Venerable Leipzig Orchestra Upholds Its Historic Image

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Riccardo Chailly led the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig at the Dresden Music Festival.
Riccardo Chailly led the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig in concert at the 2014 Dresden Music Festival.
By William Littler

DRESDEN – Among American universities few command the financial resources to bring major orchestras to campus, but at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor such visits have long ornamented an annual music festival. One of those orchestras in years past happened to be the venerable Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig, reputedly the oldest such ensemble in the world.

The Leipzigers’ visit, because it took place not long after the tearing down of the Berlin Wall and the unification of Germany, attracted music critics curious to assess the current state of arguably the jewel in the former German Democratic Republic’s musical crown.

Felix Mendelssohn, one of the Gewandhaus' conductors.
Mendelssohn was one of the Gewandhaus Orchestra’s early leaders.

I, for one, was not disappointed. The legendary dark sonorities were still there, along with an acute sense of ensemble perhaps easier to achieve in a closed society such as East Germany’s, philosophically based on the ideal of common effort.

Kurt Masur, the orchestra’s long serving music director (and a key player in the bloodless revolution that toppled the East German Communist regime) agreed to meet the press and during the course of a collective interview expressed the fear that he would soon lose some of his best players to higher-paying western orchestras.

More than two decades later, a wage disparity between eastern and western Germany, although lessened, still exists, and if some of Masur’s players did leave, anyone who heard the orchestra’s June 9 concert at the Dresden Music Festival would have found it hard to deny that the orchestra once led by Felix Mendelssohn still ranks among the finest in Europe.

Kurt Masur at the time of Germany's  reunification.
Masur, Oct.’89, unification nigh. (kurtmasur.com)

Dresden lies only an hour and a half or so by train from Leipzig, and the two cities have long been Saxon rivals, not least in the musical realm. Like the Dresden Staatskapelle, the Gewandhaus is an opera house orchestra, liberated intermittently from pit duties, with both orchestras benefiting in flexibility from service to the singing voice.

If anything, the Gewandhaus Orchestra has further benefited from the presence on the podium of Masur’s successor, the Italian maestro Riccardo Chailly, whose extensive operatic experience (in 2015 he takes musical charge of La Scala, Milan, no less) seems to have contributed as well to a lightening and brightening of its tonal palette.

The Leipzigers’ Dresden program, though steeped in German tradition, sounded anything but Germanically heavy in Chailly’s hands. Opening with a crisp, dramatic reading of Mozart’s Idomeneo overture, using reduced forces, the former chief conductor of Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra proceeded to a reading of Brahms’ Serenade No. 2 notable for warmth, tonal softness, and a singing line.

Richard Strauss, composer of tone poems, in 1888.
Richard Strauss, composer of tone poems, in 1888.

But both works really amounted to appetizers preceding the main course, a pair of early Strauss tone poems daringly presented on the stage of the composer’s favorite venue, the Semperoper Dresden.

Death and Transfiguration and Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks are so familiar as orchestral showpieces that it was refreshing to hear them not only meticulously rather than blatantly played but performed by an orchestra that always seems to function as an ensemble.

Major North American orchestras are typically full of outstanding first-desk players who like to stand out. By way of contrast, the players of the Gewandhaus Orchestra always seem to be listening to each other to make sure the solos remain in correct proportion to the tuttis.

Richard Strauss, himself no mean conductor, was reportedly asked by a younger colleague if he had any advice. ”Yes,” Strauss is reputed to have said, ”Never look at the brasses. It only encourages them.”

Well, the brasses of the Gewandhaus Orchestra played brilliantly but with a collective restraint I tend to associate primarily with the Cleveland Orchestra among comparable American orchestras. Even when Chailly gestured quite theatrically to his players, they never broke ranks to blurt out their solos.

By the way, the audience at the Dresden Music Festival appeared to realize that something special was happening at that concert. A wonderful moment of silence preceded each burst of applause. That silence was golden.

William Littler, veteran music columnist of The Toronto Star, also teaches at the Royal Conservatory of Music and is co-author of a recent history of Toronto’s principal concert hall, Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait.