Posts Tagged ‘Mariss Jansons’

MPhil Bosses Want Continuity

Wednesday, January 31st, 2018

Valery Gergiev and Munich Philharmonic Intendant Paul Müller in 2017

Published: January 31, 2018

MUNICH — Contrary to a London blog report yesterday, nothing has been “locked down” with regard to a contract extension for Valery Gergiev at the Munich Philharmonic, though things are indeed moving in that direction, for practical more than artistic reasons.

What has happened is that Hans-Georg Küppers, Kulturreferent of the City of Munich, which operates the orchestra, has gone public with his resolve to recommend a full five-year renewal for the Russian maestro to the city council at its scheduled Feb. 21 meeting. Any contract-signing would naturally take place later.

Küppers, MPhil Intendant Paul Müller (pictured last year with Gergiev), and Munich Bürgermeister Dieter Reiter are all inclined on continuity because 2020, when the present contract expires, heralds the lengthy and probably tortuous closure of the MPhil’s Gasteig home for gutting — at which time the musicians must decamp for a temporary wooden hall next to a power plant up the Isar River.

Gergiev has been no more of a musical success here than anyone predicted, but the high tensions around his friendship with Vladimir Putin — at fever pitch in 2013 when he was hired — have abated, and artistic decision-making since he began his tenure 29 months ago has gone smoothly.

Regarding other jobs around town, rumors persist that Vladimir Jurowski has joined Andris Nelsons im Gespräch for Kirill Petrenko’s position as Generalmusikdirektor at Bavarian State Opera. Petrenko steps down in fall 2020 after an unprecedented single season as head both of Germany’s largest opera company and of the Berlin Philharmonic. No rumors are yet floating about a successor to, or a renewal for, Mariss Jansons, whose contract at the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra is up one year after Gergiev’s.

Photo © Florian Emanuel Schwarz

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Jansons Turns 75

Friday, January 12th, 2018

Mariss Jansons and Martin Angerer in rehearsal in Munich’s Gasteig in January 2018

Published: January 12, 2018

MUNICH — Against the medical odds, perhaps, Mariss Jansons turns seventy-five on Sunday, still adored by his favorite orchestra. Bavarian Broadcasting marks the occasion with a 44-minute video portrait, Im Zeichen der Musik, or In the Music’s Character, freely watchable. Last evening here at the Gasteig, a subscription concert of the Symphonie-Orchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks paraded contrasting sides of the musicians’ long union with Jansons, and everyone’s versatility. Martin Angerer navigated the elegant byways and tricky trills of Hummel’s Concerto a trombe principale (1803) with apparent ease in its original key of E, tidily accompanied. In an interview, the section principal distinguished this “godly” tonality from the “mundane” feel of E-flat, taken often in a convenience edition of the Hummel he deems a “stab in the heart,” but he stopped short of chancing the performance with the kind of Klappen-Trompete used originally, preferring the luxuries of a modern American piston instrument. (Soloist and conductor are pictured midweek.) Genia Kühmeier, Gerhild Romberger, Maximilian Schmitt and Luca Pisaroni made an impeccable quartet for the program’s main work, after the break, Beethoven’s C-Major Mass (1807), although the bass for some reason sang half-voice. The BR Chor glowingly intoned its lines yet struggled to focus the words in the acoustically poor venue. Jansons led supportively but as always from the ground up, never from the bowels of the Earth, and showing no inquirer’s zeal for the imaginative score. His clinical manner and the Bavarian players’ skill found their most persuasive outlet in an episodic exercise in chromatic unrest at the top of the evening: the Symphony in Three Movements (1945) of Stravinsky. Here, structure reigned, details sparkled, and the con moto third movement sounded (suitably) die-cast. It was in 2003 that this celebrated partnership began, since when the demanding and fussy but personable Latvian maestro’s contract has been renewed with accelerating commitment: for three years in 2013, and for three more years less than two years later — right after he sounded receptive to a theoretical, but as it turned out imagined, offer in Berlin. Which takes us up to 2021, past several happy birthday returns.

Photo © Bayerischer Rundfunk

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Bumps and Bychkov at MPhil

Thursday, June 25th, 2015

Semyon Bychkov in 2013 in London

Published: June 25, 2015

MUNICH — 2014–15 has been a rough transitional season for the Munich Philharmonic. Lorin Maazel’s sudden resignation a year ago forced its managers into much recasting, and some feeble programs. Then, midseason, came worse news. An irksome pact between Munich’s Bürgermeister Dieter Reiter and Bavaria’s Minister-Präsident Horst Seehofer nixed plans for a needed new concert hall to replace the Gasteig and instead envisioned a joyously slow disemboweling and inner rearrangement of that acoustically poor facility, which would leave the MPhil homeless starting in 2020. The pact sent Anne-Sophie Mutter, Christian Gerhaher and Mariss Jansons into public displays of betrayal, rage and frustration, respectively. But MPhil managers could not whine so loudly because the city owns the orchestra, so, a week behind everyone else, including the testy Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (also affected), they emitted six splendid bureaucratic paragraphs saying absolutely nothing.

Somehow the musicians have ploughed through this temporum horribilis and on Monday (June 22) managed to sound confident and poised at the Gasteig under Semyon Bychkov. Grandly he propelled them in Brahms’s Third Symphony (1883) stressing contrasts and drama with wide arm gestures. Fine wind contributions, not least from principal horn Jörg Brückner, flattered the score’s textures, and Bychkov took a pleasingly weighty and leisurely approach to the middle movements, observing dynamic markings with care. Ravel’s G-Major Piano Concerto (1931) after the break found everyone on less sure footing, however, despite this being the program’s third iteration. Jean-Yves Thibaudet gave a dull, woolly account of the solo part. Ensemble weakened. The long concert remained in French mode for its conclusion, Debussy’s La Mer (1905), but this listener had to run.

Tomorrow, the same partnership performs in the Pala de Andrè as a guest of the Ravenna Festival. MPhil 2014–15 closes fully with concerts here led by Kent Nagano and Krzysztof Urbański, but in September more headaches loom when Valery Gergiev takes over as Chefdirigent. Systems are supposedly in place to prevent the skimpiness of preparation associated with the new boss. It is unclear what, if any, measures are in place to cope with the political challenge.

Photo © Chris Christodoulou

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Berlin’s Dark Horse

Friday, May 1st, 2015

Vladimir Jurowski

Republished: May 4, 2015

MUNICH — Word around town has it that Christian Thielemann holds the biggest committed block of votes heading into next Monday’s Berlin Philharmonic election. The rest, so the scuttlebutt goes, divide widely, in part reflecting the musicians’ open-nomination process.

That this Chefdirigent transition is much discussed up here in Bavaria comes as a surprise. The Berliners years ago lost their dominance among German orchestras, notably with the return to glory of the older Leipzig Gewandhaus and Dresden Staatskapelle, which since reunification in 1990 have been solidly funded by their Saxon Government and are now routinely televised under their conductors Riccardo Chailly and Thielemann.

But discussed it is, probably out of happy fascination that a body of 124 tenured musicians actually enjoys the freedom in this corporate-political world to determine its own artistic path. The process certainly beats officials deciding, or a clubby mixed committee. If voting on May 11 yields no “clear majority,” a shortlist will be drawn up and a second round held, at which time the less committed will shift. Naturally the winner has the option of declining the offer.

Another surprise, two weeks ago, was Mariss Jansons’ casual comment during the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra’s season news conference to the effect that “we will see what happens” in Berlin. It had been assumed here that the 72-year-old was not a candidate, considering the health problems that led him to resign from Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw Orchestra. Apparently he is.

Thielemann would be the first German to hold the lofty post since Wilhelm Furtwängler died 61 years ago, no minor consideration in this resurgent and recently enlarged nation. He might be perfect for it. Imaginative and commanding, magnetic and familiar, he would bring skills in Schumann, Brahms, Bruckner and Strauss that are unquestioned.

More pertinently he appears the best-attached of any potential candidate to prospects for robust earned incomes for the players, what with the global viewership he pulls in Dresden and the rapture he engenders in such disparate places as Beijing and Baden-Baden, Abu Dhabi and Vienna.

But for several reasons the Thielemann candidacy could collapse. He sits pretty at present in the refurbished Saxon capital, tied majestically to Salzburg through leadership of the Herbert von Karajan-founded Easter Festival, and so he may push for too much from an interested Berlin, for instance by seeking lifetime tenure in emulation of Karajan. Rumored to be right-wing politically, and not shy, he may open his mouth in ways that portend headaches for Berlin’s politicians, city or federal: he already has, in fact, in guarded support of the anti-Islam Pegida movement, crossing Angela Merkel’s position.

Most ruinously, and quite realistically, the entrenchment of his voting support among the musicians may produce an equally stubborn, larger, anyone-but-Thielemann faction that would only need to agree on someone else.

The divided nature of the non-Thielemann vote points to the dilemma facing the Berliners should electing him prove impossible. Far from a glittering array of options, the promise is of awkward rounds of eliminations driven by commercial requisites, institutional pride and vital timeframes. These are clear enough to seem to leave just one candidate, a dark horse as the grapevine discussions presently go.

To state the obvious, the orchestra needs a renowned, enthusiastic, hugely talented money-maker. Someone it can successfully promote and who can reciprocate. Someone who can put in a decade or more on the job, history suggests. The choices thin out abruptly.

Age, health, or crested fame surely bars Daniel Barenboim, Herbert Blomstedt, Chailly, Charles Dutoit, Bernard Haitink, Marek Janowski, Jansons, James Levine, Zubin Mehta, Mikhail Pletnev, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, Michael Tilson Thomas. What kind of signal about the future would such an appointment send? Sensibly, and maybe on advice, Barenboim has publicly withdrawn.

Conversely the Berlin organization takes itself too seriously to reach down to the unknown, as the Los Angeles Philharmonic once boldly did with Esa-Pekka Salonen, and in any case has no Ernest Fleischmann to guide and impose such an initiative. Even if it could, a number of superb young conductors have not yet proven themselves in the orchestra’s core repertory (and indeed Salonen never did): Lionel Bringuier, Constantinos Carydis, Eivind Gullberg Jensen, Tomáš Hanus, Michele Mariotti, Diego Matheuz, Vasily Petrenko, Krzysztof Urbański.

No, the Berlin Philharmonic is restricted to what should be a plentiful middle field: men and women mainly in their 40s and 50s. The talent is there, as always, but the “names” are few thanks to a generational blip in the star system.

Reputations used to be sealed by the record industry, where imagery, repertory assignments and regimentation by label created and conferred prestige — not least on the future Berlin Chefdirigents Karajan, Claudio Abbado and Simon Rattle (all using English orchestras).

But when the industry imploded after 1990, so did this system. And two exceptions to the implosion do nothing for Berlin’s musician-voters today: in the Russian repertory, where pent-up demand for Western-controlled recorded surveys (suddenly enabled under the coincident Yeltsin regime) catapulted the name Valery Gergiev; and in the ongoing period-instrument movement, elevating William Christie, John Eliot Gardiner, Marc Minkowski and lesser talents.

The result is a dearth of famous conductors in precisely the age group Berlin must select from now. Stéphane Denève? Thomas Hengelbrock? Manfred Honeck? Known and most worthy, but not today the stars they would have become had the labels continued with their earlier promotional practices.

The names that can be shortlisted soon dwindle upon mundane consideration. Gustavo Dudamel, Gergiev, Riccardo Muti and Yannick Nézet-Séguin are contracted elsewhere until at least 2020. A Briton to follow a Briton would not sit well politically, nixing Ivor Bolton, Gardiner, Daniel Harding and Antonio Pappano. Limited appeal in Germany precludes Myung-Whun Chung, while Simone Young has rather overstayed in Hamburg. Nor can the musician-voters take someone who has stormed out: Fabio Luisi or Franz Welser-Möst.

Electing a conductor who is just getting started in another job, or on a sure separate trajectory, would cast the Berliners as unimaginative poachers, ruling out Iván Fischer, Philippe Jordan, Andris Nelsons, Kirill Petrenko and Tugan Sokhiev. And despite the admirable broadening of the orchestra’s operational scope under Rattle, it would never work to bring in a specialist: Giovanni Antonini, Christie, Emmanuelle Haïm, Minkowski.

Tough and vague, but key, is the matter of charisma. Rattle has little of it, and this fact has gnawed away below the patina of the Berlin brand, a mistake not to repeat. Star quality — promotability — is not the first strength of several theoretical contenders for this grand post: Marin Alsop, Semyon Bychkov, James Conlon, Andrew Davis, Ádám Fischer, Alan Gilbert, Louis Langrée, Ludovic Morlot or David Robertson.

Deduction, then, leaves one feasible conductor of renown. He’s thought of as Russian but in fact is Russian-German, having come to this country as a teenager. His name does not immediately come up in the context of this transition because he is little associated with the Berlin Philharmonic: he has led just a few concerts with the orchestra — his last program, in 2011, featured the rare Das klagende Lied — perhaps a cleverly planned fact that will allow non-Thielemann consensus, there being no “damage.” The players know him further, however, through other engagements in Berlin, where he happens to live, and no doubt through personal interactions. This season he conducts the Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester, the Konzerthaus-Orchester, and at the Komische Oper.

He may well be a friend of Rattle’s. The two have Glyndebourne Festival Opera in common and serve as principal artists of London’s period-instrument Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. If he is Rattle’s own idea of the right successor, the incumbent is assuredly now gauging and conveying the interests on both sides.

Tactful and politically astute, he maintains ties to two Moscow orchestras yet manages to stay out of the fray over Vladimir Putin, and after years as music director of Glyndebourne he made a public point of praising the festival as a place to work. Diplomacy goes far in a capital city.

His repertory is cosmopolitan, even if weighted toward Russian and German music. He is not celebrated for Haydn or Mozart but does embrace period-instrument practices. At the same time, he remains intellectually curious, venturing Schnittke’s Third Symphony for example this season. Critics are generally positive, especially in London, where his Brahms made waves two seasons ago for its traditionalism, but also in New York (Hänsel und Gretel and Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Metropolitan Opera) and Philadelphia, where he regularly guests.

Interestingly his present contract as principal conductor and artistic advisor of the London Philharmonic ends at the same time as Rattle’s in Berlin. Where will he be May 11? At home, probably. He conducts the Komische Oper’s Moses und Aron the night before. So a prediction: if naysayers thwart Thielemann in the vote, or his own hubris does, the next Chefdirigent of the Berlin Philharmonic will be Vladimir Jurowski.

Photo (modified) © Sheila Rock

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Zimerman Plays Munich

Sunday, November 30th, 2014

Krystian Zimerman at the Herkulessaal, Munich, in November 2014

Published: November 30, 2014

MUNICH — Along with the whole U.S., this city was on Krystian Zimerman’s “avoid” list. His Bavaria visits would take in Augsburg, Nuremberg, Regensburg, any place but the capital, following a harsh review of a performance he gave a dozen or more years ago. Somehow Munich’s musical life went on without the principled Polish pianist — until this month, when, just like that, he was back, holding Mariss Jansons’ hand for a benefit concert in support of the Süddeutsche Zeitung’s Adventskalender für gute Werke. Perhaps the noble purpose did the trick; the calendar annually raises €5 million for the disadvantaged. Or perhaps it was the tie-in with a two-week East Asia tour, ending today.

The chance to hear Brahms’s D-Minor Concerto (1858) from this long-absent artist appealed widely enough to overfill the Herkulessaal Nov. 5 at benefit prices. Results were gratifying, at least in the grand first movement. Zimerman brought out its rhetoric and delicacy, power and logic. He conveyed passion but preserved clarity and never allowed the brief reflective passages to turn somber. Along the way, his work was braced tightly, flatteringly, by Jansons and the Symphonie-Orchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks on fine form. Then the soloist awkwardly held back the tempo of the Adagio, so that it barely had a pulse. (His 2003 Berlin recording suffers the same fate, but not his 1983 Vienna version.) The Rondo, when it finally came, consequently sounded detached, and, although expertly played, it was taken at a showy pace much beyond allegro non troppo, compounding the estrangement.

Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony (1937) after intermission typified Jansons’ approach to music: preset, conventional ideas about the score; lavish attention to the realization of those ideas, leaving nothing to the moment; and cultivated support from players long treated as colleagues. The formula has well served him and his much-miked radio orchestra. What was missing at this immaculate performance, as usual, was a sense that the symphony meant something in particular to the conductor, that a uniquely Jansons view might rear its wayward head, and therefore the reading, while never routine, felt ever so slightly like a waste of time.

Photo © Robert Haas for Süddeutsche Zeitung

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BR Campaign Runs Out of Gas

Monday, February 10th, 2014

Poster for Herbert Blomstedt’s February 2014 concert with the BRSO

Published: February 10, 2014

MUNICH — Creative exhaustion appears to have arrived for a whimsical, multi-year promotional campaign here. Its subject: the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Its budget and goals: inscrutable. The thing would never have seen the light of day in the U.S., if only for legal reasons, and its existence is one of several signs of a vain administration within parent entity Bavarian Broadcasting, or Bayerischer Rundfunk, known as BR.

Centered on posters, or Plakate, the distinctive campaign eschews images and color and relies for its life on typography, specifically the manipulation of one clunky serif-and-sans-serif font, used until recently with flair. Typically, names or numbers related to a concert program are toyed with. Riccardo Muti comes to conduct, and so we see a giant MU. At some distance, not where spelling dictates, we land on the TI. Or RAT tops a Ligeti-Schumann-Haydn-Sibelius poster, its TLE completing the conductor’s name lower down. III, heavy like prison bars, blares out for a Bruckner Third Symphony.

The layouts show up on street posters, the Internet, handouts, even on the BRSO’s scholarly and free concert program books. They are the brainchildren of Bureau Mirko Borsche, whose trending design clients include Zeit Magazin, Harper’s Bazaar and the Bavarian State Opera.

But the design firm’s ideas have become less flattering of late. A gas mask promotes Herbert Blomstedt’s all-Brahms program this week (Feb. 13 and 14). In use for months already, the image results from a zoomed-in, weighty letter B, rotated right. The composer’s name forms a facial pout that traces the B’s dimple, with the conductor’s name straight, above the mask’s eyes. No slur is meant, one must assume. Other inverted or morbid layouts, including distorted initials, have dampened the aging campaign’s fun as options for novelty have narrowed.

Is there oversight? Only of the lightest kind, apparently. Beyond the posters, questions lurk about misleading buttons and missing contact information on the BRSO website, extravagant BRSO sales literature, and a peculiar organizational structure.

Orchestra administration is buried deep inside BR, a Munich-based, license-funded broadcaster with a budget above $1 billion and more on its plate than classical music. Just how deep is reflected on BR’s giant website, whose home page offers no direct link to the orchestra. Site visitors must learn that the acclaimed BRSO is part of BR Klassik, and then a link can be found. Once on the orchestra’s home* page, material is clearly presented. But not all of it. A click on “Presse” at the top, for instance, loops you back to BR and no fewer than sixteen press officers, one of whom, Detlef Klusak, has “Musik” after his name. In a brief call last week, however, Klusak confirmed he has nothing to do with the BRSO.

Finding the orchestra’s managers from its home* page is a trip in itself. You first click on “Orchester,” then on “Die komplette Besetzung” (the whole cast) under an illustration showing only musicians. You scroll down to the lower right corner of the next page, click on “Management,” select and copy the name of the person you want — there being no email addresses or phone numbers on the secluded page — and Google him or her!

Nikolaus Pont is in charge. New, with less than a year on the job, he did not initiate the promotional campaign or plan the website, and it isn’t clear yet whether he is more than a caretaker. (Fundraising, to be sure, is not front-and-center for him as it would be for an American counterpart.) Still, he must have reviewed the BRSO’s 2013–14 season brochure.

Or rather book. Weighing in at 1 lb. 6 oz. (more than half a kilogram), its 180 pages lie between thick, gloss-coated card and a cloth, die-embossed orange spine. Inside are concert details and color photographs, including four hopelessly sullen shots of Chefdirigent Mariss Jansons. Freely distributed, the Bureau Mirko Borsche-developed book carries no paid advertising. Broadcast-license-payers can only imagine its cost and the fees earned for design and printing.

An area optimistically labeled “Kommunikation” is headed by Peter Meisel, while another group has its own person under “Marketing.” Meisel works directly with the design firm (a Facebook favorite) but his diverse duties include photography, video liaison and special events. He is, moreover, tasked with keeping the world’s press (including this blog) informed of, and involved in, BRSO activities. A recent round-robin list showed 78 email contacts for the orchestra’s media outreach: 14 within BR, 9 at the Süddeutsche Zeitung (Bavaria’s answer to The New York Times), 16 at other Bavarian media outlets, 16 German outlets, 2 foreign (including Musical America), 6 German freelance music journalists, 2 non-media and 13 private.

Is it time for fresh approaches at the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra? By U.S. standards, certainly, on several fronts, starting with more management accessibility and a promotional campaign that respects visiting artists. As for this week’s concerts, Brahms will pout or smile depending on Blomstedt and the musicians, not on any poster design. The serene and sage maestro, still effective in his eighties, will no doubt laugh his gas mask right off, but of course that would suggest an altered formation for B-L-O-M-S-T-E-D-T.

[*Domain and site changes in April 2015 removed the awkwardness described here.]

Screenshot © Bayerischer Rundfunk

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Jansons Extends at BR

Monday, June 3rd, 2013

Mariss Jansons

Published: June 3, 2013

MUNICH — Mariss Jansons has signed an extension of his contract as Chefdirigent of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and its choral forces, Bayerischer Rundfunk (BR) announced today here. The added period runs from Sept. 2015 through Aug. 2018.

The Riga, Latvia-born conductor, 70, also serves as chief conductor of Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw Orchestra. His tenure in Munich, a collegial one, began in 2003.

Separately, at a ceremony in the Prinz-Regenten-Theater tomorrow (June 4), Jansons receives the 2013 Ernst von Siemens Music Prize. He has promised to donate its €250,000 bounty toward the design and building of a (much needed) new concert hall for Munich should the project actually happen.

BR additionally announced the promotion of one of the orchestra’s artistic planners, Nikolaus Pont, 41, to the position of Orchestermanager. Born in Vienna, Pont earlier worked for the Wiener Konzerthaus and the Austrian broadcaster ORF.

Photo © Matthias Schrader

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RCO Anniversary Extravaganza

Friday, April 12th, 2013

By Rebecca Schmid

If tradition means not preserving the ashes but fanning the flames, in the words of Gustav Mahler, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra is celebrating its 125th anniversary with one foot firmly planted in the past and the other striding fearlessly into the future. Between a tour of six continents this season, the orchestra gave an anniversary concert on April 10 at its home concert hall, the Concertgebouw, founded the same year as the orchestra, in 1888, with an official opening on April 11. For modern-day residents of the Netherlands, this month also marks an important time in politics. Queen Beatrix will soon cede the throne to Prince Willem-Alexander, making him the country’s first King since 1890. The event honored the royal family, in attendance with Princess Máxima—soon-to-be Queen and the orchestra’s official patron—with red carpeting and black-tie dress. But the RCO, a crowned exception on the Netherlands’ tenuous landscape of budget slashes to the arts, does not take its status for granted. The entire proceeds of the concert, which featured three soloists—Thomas Hampson, Janine Jansen and Lang Lang—in a program of late 19th and turn-of-the-century repertoire alongside a new work by Dutch composer Bob Zimmerman, will be invested in educational outreach.

The RCO, which enjoyed close relationships with Mahler and Strauss under the 50-year tenure of Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg, has not only kept this music flowing in its veins but performs in a hall which provides an ideal acoustic environment for the luxurious strings, golden brass and sumptuous dynamic architecture that emerges under Music Director Mariss Jansons (winner of this year’s Ernst von Siemens Prize, otherwise known as the classical world’s ‘Nobel’). The Concertgebouw was modelled after the Gewandhaus in Leipzig but, unlike its German counterpart, survived World War Two. Inaugurating a new era for the building, projection screens hung in gilded frames on each side of the stage, providing a canvas for historical images and artists’ commentary much in the style of the Beyond the Score series initiated by the Chicago Symphony or the multi-media presentations of the New World Symphony in Miami.

Hampson, before taking the stage for Mahler songs from the Knaben Wunderhorn cycle and Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, praised the RCO musicians on video for a “desire to be true to the master” that is “hugely more evident than in other places,” referring to composer as “one of their own.” The ambient whirring that opened and closed the footage may have lent his comments a clichéd tone, but the unforced beauty of the orchestra in Ging heut’ morgen übers Feld or the perfectly shaped rubati of Rheinlegenden lived up to the baritone’s elation. Hampson, one of few singers today who is able to capture Mahler’s searing irony, was at his best in the final Lob des hohen Verstandes, supported by the orchestra’s playful woodwinds and the fresh energy of its low strings. The swelling of individual lines that Jansons was able to achieve in Rheinlegenden found an even more powerful outlet in the suite from Strauss’ Rosenkavalier, penned in 1944 with the relationship of the Marschallin and Octavian at its center. Waltzes floated through the hall with warm nostalgia, and slow, tender passages glowed with burning intensity under Jansons’ inviting gestures.

He may be the only conductor who could have brought together string players from the Concertgebouw, his Bavarian Radio Symphony, the Vienna Philharmonic, and the Berlin Philharmonic—the latter being the only two orchestras where he guest conducts. The ensemble created an impressive homogeneity of tone in the Elégie from Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, with a silky pianissimo and crescendi that breathed further and further into celestial rapture. Saint-Saëns’ Introduction et Rondo capriccioso received an affecting performance with Dutch violinist Jansen as soloist, whose fierce communication powers lent fast passages vibrancy and spunk. Lang, having described the third movement of Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto onscreen as a “kind of war,” demonstrated a virtuosity so clean as to border on mechanical but created a wild energy with the orchestra in the final stretch.

Zimmerman’s Komt vrieden in het ronden, a neo-Romantic set of variations on a well-known Dutch folk song, fit well with the rest of the program and gave equal spotlight to all three soloists—an occasion that is not likely to be repeated. The audience laughed in amusement upon Hampson’s first entrance, while Lang was the King of Piano Cool as he read through the score. Jansen invested her lines with more personal expression in the music’s circular exchanges built on conventional harmonic schemes. The program opened with the prelude from Wagner’s Meistersinger von Nürnberg, which was performed for the inauguration of the building 125 years ago. Jansons drew a sound that was rich but never bombastic. The conductor’s humility was more than apparent during standing ovations for the extravagant occasion. Despite a high dose of old world charm, the evening was mostly memorable for the RCO’s fresh, exciting musicianship that invested even the most familiar Romantic works with new meaning. Surely this is the essential ingredient for every orchestra—even if it doesn’t bear the title of the “world’s greatest,” as bestowed by Gramophone Magazine in 2008—as its preserves its legacy while forging a path into the complex demands of the 21st century.

Where does the Concertgebouw Stand?

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

by Sedgwick Clark


Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and its current music director, Mariss Jansons, stopped by Carnegie Hall last week (2/13 and 14) for a pair of concerts to celebrate the ensemble’s 125th anniversary. They were a great success, as always, with everyone on my aisle burbling over its glorious sound and virtuosity.

No doubt whatsoever, it is a great orchestra, and for many of my over-40 years of hearing it in concert it was my favorite European orchestra. But the dark, burnished sonority of yore, cultivated to such full-toned splendor during Bernard Haitink’s tenure (1963-1988), was eviscerated by Riccardo Chailly’s superficial musicianship (1988-2004). And the turnover of orchestral musicians that occurred internationally in the last two decades of the 20th century brought forth a new generation of players who pride clarity over rich, bass-oriented textures. The only orchestra I know that has managed to retain its early-1970s persona resides in Philadelphia, and it remains to be seen what effect its new music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, will have.

So what effect has Jansons had on the RCO? While one can’t deny his expertise on the podium, I don’t find much personality in his conducting—of the Austro-German repertoire anyway. He was at his best in the first concert, in his accompaniment to Leonidas Kavakos’s kaleidoscopic brilliance in Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2. Still, it was little more than an expert rendering of the score. Listen to soloist Zoltán Székely and the Concertgebouw in the live world premiere recording under Willem Mengelberg in 1939 for those little nudges of temperament I missed with Jansons or the 1958 Stern/Bernstein/New York Philharmonic studio recording (in its judiciously remixed Prince Charles Edition reissue) for no-holds-barred emotional drama.

Recalling Jansons’ devastating Mahler Sixth Symphony a few years ago on LSO LIVE, I looked forward to the Mahler First, which followed intermission. But despite the orchestra’s powerful, pinpoint playing, the Wayfarer themes didn’t sing, the third movement’s Parodie sections were poker-faced, and in general the slow music was impatient and tempo changes were exaggerated. A disappointment.

Little need be said about the next evening’s Strauss Death and Transfiguration and Bruckner Seventh. Over the weekend I pulled out my recordings of Strauss’s own 1926 Staatskapelle Berlin recording, the 1942 Philadelphia and 1952 NBC Toscaninis, 1960 Monteux/San Francisco, and 1983 Haitink/Concertgebouw of the former, and the 1951Furtwängler and 1974 Karajan, both with Berlin, of the latter. All were different, all sublime in their individual ways. Jansons sped up where Strauss marks Sehr breit (“Very broad”) for the transfiguration theme and sailed through the Wagner tuba threnody after the Bruckner’s second-movement climax. Inexplicable.

David Hamilton (1935-2013)

Another of my heroes is gone. David Hamilton, 78, died at home on February 19 after a long illness. He reviewed records and wrote occasional features for High Fidelity when I began building my record collection in college, and I relied on his insights into 20th-century music, especially that of Stravinsky. His initials at the end of a review meant “must read,” even if I had never heard of the composer.

David was a Princeton grad (A.B., 1956; M.F.A., music history, 1960), where he was the music and recording librarian, 1961-65. He was assistant music editor and then music editor at W.W. Norton, 1965-74, then became music critic of the Nation in 1968 and wrote for many publications during his lifetime. I had the pleasure of editing (if that’s the word, for his copy was immaculate) articles of his at Keynote and Musical America. His Metropolitan Opera Encyclopedia (1987) is one of my most frequently used reference books. For many years, he was producer of historical Met Opera broadcasts and wrote notes for the company’s program booklet.

One of the benefits of working in the classical division of Philips and Mercury Records in the early 1970s was that I got to know many writers who were formative in my musical taste. It’s easy to remember my first lunch with David: We were each going to hear Boulez conduct the Philharmonic that evening in what turned out to be one of the great Mahler Sixths I ever heard, and with a grin he pulled out the Mahler Critical Edition score from his briefcase.

We often saw each other at Boulez concerts. The conductor’s Rug Concerts were nearly always sold out, and long lines of the converted would form to get the best seats on the floor. I always arrived early and when the doors opened would storm up the escalator as the ushers shouted, “No running allowed.” (Shades of elementary school!) When David was there, I would save him room. But one night, an all-Schoenberg Rug Concert was only about half full. I remarked after a striking performance of Pierrot Lunaire that it was too bad it hadn’t sold out. “Well, look at it this way,” he replied. “Have you ever seen so many people at a Schoenberg concert?”

David succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease, one of those ironies that we who remain find so baffling in those of such extraordinary intellects. His long-time friend Sheila Porter was with him the afternoon before he died and told me that she and his nurse chose James Levine’s Met recording of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro for him to hear.

Jansons! Petrenko! Gergiev!

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

Munich Frauenkirche and view toward the Alps

Published: January 23, 2013

MUNICH — With the city council’s blessing today of Valery Gergiev’s hire as the next Chefdirigent of the Munich Philharmonic, all three of the Bavarian capital’s globally renowned orchestras will be in Soviet-born hands by late 2015. This September, 40-year-old Kirill Petrenko of Omsk, Siberia, finally takes over the theater-based Bavarian State Orchestra; his appointment was announced in 2010. Riga-born Mariss Jansons, 70, has been Chefdirigent of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra since 2003; his present contract is expected to be lengthened, reflecting a collegial tenure. (Munich’s three other professional orchestras, the Münchener Kammerorchester, the Münchner Rundfunk-Orchester and the Münchner Symphoniker, have German conductors.)

The when and who of Gergiev’s appointment, leaked last week by the Abendzeitung newspaper, are a surprise. It was only four months ago that Lorin Maazel began his leadership of the MPhil. Contrary to one London report, Maazel was never announced as “temporary” Chefdirigent. His main contract covers the period 2012–15, and he additionally helped during the sudden gap that followed predecessor Christian Thielemann’s deeply lamented exit. It is not clear whether the 82-year-old French-born Pittsburgher would have preferred to retain the position. Anyway, recent Munich concerts led by him have lacked spark.

Moscow-born Gergiev, 59, is another prominent name for Munich but hardly one associated with the Beethoven-Brahms-Bruckner repertory that has defined the MPhil in its finest seasons, under Ferdinand Löwe (1908–14), Rudolf Kempe (1967–76) and Thielemann (2004–11). He is not known for Mozart or Schubert and is no Mahlerian either. A 2010 Verdi Requiem at the MPhil’s acoustically appalling Gasteig home suffered from misshapen phrases and apparent under-rehearsal. Not even a 2011–12 Shostakovich cycle, divided between the MPhil and the Mariinsky Orchestra, brought consistently probing and satisfactory results. But Gergiev’s finger-wiggling, turn-the-page spontaneity can work wonders in coloristic music or in episodic works, or in passages laden with irony or humor. His Mussorgsky and Prokofiev are unsurpassed, his Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky much admired. The conductor is surprisingly adept, too, in certain scores by Berlioz and Wagner.

Gergiev will relinquish his job as principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, it seems, near the time his new duties start, which the Abendzeitung gives as 2015. The MPhil job has an undisclosed contract length; it paid a reported €800,000 annually during the last Thielemann years.

Photo © Landeshauptstadt München

Related posts:
Gergiev, Munich’s Mistake
Berlin’s Dark Horse
MPhil Vacuum: Maazel Out
Maazel: ’Twas Always Thus
Gergiev Undissuaded