My Dinner With Andrew
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony # 41
Johannes Brahms: Symphony # 1
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Herbert Blomstedt (conductor)
A Month at Carnegie Hall
“The audience was tremendously caught up in the action,
applauding with such force and endurance that Maestro
finally had to lead concertmaster Glenn Dicterow by the
hand so that all of the others would follow them offstage.
Like proud parents, we all stayed until the last, wildly
cheering our native sons and daughters…It’s great to
discover another fine visiting orchestra that will hopefully
grace the Carnegie stage more often in future.”
Eusebius: “Well, one positive thing that the news about the Philharmonic did was to focus everyone’s attention on the undeniable fact that the acoustics at Carnegie Hall are infinitely the superior of those at Avery Fisher.”
Florestan: “You are certainly correct, my dear friend, that this is the conventional wisdom. However, I would disagree with the basic premise.”
Eusebius: “Everyone knows that Carnegie is a much better place to hear a concert.”
Florestan: “Let’s examine that old chestnut for just a moment.”
Eusebius: “Of course. The orchestral sound produced at Carnegie is warm and lush and compliments any ensemble worth its salt. At Avery Fisher, the sound is harsh and brittle, cheapening the overall impression created by even the finest of performing groups.”
Florestan: “The conventional argument to a tee, but let’s consider some extra-musical factors. The acoustics at Carnegie are indeed excellent; I would rather hear a concert there than at any other large auditorium in America, however, without question, the visual splendor of the place is far more comforting than the downright ugliness of Lincoln Center. In the best Pavlovian manner, we music lovers salivate as soon as we enter the hall built in the 1880’s and recoil when viewing the architectural spasms of the 1960’s. Our entire worldview hinges on the synaesthetic relationship between sight and sound. Therefore, Carnegie Hall is subconsciously perceived as the acoustic victor even before the first note is struck.”
Eusebius: “Don’t you mean ‘Stern Auditorium’?”
Florestan: “Oh, all right, I’ll give you that one. But don’t tell me that window dressing doesn’t mean a lot. Why do you think the Metropolitan Opera gussies itself up so much before one even reaches one’s seat? The red carpet is meant to be an antidote for the concrete box that one has just entered. And while we are on this subject, several Philharmonic subscribers were upset because Carnegie has no elevator to the balcony and the seats were constructed for 19th century bottoms, considerably less meaty than our own. Comfort over acoustics any day, except perhaps at Bayreuth. I would submit that the sound at Carnegie is not better, only different.”
Eusebius: “To paraphrase William S. Burroughs, it is vital to know what’s on the end of your tuning fork. Perhaps you have a point. Anyway, it all depends on where you sit. When Maestro Masur was here, he taught the most observant among us where to hear best at Avery Fisher by reserving surprising seats for his own family. I try to sit in this row whenever possible.”
Florestan: “The real difference is that the acoustics at Avery Fisher are unforgiving. What you hear is what you get. At Carnegie…”
Florestan: “At Stern, the finished product seems warmer because of its blending, perfect, let’s say, for a group concentrating on its strings, for example, the Philadelphia Orchestra, who, ironically, toiled in one of the worst buildings for sound in America for many years until their recent move. However, the details of performance, especially in the brass and percussion sections, are much more crystalline at Fisher. You and I both heard the Concertgebouw playing Mahler there and employing the hall’s naked clarity to produce a high level of excitement.”
Eusebius: “Perhaps that’s why an accuracy challenged organization like the Philharmonic always sounds better at Carnegie.”
Florestan: “Bingo. But don’t you mean Stern?”
When Johannes Brahms attended the premiere of his Symphony # 1 in Karlsruhe in 1876, he rather famously remarked to conductor Otto Dessoff that he had never realized that his music could sound so good. My palm-piloted colleagues to the contrary, I was not actually there to hear this maiden voyage, but I still believe that I can state with considerable justification that the composer would have been even more pleased if he had heard today’s performance. The overall sound produced by the fine Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra was marvelously enhanced by their historic venue, the full-bodied totality of solid brilliance emanating to all reaches of Carnegie Hall. Herbert Blomstedt adopted a chiseled approach to a great work of Western civilization, granitic and Classical, serious and monumental, emphasizing the huge boulders rather than the finely set gemstones. The orchestra responded with technical superiority of a kind unknown on this side of the Atlantic, ascending the Dolomites with nary a single misstep. What was missing was some of the tenderness and more intimate emotion, Orpheus ignored for the worship of Apollo. But no differing philosophies affected the magnificence of that sound, strings swelling and striving, winds extraordinarily precise, horns eloquent and magisterial. All of this “Brahms for the Ages” idea was powerfully projected by the richness of Carnegie Hall and its storied acoustics.
A different measure of sound quality was extant in the opening Mozart. Conducting this reduced ensemble without a podium, Blomstedt, a very tall man anyway, attempted to elicit a smaller, more ordered, deist and enlightened version of the last of the symphonies. The composer who figured most prominently on this program, even though none of his pieces was announced, was indeed Beethoven. Maestro seemed to offer up the “Jupiter” and the Brahms as bookends for the symphonic career of the Bonn master, the 41st its genesis, the Brahms its progeny. The performance of the Mozart work was curiously cross-pollinated, for example, modern valve horns but round and squat trumpets, clean, precise lines as only such a disciplined group could muster, but projected at a higher volume than any period conductor would desire (the “real” Mozart sound lies somewhere between Norrington and Bernstein). The combination worked well, the building of the shining second movement edifice superb, the liveliness and “follow the bouncing ball” melodic quality of the finale energetic and entertaining. Finally old Ludwig van did make an appearance: a simply spectacular and dramatic Egmont Overture, most remarkable for its varieties of high definition and perfectly in tune fortes, embossing an explanation point at the end of this orchestral essay.
Inside sources at the Concertgebouw told this reviewer that the RCO players were very disappointed by their appearance at the new Kimmel Center the other night in Philadelphia. They could hear their own individual lines, but had no sense of their ensemble sound on the unfamiliar stage. This type of acoustical anomaly does not necessarily translate out to the audience, in fact, some highly praiseworthy auditoria have difficult on-stage lines of aural communication (the old Academy of Music sported an inverse parabola which forced the orchestra members to experience in magnification every cough and crinkle from the audience), but, if the performers are distracted and can’t hear each other, then the resulting product tends to be flawed. I’m sure that the members were very pleased to be in Carnegie Hall for the past two events, for we could all bathe in the golden glow of their radiance like explorers on the rich coasts of the old Dutch East Indies.
Frederick L. Kirshnit