Not So Good Conducting, Worse Composing

Dan Albertson

[October 2008.]

Some conductors age gracefully. Others waver as the years accrue, and no one has the courage to turn them out to pasture. Lorin Maazel, now 78, appears to occupy the latter category. In comments last month to BBC 3 presenter Sean Rafferty, the conductor, while offering a preview of a New York Philharmonic performance of the complete Brandenburgische Konzerte in the 2008–09 season, made several claims about period-performance groups. His contention that pitches and available instruments may have differed from one city to another is correct. However, no respectable musicologist disputes this fact and L’Europa Galante may play at a different pitch than Il Complesso Barocco, while Les Musiciens du Louvre plays lower than La Chapelle Royale. Vive la différence. What is not true is his assertion that leaders of the early-music movement are convinced of their correctness and that everyone else is wrong. I have never encountered a musician or scholar who has made such a claim. One of the pioneers of historical accuracy, Sir Roger Norrington, told BBC 3’s Martin Handley only weeks earlier that his views have changed and will change, and that his interpretations are offered only as possibilities.

Does Maazel honestly believe that modern instruments are the ideal option? Even if one allows for the possibility of modern instruments satisfying musical requirements, are they the best choice? I am inclined to believe that a composer writes for the instruments he knows rather than those of an unimaginable future. After hearing period performances of Bach for many years now, I find the idea of a return to the overblown, Romantic interpretations I thought died with Klemperer an arid devolution. Only time will tell what Maazel makes of the six Brandenburgs.

A clear demonstration of Maazel’s waning skills informed his direction of Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps during this summer’s London Proms. For a man who claims to concern himself with a composer’s intentions, the maestro seems to have been working from a score that differs from mine. Balances, always a problem with this work, were not pleasant, with brasses overpowering winds, and the all-important percussion ostinati all too often relegated to background thuds. Maazel’s tempi were wildly uneven, as in a ponderous Spring Rounds and hyperactive Part II introduction, faster even than Stravinsky’s own recordings. Why? The eleven forte strokes on timpani and bass drum that herald the transition from Mystic Circle of the Young Girls to The Naming and Honoring of the Chosen One were delivered staccato, with slight pauses between. Why? In the moderately paced Sacrificial Dance, the maestro seems to have missed a cue or two where the rhythm shifts: More than once, the orchestra came close to derailing.

The music’s conclusion saw Maazel perpetuating the recent trend of a long gap between the dying grace notes from high winds and strings and the final death knell. The gap was so protracted that the BBC microphones picked up an audience member murmuring. A sense of peril I can understand but, please, let the music speak for itself. If the result leads to a deeper understanding, deviations are sometimes to be welcomed. If one needs often to ask himself why, perhaps the answers are not worthwhile.

Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Chicago Remains

Turnage’s music has never impressed me, not in his early British-lite take on jazz, nor in his plaintive current phase. Living in hope, I continue to listen, which is why I withstood his recent commission from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Remains, when Bernard Haitink and the CSO brought it to the Proms.

The piece begins in a mood of faux menace, with dirge-like strings following low percussion and low wind figures. The sequence repeats with slight variations, with little to be gained. A new, mildly optimistic mood enters with the whirring of piercing winds soon enfolded into a meandering stretch with occasional harp glissandi, a plaintive oboe cantilena, pizzicato strings, recurring cymbal crashes and similar banalities. Strings dominate for a while, weaving a bland, unvariegated blanket, only to be overtaken by rattling brass, timpani and metal percussion. Crashes swell and fade, swell and fade, swell and fade, thence to a brass chorale, with more percussion breaking the mood. Amidst the din I did detect the rumblings of a bass clarinet, a few indistinguishable piano notes and occasional tepid strings. A tranquil moment ensues. If suspense were the point, it missed its mark. After further meandering, the opening notes return, and the piece concludes. Respectful applause follows.

A blanket of amnesia has settled over my impressions. I cannot remember a single noteworthy gesture, memorable melody or redeeming theme. A music critic wrote after an earlier performance, “… of the countless pieces of music inspired by Chicago, none that I have heard captures the true grit of our town better than Chicago Remains.” What grit? Do clichés qualify? Moreover, why, at a time when composers are rethinking the orchestra and its possibilities, is this man with nothing new, poignant or worthwhile to say afforded so many opportunities, as more deserving voices are not? Here’s a guess: Cautious, uncurious audiences have found their match in a composer more than happy to provide the necessary pabulum.