By John Fleming
NAPLES, Fla. – The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra is routinely ranked among the world’s best orchestras. It has been molded by Willem Mengelberg, Eugen Jochum, Bernard Haitink, Riccardo Chailly, Mariss Jansons, and other podium eminences through its 130-year history, and its home hall in Amsterdam is an acoustical mecca. The orchestra is renowned for its Bruckner, Mahler, and Richard Strauss, and it boasts a discography of more than 1,100 recordings.
Given the elite reputation of the Concertgebouw, it came as a surprise that it made such an underwhelming impression Feb. 9 at Hayes Hall in the Artis-Naples complex, the first stop on a four-city U.S. tour, Daniel Harding conducting. It goes without saying that the orchestra’s sound was impressive, and it was a treat to hear soloist Pierre-Laurent Aimard in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 (Emperor). The concert was also an occasion to check out the ambitious visiting orchestra series that anchors the programming of Artis-Naples, the performing arts center in this affluent enclave on the Gulf of Mexico.
Even a great orchestra can have an off night. The U.S. premiere of Eiréné: Poème nocturne pour orchestre, a short work commissioned from French composer Guillaume Connesson, proved disappointing, and there were moments of less than immaculate playing in the Beethoven. Strauss’ mighty tone poem Ein Heldenleben, which took up the second half of the program, was the saving grace.
Trying to gauge orchestra chemistry is a loose game, but it’s possible that the RCO is somewhat adrift in the wake of Daniele Gatti’s dismissal last August after less than two years as chief conductor following allegations against him of sexual misconduct reported by the Washington Post. The search for a successor is likely to to take a while. Gatti was originally scheduled to lead the U.S. tour, and the orchestra scrambled to replace him with Harding, who is music director of the Orchestre de Paris. Recovering from a broken ankle he suffered in December, the British conductor came onstage with a cane. He was seated while leading the Connesson concert opener and the Beethoven piano concerto, but he stood to conduct the Strauss.
Connesson (born in 1970), recipient of many composition awards in France, is becoming known in the United States. Stéphane Denève, as principal guest conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, led three of his pieces during the 2017-18 season; Les Cités de Lovecraft, Connesson’s homage to occult novelist H.P. Lovecraft, was performed by the Indianapolis Symphony in January; and now the Concertgebouw is touring his latest symphonic work.
Eiréné, given its world premiere by the orchestra under Gatti last April in Amsterdam, shows Connesson’s penchant for music inspired by fantasy and myth, drawing its title from the Greek goddess of peace. As the composer said in a program note, it is very much “a study of silence and pianissimi,” a wisp of a piece full of hushed percussion, muffled trumpet calls, and busy little phrases in the winds, breaking into a section of sumptuous strings before fading away. A luminescent miniature in the manner of Debussy or Messiaen, the Poème nocturne was still and static on the surface while a constant undercurrent of movement pulsed beneath, but for all the technical finesse and intricate orchestration, it felt negligible. At less than eight minutes long, the music seemed to be over before it really got going.
Aimard is renowned for his playing of contemporary works, so it was kind of a guilty pleasure to hear him in that most standard of standard repertoire, the Emperor. He, of course, has mastered the Beethoven piano concertos, notably in a 2003 three-CD set of all five with Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe on the Teldec label.
With the Concertgebouw, Aimard’s dextrous, delicate trills and arpeggios got the Beethoven off to a suitably virtuosic start, but not far into the massive first movement, the ensemble between piano and orchestra turned muddy. Later, there was an iffy solo horn passage. The soloist took matters into his own hands by bringing a thrillingly muscular approach to the chromatic scales that introduce the exposition, as if he was trying to energize his fellow musicians, but the heroic struggle between pianist and orchestra seemed all too literal and strained. Harding was missing in action. The slow movement was a showcase for Aimard’s pearly touch, and the rollicking Rondo set the stage for a joyous finish. As an encore, he played the sublime Träumerei from Strauss’ Stimmungsbilder, Op. 9.
Ein Heldenleben also had a few frayed edges here and there, but all was forgiven amid the splendor of this work woven into the Concertgebouw’s DNA. It featured a brilliant performance by concertmaster Liviu Prunaru in the moody, extended solo that represents the hero’s companion, modeled on Strauss’ wife, Pauline, vividly expressing markings in the score that range from “frivolous” to “arrogant” to “nagging.” Never has a difficult woman been portrayed so lovingly.
The RCO had a second concert in Naples the next night, playing Mozart and Brahms symphonies, and then moved on to Chicago, Washington, and New York. Its performances in Florida were part of Artis-Naples’ visiting orchestra series that has featured numerous world-class ensembles. In 2018, the Vienna Philharmonic completed a three-year winter residency, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra begins its own three-year winter series Feb. 28 and March 2, with music director Riccardo Muti on the podium. The Cleveland Orchestra and music director Franz Welser-Möst also visited Naples this winter.
Until about 15 years ago, Florida was a virtual Valhalla for touring symphony orchestras during the high tourist season, with venues across the state presenting orchestras from North American and around the world between Christmas and Easter. But the market has changed with the times. The number of presenters committed to classical music has declined, as has the number of orchestras able to make a trek to the Sunshine State financially viable.
“It’s not only on the presenter side, but it’s also on the ensemble side,” said Kathleen van Bergen, CEO of Artis-Naples, who trained as a violinist and worked in artistic administration with the St. Louis Symphony and Philadelphia Orchestra before her arrival at the center in 2011. “When I was with St. Louis and Philadelphia, we would regularly come to Florida. In fact, the first time I came to Naples, in the early 2000s, was through St. Louis and Philadelphia tours. Now, not as many orchestras are touring.”
Artis-Naples is also home to the Naples Philharmonic, an excellent regional orchestra with a top-level music director, Andrey Boreyko, recently named music director of the Warsaw Philharmonic, beginning in 2019-20. Now in his fifth season with Naples, his contract runs at least through 2021.
“Andrey’s star is high, and we’re very proud of that,” van Bergen said. “We’ve had to share him with European orchestras for the length of his tenure here. He was in Düsseldorf, he was in Brussels, he was principal guest of the Basque National Orchestra, and now he’s going to be in Warsaw, a tremendous position for him. And yes, we are looking at the Warsaw touring schedule to see when we can bring them to Naples.”
John Fleming is president of the Music Critics Association of North America. He writes for Classical Voice North America, Musical America, Opera, and other publications. For 22 years, he covered the Florida music scene as performing arts critic with the Tampa Bay Times.