My Dinner With Andrew
Igor Stravinsky: Symphonies of Wind Instruments
Dmitri Shostakovich: Violin Concerto # 1
Sergei Prokofieff: Scenes from Romeo and Juliet
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg (violin)
Osmo Vanska (conductor)
A Month at Carnegie Hall
“handbags at twenty paces”
BBC Magazine, describing the row over the Phil returning to Carnegie
The appearance of the Minnesota Orchestra at Carnegie Hall puts this reviewer in mind of their glory days under Dmitri Mitropoulos and summons reflections on the programming environment of those years of mid-century. At that time, the most powerful man in classical music was also one of the least known by the public, but it is difficult today to overstate the influence exerted by Arthur Judson. Judson began his career as a music critic, so it is probably fair to say that his moral compass was always a bit askew, but he soon rose to prominence as the de facto, if not the titular, head of CBS radio, as well as the general manager of both the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. All of this clout would have been heady enough, but Judson was also the manager of most of the top concert artists of his day, representing not only the conductors Stokowski, Szell, Walter and Mitropoulos, but a veritable who’s who of soloists, led by Jascha Heifetz. He created the career of Eugene Ormandy out of whole cloth, grooming him in Minneapolis and hiring his own client for the plum Philadelphia post. When government anti-trust agents started to move in, he deftly resigned from the radio and opened his own agency, Columbia Artists Management Inc. (CAMI), an office near Carnegie Hall which one could not avoid if harboring any hope of ever eating lunch in this town again.
By the 1940’s, serious musicians who did not belong to the Judson stable began to complain about their exclusion from the concert halls of the Northeast. But perhaps even more disturbing was the open secret that Mr. J also determined what pieces were performed by both his individual artists and his major ensembles. Since he controlled both ends of the transaction, he was able to insist on the repertoire most comfortable for his instrumental stars and expected little or no resistance from his hand-picked music directors who, after all, depended on him for the food on the tables of their families. It was the ascetic bachelor Mitropoulos’ love of contemporary music that caused the rift between him and his manager, a division which would lead to the conductor’s ouster after just a few seasons at Carnegie Hall.
One can argue from now until doomsday about the quality of Judson’s favorites (personally, I always found Ormandy bland and superficial, but have great respect for many who disagree), but what seems obvious in retrospect is the deleterious effect of having one man in charge of not only hiring, firing and programming, but also the bottom line. And yet, one tartarean scenario for the new Carnegie era proposed just that: the general manager of the house orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, would not only determine personnel and business matters for both the hall and the performing body, but would also exercise programming hegemony, even going so far as to control what was to be played in the adjunct chamber halls and, perhaps most open to abuse, determining whether or not an artist would be allowed to perform on the premises at all based on the criterion of whether or not they had a cordial relationship with, as well as a role to fill as soloist on the same stage as, the Philharmonic. Certainly, the positive spin is to herald this interweaving as a sophisticated tapestry of blossoming individual talent interacting with the nurturing whole: for example, Maurizio Pollini could come and give a recital at Carnegie, play chamber music at Zankel and Weill with small Philharmonic offshoots, and perform major concerto repertoire with the main orchestra as well. This might work, and work really well, but another equally possible result would be the most heinous type of exclusionary aesthetic politics. That such an Orwellian world was even considered by the Carnegie board (and, in fact, conceived by its chair) is chilling. Those who don’t remember the past…
Mitropoulos was on the podium at Carnegie the night that the Violin Concerto # 1 of Dmitri Shostakovich was given its American premiere by its dedicatee David Oistrakh. Judging from the recording that the violinist later made under the supervision of the composer (and conducted by his son Maxsim), tonight’s version featuring Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg was quite a bit wilder. Perhaps a more apposite comparison would be to the effort put forth just the other week by Sarah Chang here in town. It is hard to believe that this was even the same piece of music. Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg tore into the second and fourth movements of this concerto like a hungry wolf, her prodigious technique challenging the Minnesotans to follow or get out of the way. This is fashion week in New York and this white hot performer came dressed for a downtown club: sequined black pants and a piebald blouse announcing that she was pumped up and dangerous tonight. What really impressed this listener beyond the drop dead pyrotechnics was her poetic ability to venture deep into the soul of this tortured work, the slower sections, where Ms. Chang seemed positively dull, emerging as the wounded cries from a thousand winters on the steppes. If one had only heard Ms. S-S play the cadenza, one would become an instant convert to this type of aural psychodrama. To be fair, Sarah had to appear with a floundering Kurt Masur whose tempo changes did nothing to communicate any real affinity with the work at hand; Nadja had the benefit of a more sympathetic interpreter in Osmo Vanska. Playing at such a high intensity level, the soloist prowled the stage like a caged predator during her rests, bobbed up and down with glee whilst negotiating the most difficult of arpeggiated passages with their often shifting rhythms and speeds, and needed to compose herself with deep breaths after every movement (I had to do the same). Once this electric performance was over, the sold out crowd went berserk, standing, cheering and screaming wildly for an extended period, forcing this artist out four separate times for receipt of adulation. This was the reaction that should have greeted the rendition of the Fifth Symphony the other evening, except that the Russian National Orchestra’s performance did not warrant or receive it. As an avid Nadja listener, I know that she can be erratic, even distracted at times. However, I also know that when she is on, she is untouchable. This was one of those evenings.
After the interval, the ensemble traversed some of the scenes from Romeo and Juliet and had an opportunity to present themselves without distraction. Overall, this is a solid orchestra from the provinces, undisciplined at times in terms of intonation, a flat (not in pitch, but rather timbre) sound emanating from the strings, moments of brilliance but also an equal number of examples of errors of enthusiasm. About halfway through these excerpts, I went diving for my program to see who had put this particular mix together. The episodes were chronological but tended to be almost uniformly loud and blaring, as if there were no great lyricism in the score as a whole. Much to my chagrin, I learned that it was Maestro Vanska himself who fashioned this high decibel synthesis, the sort of selection that a high school band might favor (although it would have to be a high school in Helsinki since no American secondary institution performs any good music anymore). Oddly, after so much boisterousness, designed, I assume, to please the audience (it did not, by the way, judging from the tepid ovation), the amalgam ended very quietly and in a disturbingly unresolved manner. Not a compendium for the ages.
Fortuitously, the paths of Carnegie Hall and the New York Philharmonic will probably never cross, thanks, at least in part, to the efforts of many of my print media brethren who led the hues as well as the cries against the merger. We can all breathe a sigh of relief: if these particularly haughty Montagues and Capulets had ever gotten together, it would have led to a tragic end indeed.
Frederick L. Kirshnit