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What Time Is The Next Swan?

New York
Carnegie Hall
11/16/2004 -  
Pyotr Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake, Act I
Igor Stravinsky: Petrouchka, original version

Pittsburgh Symphony
Charles Dutoit (conductor)

When the truly great but surprisingly underheralded conductor Erich Kleiber was once asked to direct a production of Rosenkavalier, he insisted on three full-length rehearsals of the orchestra. The theater manager, trying to counter such an expensive measure, assured the maestro that the musicians already knew the score quite well. “In that case”, Kleiber quipped, “I shall need six rehearsals”.

Undoing is always much more difficult than creating on a tabula rasa, even if the entrenched habits are good ones. Over time a maestro shapes his orchestra, for better or worse, in his own image. At least, this has been the history of music-making for the past 200 years. But lately, a disturbing new trend is beginning to take hold. Consider the case of the Pittsburgh Symphony.

Finally achieving excellence under Mariss Jansons, the orchestra found itself disappointed with their superstar conductor’s decision to leave the United States for the plum job in all of classical music, the directorship of the Concertgebouw. Since no solid candidate readily appeared, the board announced what was, at the time, a very intelligent decision: they would be in no rush to replace their leader, instituting instead a stewardship of two of the most respected and yet unemployed conductors currently available, Christoph von Dohnanyi and Charles Dutoit. It is that stewardship that is in place today.

However, rather quickly the powers that be abandoned their thoughtful approach and decided instead to employ a triumvirate of decidedly disparate leaders going forward. Starting next season, the orchestra will be led by Sir Andrew Davis, Yan Pascal Tortelier, and Marek Janowski. And apparently, the twain shall never meet. The plan is for each conductor to instill his own ethnicity into the mix and for the public to swoon with delight at the innovation. Paul Silver, a musician on the search committee, was quoted as saying that the ensemble has “the opportunity to play Brahms like a German orchestra and Debussy like a French orchestra”. The board had better be prepared to authorize a lot of very expensive rehearsal time.

All of this makes tonight’s Russian ballet program all the more significant as, apparently, this type of evening will be gone forever under the new guidelines. There are many similarities between concert versions of Act I of Swan Lake and Petrouchka, including the obvious exposure of the pure music, warts and all, to the ear of the public without the corresponding eye candy, but there are also major differences. There is perhaps a good reason for this presentation of the Tchaikovsky to be the first ever at Carnegie (even Tchaikovsky, who conducted the inaugural performances of the new hall, would never have done so). Without the dancers, the myriad opportunities for applause were stifled by Dutoit’s upraised right arm; what remained was mostly audience frustration.

Not to say that the performance was not first rate. In fact, the amazing discipline of the Pittsburghers is still intact, Jansons only gone now for a few months. The cello section in particular was incisive and spectacularly bold, the violins positively creamy where appropriate. However, the music revealed itself to be a first try at ballet scoring, more notable perhaps as a juvenile version of later Tchaikovskiian triumphs. The big waltz, you know, the one that Prokofieff would later turn into the evil dance from Cinderella, was thrilling, Dutoit catching the concert rhythm without totally sacrificing the dance. However, one treacly number after another left this listener on the verge of a diabetic coma. Not until Bela Lugosi finally made his appearance did I feel that the long siege was just about over.

During the interval, I theorized that such fine playing would produce a Petrouchka for the ages, but, alas, this was not to be. Although there were many crisp moments of polyrhythmic dazzle, there were at least as many fraught instances of dead air, spots wherein the strings of the marionettes dangled a bit too loosely. The winds were exceptional, however, although Dutoit’s sound universe does not allow for the highlighting of individual solos, thus subsuming the apparently highly lyrical eloquence of the horn at the fair’s reprise. And I would have forgiven it all if they had paid more attention to the bold klangfarben of the youthful composer. Here’s what I wrote about a student performance some years ago:

“Stravinsky learned his basic composition from Rimsky-Korsakoff, the greatest orchestrator of all time, and he was capable of astounding coloristic effects. It was a delight that after three performances someone finally read the damn score and dropped the tambourine from eye level to the floor at the moment of the puppet's death. This atavistically unpitched jingling thud is one of the most emotional moments in all of twentieth century music and yet neither ‘professional’ orchestra that I heard recently had the adventurousness to attempt it, relying instead on a mini-drop onto a platform (Pittsburgh) or a simple hand tap (London). There is a certain element of temporal chance in the manoeuvre (the release of the young Galileo must be timed perfectly) but the result is not only sonically but visually chilling (there was an audible shudder in the audience). I hope that this type of risk taking is not confined strictly to the conservatories in future but I have noticed a certain timidity among conductors in general developing over the last 40 years or so…”

sad to say, maestro only allowed a weak poke in this version.

At present, the state of Pennsylvania is in danger of losing its two great sonic treasures. What is happening in Philadelphia, with Eschenbach ruining a sound that took sixty years to develop, is close to criminal. Let’s hope that the people of Pittsburgh throw the spin doctors out on their ears and replace them with a real maestro someday soon.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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