A Tale of Three Orchestras

Richard S. Ginell - From Out of the The WestBy Richard S. Ginell: From Out of the West

Tchaikovsky is starting to burrow into my soul, wreaking havoc along the way with his tantrums and yearnings and giddy celebrations and black moods stamped with cunningly irresistible tunes that you can’t get out of your head.  That’s how Gustavo Dudamel’s TchaikovskyFest has messed with my mind over a period of 11 days and nights.

Yes, the performances have been, for the most part, super; it’s great to hear Tchaikovsky played all-out with fire and conviction instead of condescending routine.  Yet I’ve just about reached the limit of how much sustained emotional hysteria a sensitive nervous system can take. Studies have shown that most people in this world are non-sensitive types who have a higher threshold of stimulation and need more of it in order to feel anything.  No wonder Tchaikovsky is so popular.

Gustavo Dudamel in action with the L.A. Philharmonic (LA Phil)
Gustavo Dudamel in action with the L.A. Philharmonic (LA Phil)

The whole Tchaikovsky gorge-a-thon came to a humdinger of a climax Sunday afternoon (Mar. 2) as Walt Disney Concert Hall – sold-out, of course – rocked and rolled to a high-calorie assortment of Tchaikovsky pops that isn’t often programmed indoors anymore. The stage walls of Disney Hall were pushed back to their limits to accommodate both the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Simón Bolivar Symphony Orchestra (though not all members of both), and yes, when cranked up to the limit, they were LOUD. Gustavo’s podium was at a greater height than usual (shades of Leopold Stokowski in Fantasia) so that all the far-flung players could see him. Every piece got an instant standing ovation, and a couple of orchestra donors even asked me why the Phil doesn’t play this “popular” stuff more often.

Capriccio Italien opened with a huge, broad brass texture as wide and deep as the stage; the performance had plenty of juice and bounce. A roaring rush of sound and a huge cello-bass sonority launched a Francesca da Rimini in which the turbulent passages went at a Presto furioso pace, with white-hot chromatic strings that lifted me out of my seat. Oddly enough, the four waltzes from The Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker, Eugene Onegin and Swan Lake did not have the verve and swing that Dudamel is capable of delivering; the Onegin waltz certainly did the previous Thursday night with just the Philharmonic, the best performance I’ve ever heard of it.

It was weird to experience the 1812 Overture indoors minus pyrotechnical distractions, yet it was illuminating to hear someone at last take the piece seriously, with all the zip and vigor you would want and also passages of graceful repose shaped with care. No cannon shots this time; three percussionists whomping on six bass drums made all of the noise your ears could take, and the combination of outboard brass players, big brass bells, chimes, and Disney Hall’s pipe organ finished the 1812 off with a splendid piercing racket.  Not even the most hard-shelled non-sensitive person would need fireworks after that.

The next day (Mar. 3), it was off to Orange County’s Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall to see and hear an orchestra that lives half a world away from the Venezuelans geographically and stylistically.  This was the Vienna Philharmonic, the fabled, tradition-encrusted Vienna Philharmonic, making its fourth visit to Costa Mesa en route to a three-concert residency at UC Berkeley and stops at other California destinations. Daniele Gatti was supposed to lead the Viennese, but he was forced to cancel all his engagements for a couple of months due to inflamed tendons in his shoulders, so up stepped Lorin Maazel, once the artistic director of the Vienna State Opera himself, as a most-distinguished substitute.

Maazel, who turns 84 on Thursday (Mar. 6), walks slowly onto the stage now.  Although he is sparer in his motions with the baton, his amazing pinpoint stick technique is still operating, telling his players everything they need to know. Inheriting Gatti’s program, Maazel opened with a Schubert Unfinished Symphony in which the mystery of the first movement’s development was beautifully set forth, with a second movement where he simply let go and allowed the music to melt, flow and foliate in a luxurious way that lingered all through intermission.

Lorin Maazel led the Vienna Philharmonic (New York Philharmonic)
Lorin Maazel led the Vienna Philharmonic (New York Philharmonic)

Maazel’s conception of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 was pretty slow when he recorded it with the Vienna Philharmonic some three decades ago, and it has become even more so now – indeed, at nearly 65 minutes, the slowest I’ve ever heard.  Yet while Maazel’s Vienna recording held together with plenty of seductive charm, the Costa Mesa performance struck me as too much of a micromanaged thing, to the point where the lines fell apart.  Juliane Banse’s dark soprano has thickened and the wobble in her vibrato has widened since she made a lovely recording of the fourth movement with Boulez and the Cleveland in 1998; what was enticing then has turned too heavy now.

There were compensations – the delicious Viennese portamentos, the gorgeous way the musicians traced the curves, however eccentrically shaped. Yet I noticed an edge in the Vienna brass, a slight coarsening of the once-golden sound when the volume was turned up – or could that be due to Segerstrom’s acoustics?  Hard to say, since some critics heard something similar in Carnegie Hall last week, which a streaming of the Carnegie broadcast occasionally suggests. Also, could the canny Maazel have been tailoring his pacing to this hall – the longer the reverberation time, the slower you go in order to let the detail bloom.  Valery Gergiev admitted doing so when he brought the Mariinsky Orchestra here in 2010.

No matter; hearing the Vienna Philharmonic slow-dancing in core Viennese repertoire was mostly a marvelous way to coast serenely into a power-down mode after all of that turbo-charged Tchaikovsky.