Sunday, November 04, 2007

What a Conductor can Do



Today I had the great pleasure of attending a concert of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, the training orchestra for the CSO. Having heard them previously, and aware of what they could do, I was looking forward to a good concert. What I hadn't taken into account though was that the ensemble was going to be directed by Maestro Bernard Haitink, the 2007 Musician of the Year.  What I enjoyed today was a gripping and compelling pair of performances that could only have been drawn out by a master. It was all in the conducting, and Haitink made it look easy.

The concert was made that much more special because I had company in the form of my nephew, mother (both attendees of the previous concert), along with my father, and my sister-in-law. It was fun to expose more and more people to the rarified world of classical music. By doing so, maybe it won't be so rarified anymore. I wouldn't recommend sitting through the hour-long Symphony No.10 of Shostakovich as the introduction to the world of classical music, but they were all champs. It was my first time hearing that piece as well, so there was a lot of anticipation and excitement on my part. I wasn't disappointed.

First, there was the Beethoven Leonore Overture No.3. There were some missteps on the part of the orchestra: some woodwinds came in slightly after the beat, the strings couldn't handle all the buzzing to and fro in various moments of the piece, and the brass were too loud at times. Added up, these foibles lasted about nine seconds out of the fourteen minutes it took to perform the overture. What I was far more impressed with was the precision of the playing, especially from the strings. The 60-plus string section acted as one instrument that Haitink played with complete mastery. He would give the smallest gesture to the strings to make a diminuendo, and it would be done instantly. If we needed to hear the woodwinds perform their delicate solos, Haitink would slowly move his left hand downward, palm down, to let the strings know they had to be quieter. When the brass came in and the conductor thought they were playing too loudly, he let them know by shooting them a look of such strong disapproval. They never sounded too loud again for the rest of the concert. The quietude that opened the piece was sustained and palpable. Haitink kept all the forces in strict check, and the audience was spellbound by the misery of the prison cell, and Florestan's reminiscences of better days. It was a superb performance elicited by a superb conductor.

The Shostakovich followed without intermission. In this piece, I had to take in the performance, as well as the composition for the first time. I had read up on the piece and knew what I was in for. Shostakovich is always genuinely and unapologetically true to himself. That means that the work will have utter desolation, insane sarcasm, wit, and an offbeat quality that is his trademark. His other trademark was prominent as well - his musical initials abound in the third and fourth movements. It is a stark and fascinating work. It provides the listener with the experience of living under intellectual and personal tyranny. The pathos and instability are constant, as well as a sense of utter isolation. I found all the solo wind writing over a pedal point of strings, almost always in their low registers, to be moving and effective. At one point, there is a short dialogue between bassoon and contrabassoon that I thought ennobled both instruments considerably.  The finale is completely surprising and very twisted given what came before. Its unabashed optimism is that of an insane person who doesn't know better, but optimism shines through regardless. The symphony can truly be described as an "optimistic tragedy."

The Civic Orchestra's performance would not have been possible without the maestro's clear vision for this piece. Even the half-hour long first movement flowed from idea to idea seamlessly. The players were committed and the result was a reassured performance, as if they had played that symphony countless times. More than anything else, this concert proved that a conductor is an integral part of the orchestra. Without someone to give vision and direction, there is no point. I am glad that as we look for a person to do that for our great symphony, we have Bernard Haitink to keep the orchestra in line. I am also glad that he took the time to train the training orchestra, and that I got to see what he does, for the first time no less, for free. Amazing.

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