Opening Nights and Otherwise

by Sedgwick Clark

Deep thought of the day: Every performance is different.

Second deep thought: Every listener hears the performance differently.

Two weeks ago I wrote at the end of my “Valery the Variable” blog that opening-night critics had lambasted Valery Gergiev’s conducting of the Met’s Eugene Onegin (9/23) as unbearably slow and stodgy. Having found in the past that the last performance in a series was his best, I deliberately waited for the sixth and last one (10/12) and found that I “couldn’t imagine more effective, naturally flowing tempos.” Last weekend I heard the beginning of Gergiev’s Met broadcast of Onegin on SiriusXM radio—obviously an earlier performance—and it was indeed unbearably slow and stodgy.

Is Esa-Pekka Salonen the anti-Gergiev, by which I mean that one should try to attend his earliest performances? Jay Nordlinger in The New Criterion and Anthony Tommasini in the New York Times rhapsodized about every note of E-P’s excellent program with the Philharmonic, based around the New York premiere of his recent Violin Concerto and performed five times. Ravel’s Ma Mère l’oye Suite gently opened the concert, and Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony brought it to a roaring close.

I heard the final concert of the series, and my reaction contradicts nearly everything they wrote about the Ravel and Sibelius works. We were much closer in our perceptions of the second work performed—of Salonen’s Violin Concerto (2009) with a fiery Leila Josefowicz as soloist, which evidently received the most rehearsal (and Tommasini’s consideration in his review). The concerto is very easy on the ears, as his music increasingly became while discovering the basic repertoire on the Los Angeles Philharmonic podium over 17 years. Brilliant moments abound, but I miss a sense of structure, a feeling that the piece is going somewhere. (No difficulty in this regard with the Sibelius Fifth, that’s for sure.) So I look forward to auditioning these artists’ L.A. recording on DG and seeing what I think after repeated hearings.

It’s no surprise that I sense a lack of direction in Salonen’s compositions because I often find little detours in his conducting of other composers’ works. Take Ravel, for instance: In the third movement Salonen adopted a slower tempo for a ten-bar transition between numbers 6 and 7, and then again for a similar transition between 16 and 17, which only served to break the music’s stride. And talk about breaking stride, he slowed markedly for the majestic horn theme (deciso) in the finale of the Sibelius, sapping its inherent energy.

Perhaps due to exhaustion—rehearsal of a new program in the morning and the previous program for the fifth time in the evening—the Phil’s playing in the Sibelius was surprisingly lacking in transparency on Tuesday. Jay wrote of the first note of the Sibelius being “absolutely together” and the horns playing in “flabbergastingly fine shape.” On Tuesday, the first note was ragged and the horn fished the opening solo. Moreover, pianissimo playing was never quiet enough, most distressingly in the ppp Misterioso section in the finale. I wonder what it was like on opening night.

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