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Welcome to my Nightmare

07/18/1999 -  
Johannes Brahms: Haydn Variations, Alto Rhapsody, Piano Concerto #1
Monica Groop (mezzo-soprano) Peter Serkin (piano) Men of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus John Oliver (chorus master) Boston Symphony Orchestra Seiji Ozawa (conductor)

Reports of the death of the Boston Symphony have been highly exaggerated. To read my colleagues in the commercial press, the orchestra has become out of pitch, ragged and lacking in even the smallest degree of professional intonation. The sound of the BSO, one New York critic reported, was so bad that the board was forced to fire Maestro Ozawa or risk global embarrassment. I was both skeptical and curious to hear this great ensemble, such a big part of my youth, and so accepted an invitation to journey the four hours from New York to the spectacular enclave in the Berkshire Mountains that formerly was the estate of the Tappan range people and has been a major force in the American summer music scene since the 1930's. Tanglewood has a rich history from Koussevitzky through Bernstein, Leinsdorf and now Ozawa and presents every summer an interesting mix of pops, classics and contemporary music for an audience less sophisticated than its urban counterpart, but in many ways more appreciative.

This all Brahms program opened with a reasonably satisfying performance of the Variations on a Theme of Haydn, dispelling all of my sonic fears immediately with a loving reading of the St. Anthony Chorale theme (parenthetically probably not by Haydn at all) that was a beautiful statement of the orchestra's tonal stability and acoustical health. Of course, a number of the members of the tie-less summer ensemble are not regular members but rather young "covers", working in place of their elders who are away on vacation, but I can't believe that the rumors about the complete breakdown of aural integrity are really true. More likely, Seiji is just burnt out in the Back Bay and accepting a post at the Vienna Opera is just the tonic to rejuvenate him. The rest of the variations were well balanced and each sonic moment was extremely beautiful, but ultimately the performance lacked any passion and the recapitulation of the theme was not as transformed as Brahms would have intended because we had not been put sufficiently through the Sturm und Drang wringer. I received some feedback over my summer vacation that I pick on the "poor French horn players" too much (this is undoubtedly true since we have a hornist in the family) and I promise to be sensitive to this next season, but I have to mention how severely the first horn player butchered his solos in this otherwise professional sounding performance. I don't think that he was a summer replacement either.

A few years ago at the Cardiff "Singer of the World" competition there was an unprecedented tie for first place because of the judges' inability to pick a winner between the immense talents of Bryn Terfel and Dmitri Hvorostovsky. One of the other finalists that year was the Finnish mezzo Monica Groop, who proved yesterday afternoon that she is also deserving of serious consideration. Her voice is very secure in the all-important lower register although a little more projection was needed in the large outdoor arena. Once again the performance of the orchestra sounded fine, but the fire was just not there.

However, what caught me completely off guard was the frightening experience of the usually reliable Peter Serkin. Every performer has the dream at some point in his career that they are starring in a big role or soloing in a big concerto and they forget their part. After the orchestra performed a solid introduction to the Concerto # 1 (again without that underlying zaftig passion so important in Brahms) Mr. Serkin hesitated, then faltered and then tried to fudge his way through the very masculine first movement. Unfortunately, he was almost completely lost right from the beginning, blowing entrances consistently, playing hundreds of wrong notes, and literally stopping occasionally with a panicked look on his face. Finally he resorted to that old Artur Rubinstein trick of just making up your own music in the proper key and hoping that no one would notice. Maestro Ozawa moved consolingly over to him almost at the outset and whispered to him. Serkin bravely nodded his head as if to say that everything would be all right, however it was not. It is hard for me to believe that this consummate artist was unprepared. I think rather that it was just a really bad day for him. Perhaps he was under the weather or affected by it. He was the only performer to wear both jacket and tie and it was beastly hot and humid.

In the second movement the pianistic mistakes were even more obvious although there were fewer of them, because he could not hide his aphasia in heaps of chord clusters. Rather the individual expressive notes must be just right or their very nakedness exposes them. This was really a painful experience for those of us who knew what was transpiring.

And here's the surreal part. The crowd loved it. In that full music shed and out on the rolling lawns of Tanglewood it seemed that no one was aware of the travesty going on before their ears. The last movement, with the piano part mostly composed by Mr. Serkin, was followed by hearty applause (as had been the previous two movements, this is hinterland summer music after all) and the soloist and conductor were recalled for several additional bows. Oh well, at least mostly everyone went home happy.

I noticed on my season schedule that Mr. Serkin is performing this same concerto with the Vienna Radio Symphony at Avery Fisher next March. I'm not sure whether I would have gone initially, but there is now no way you could keep me from this concert. I'm sure that he will redeem himself handsomely.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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