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Not Ready For Prime Time

New York
Carnegie Hall
10/28/1999 -  
Gustav Mahler: Symphony #3
Nancy Maultsby (mezzo-soprano)
Women of the St. Louis Symphony Chorus
American Boychoir
James Litton (music director)
St. Louis Symphony, Hans Vonk (conductor)

Richard Strauss used to admit that he was a second-rate composer but always affirmed that he was "…the best of the second-rate composers". It would take a lot of doing for the St. Louis Symphony to achieve even the lowest rating in the second-rate orchestra rankings. I believe that their problem is really one of definition. This is actually a competent community orchestra masquerading as a symphonic ensemble and, although they obviously put in a great effort, are just not in the same class as a full-fledged concert orchestra. This group is living on a reputation created by Leonard Slatkin and his press people and nurtured by adroit recording engineers whose facility in the arts of prestidigitation made the public think that they were able to play at a much higher level than is in reality within their grasp. It would be unfair to say that the orchestra has deteriorated under the Dutchman Hans Vonk, but he certainly has done nothing to enhance the overall sound of this weak musical body. Following is a brief list of areas that need improvement.

1. Personnel: Not a single solo was performed last night that didn’t have some non-musical elements interfering with its clarity and beauty. The trombone solo in the first movement, so critical to a conception of this massive work as a whole, was phrased badly, sounded tinny and had at least one true clunker of a note. This was typical of any naked playing by this amateurish ensemble.

2. Timbre: The overall sound of this orchestra is not just unbeautiful, it is positively ugly. The strings are totally without vibrato and are actually unpleasant sounding to the ear. The brass is woeful and the woodwinds seem like shrill irritants whenever they intruded upon the proceedings.

3. Unity: Often players went off on their own, blissfully playing passages in different tempi than their peers, coming in at the wrong times and generally not listening to one another. Vonk seemed totally unaware (or at least unconcerned) about this lack of attention.

4. Conception: The cardinal sin of the conductor was not infusing any sort of sense of the Viennese into this music. In this American orchestra’s hands the Mahler 3 sounded like the most banal work of Ferde Grofe or Aaron Copland, ironically totally ignoring the authentic American sound, that of John Philip Sousa, that is an actual influence upon this symphony. One had the sense right from the beginning that there would be no revelation about Mahler or his music in this woefully uncentered and misconceived interpretation.

5. Balance: Vonk needs to go out into the hall once in a while to hear how off balanced his ensemble really is. The oddest inner voices were exposed sonically for us (this was sometimes revelatory for inveterate score readers) but there was never a sense of a proper tutti.

All of this is a true tragedy because the St. Louis Symphony is a model of modern orchestral management. They perform very good works in involving their community into the daily life of the orchestra, even establishing their own music school to introduce the wonders of the classics to inner city children who would otherwise be deprived. I believe that this group should be praised to the skies, but only if they decide to be more honest about their identity and essence. There is nothing wrong with being an educational medium with a focus on community growth, only don’t purport to be a world class orchestra playing two nights at Carnegie Hall. At 85 dollars a ticket, this experience was the worst deal in town.

I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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