendent about them. 

To take one example: toward the end the second movement of the Negro Folk Symphony, there is a place where an overwhelming crescendo leads to a thwack of what sounded like a tam-tam. I'd imagine Dawson meant it as a passage of emotional agony. Conlon faithfullly observed the crescendo as doubtlessly written, and the tam-tam thwacked at what I think is the loudest volume I've ever heard from orchestral percussion. But the crescendo was so insufficiently large to what followed that it did not register as a properly emotional moment, it seemed rather like an inappropriate bit of extreme punctuation. 

Amid its very correct classical counterpoint, Negro Folk Symphony is full of queasy blues harmonies and aching melody. And yet for those of us who cherish the African-American musical traditions, the 'soul' of Howlin' Wolf and John Lee Hooker was insufficiently present in a manner which foreign-born conductors like Leopold Stokowski and Neeme Jarvi somehow understood how to imbue on their recordings. The Baltimore Symphony was obviously unfamiliar with the work and the string sections lagged a bit behind their leaders, and yet Conlon's infallible technique kept ensemble completely cohesive. 

Die Seejungfrau is one of the most exquisitely crafted orchestral works ever written, and Conlon amply demonstrated it. It is also a work of extreme fin-de-siecle romanticism, transmitting to the ear the high feeling that Rilke transmits to page and Klimt to canvas. The textures were all there, the and the BSO's playing of this unfamiliar work felt clear as a bell. What was missing was the extreme erotic longing of the mermaid for her prince - one feels that vulnerability particularly well in Marc Albrecht's recent recording with the Netherlands Philharmonic.

There is no way in which James Conlon is not as excellent a conductor as exists. But excellence is sometimes procured at transcendence's expense, and in that sense, Conlon often does not generate the inspiration which conductors often do who, objectively speaking, are much worse. 

New Music Director Candidate #2:
James Conlon - 8/10

Stokowski does the Negro Folk Symphony:

Andrey Boreyko does Seejungfrau (why oh why is he not being considered for the BSO? If he committed to staying for more than a decade he'd be the best candidate since Markus Stenz. 

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