The Maestro's Ears

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Recently I went to two subscription performances at the New York Philharmonic that made me sit up and listen, though for entirely different reasons. One of them featured Lorin Maazel, who will be leading an excellent cast in Don Carlo at the Met starting on February 25. The program included the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1, with Yefim Bronfman as the formidable soloist, and the Sibelius Symphony No. 2.

Throughout the evening, there was a remarkable balance so that musicians in the orchestra produced a cohesive sound for much of the time but also had their moments to shine in passages where their instruments were featured. Bronfman and Maazel worked well together, with the conductor finding balance between the piano and orchestral passages. In his efficient and no-nonsense way, Maazel led a performance that was deeply gratifying in that it was musically assured. It did not occur to me for a moment that some people find fault with the acoustics of Avery Fisher Hall. Instead, Maazel understood the strengths and weaknesses of the auditorium and shaped the music so it would sound wonderful in that space.

The other Philharmonic performance featured a maestro I will refer to as the Visiting Guest Conductor. He has made quite a name for himself and his arrival at the Philharmonic was eagerly anticipated. The program was similar to the Maazel in that it contained a “warhorse” piano concerto and a wildly popular symphony, even more so than the Sibelius. I happen to love both pieces and attended this concert not only for the conductor but to hear those two works—both staples and high finishers on the annual WQXR Classical Countdown—live in a concert hall.

Unfortunately, in both works, the conductor blasted the timpani and brass so that they entirely drowned out the string section and the lighter winds. As a show of brute force it had impact but it was not felicitous music-making. He also swamped the playing of the famous and beleaguered piano soloist and often charged ahead, forcing the pianist to play faster and hit wrong notes as he tried to catch up. Above all, the pianist had little opportunity for personal expression and the rapturous music-making he is capable of, apart from in the solo passages of the concerto. The conductor arrived with his conception of the music and sought to impose it, with no regard for the musicians or the variable that is Avery Fisher Hall.

I think the choices made by the Visiting Guest Conductor led to the notably bad performance. It was his desire to play the big symphony in a big brawny way without regard for what sound the hall would produce. While Maazel carefully seated his musicians to get his desired result, the Visiting Guest seemed to have taken no care in that regard.

It struck me that we had the same group of musicians, the ladies and gentlemen of the New York Philharmonic, performing in the same space. Only the conductors and the pianists were different. It is true that Maazel, as their former music director, would have more rapport with the musicians and a better sense of the hall than would the Visiting Guest Conductor. And yet I have heard many guest conductors with less pedigree play in Fisher Hall with the Philharmonic and get excellent results. I don't believe the acoustics there are as awful as everyone says. Rather, they pose special challenges that only the most talented conductors with superb hearing and judgment can surmount.

Valery Gergiev re-seats his musicians in every hall even when the same music is to be performed. He wants the final product to meet his conception of the score and sometimes it is necessary to seat musicians in radically different configurations to achieve that desired sound.

A few days ago I was part of a group of music lovers who met with the Italian conductor Paolo Carignani after a performance. Carignani is equally proficient in the operatic and symphonic repertories. In response to a question he said something that is so self-evident and yet I had never given it consideration before: “I try to have good contact with an orchestra I work with. Don’t forget: the conductor does not produce sound. The musicians do. You must communicate what you want and give them the conditions to do their best.”

I had always thought that a conductor “produced” sound but, in fact, Carignani is correct. The maestro has a vision, a concept, of what the music should sound like and he will seat the musicians and lead them to achieve the sound he has in his head. When a conductor is at work, in rehearsal and performance, he or she must use not only the hands but the ears to make music.

Needless to say, the requirements of a maestro leading opera are different—and more complicated, I believe—than leading a concert. The conductor must make the orchestra recount a specific narrative and to be in sync with singers and chorus. The maestro needs to see to it that we can hear all of the musical forces in some kind of balance but also in ways that are deeply emotional and specific to the action.

To me, the paragons of opera conducting are Claudio Abbado and James Levine. Why? Because their orchestras provide a narrative while at the same time work with singers. The conductors use their ears and sensibilities for storytelling and glorious music-making. In addition to achieving a balance among singers, chorus and orchestra, opera conductors must also think of the impact in the auditorium.  

Levine once told me that, to him, the secret to a successful performance is to discover and address all problems and difficulties during rehearsals so that there is as much freedom as possible during performances to do one’s best because the challenges have already been addressed. This means that musicians will arrive knowing their parts and then, with the conductor, they form a cohesive whole. Levine, who has superb ears, knows how to calibrate opera performances so that his orchestra is always a protagonist but the singers are just as prominent and secure. This constant engagement on the part of the conductor is essential but, sadly, too many conductors I have heard tend to play according to their own vision without being alive to the ideas, efforts and talents of the musicians in front of them.

How many dull opera performances have I heard of late! I place the blame squarely at the feet of the conductors. Some of them deferentially tamp down orchestras so we can hear the singing. This is fine only to a degree because the orchestral playing becomes less involving and dramatic. It is like background music. Still other conductors keep their heads buried in the score, paying little attention to the stage and making the performance all about the orchestra. How many “symphonic” performances of Wagner or Strauss operas have you heard?

The Concertgebouw as Model

All of this crossed my mind at a symphonic performance last week at the Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. It was not by the famous orchestra that bears the hall’s name—they are on tour—but another ensemble, the Residentie Orkest, led by the young conductor David Afkham in Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 1, Third Piano Concerto (with the excellent Till Fellner as soloist) and the Schumann Symphony No. 4. Apart from Fellner, all the musicians were new to me, although the pieces were quite familiar. But they were glorious.

I have never heard a bad performance in this theater and, in fact, some of the most unforgettable concerts of my life took place there. It has famously good acoustics but I think there is something else. It is shoebox-shaped, like many halls (including Fisher), but with the added feature that the musicians sit in tiers of the stage. We in the audience get to see them all but so too does the conductor in a way that is spatially distinct from most halls. And they can see one another. The tiers require that the conductor seat the musicians in novel ways and it would take a maestro with great ears to understand what those requirements are. 

Perhaps, as Avery Fisher Hall undergoes yet another renovation in the next few years, it might be wise to do something less radical and instead explore the tiers of the Concertgebouw. And, in addition to acousticians, talk to conductors with good ears, including Dutchmen Bernard Haitink and Jaap Van Zweden, both of whom have vast experience in that marvelous theater.

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and its glorious concert hall are both celebrating their 125th anniversaries this year. The hall itself will be full of excellent performances and the orchestra is on a worldwide jubilee tour in which they will perform in nineteen nations on six continents. Their American concerts come this week with performances at Washington’s Kennedy Center (February 12) and Carnegie Hall (February 13 and 14).

To understand the place the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra holds in the Netherlands, I will cite a quotation in the introductory section of the exhibition at the superb Dutch Resistance Museum in Amsterdam: "Holland in the 1930s was in an economic crisis with big discrepancies between poor and rich. Different political and religious groups were divided, each with their own political party, newspaper and school. But all the people took pride in national symbols that transcend politics: KLM Airlines, Zuiderzeewerken (Holland’s famous damming and draining works), the Dutch national football team, and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.”

Would that any American musical institution could achieve such exalted status!