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Loving Ludwig

On a rainy night last week I fell in love with Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. Really, I mean, in love. I heard the first drumbeats as if they came from my own throbbing temples; the opening music for winds was smooth, elegant, angelic. (Has anyone written a book about Beethoven‘s use of the bassoon? Someone should.) The soloist, the Austrian violinist Thomas Zehetmair, did some odd things that weren’t in Beethoven‘s score, but they made sense.

Offhand, I would guess that I’ve listened to the Beethoven Violin Concerto -- listened, that is, as opposed to just being in someone‘s house with the radio on -- some 400 times, in various stages of rapture. What made the difference this time, in the Philharmonic’s program at the Music Center, was the contrast with the music that had come just before, which made Beethoven‘s drumbeats and those first woodwind chords seem, let’s say for the sake of simile, like the driest, most sublime martini, with the gin distilled by the hand of God.

That preceding music was the remains of the 11th Symphony by Eduard Tubin; this was its American premiere, with Paavo Jarvi conducting. It arrived surrounded by the kind of news that orchestra managements hope will attract box-office lines (with, however, only middling success at the Friday night concert). There was the exotic appeal: You don‘t hear music by an Estonian composer every day, especially when led by an Estonian conductor. There was the human-interest appeal: Tubin (1905--1982) died while at work on this symphony; only the first movement survived, with the orchestration completed by yet another Estonian, Kaljo Raid. And there was the stop-the-presses appeal: a first-ever American performance.

Given these exhilarating circumstances, perhaps it doesn’t matter that the music was not very good, but it should. Tubin‘s fame rests on his being famous, and on his stature as elder statesman to a generation of younger and better Estonians -- Erkki-Sven Tuur, for one, and the late Lepo Sumera. Most of his symphonies have been recorded, on Sweden’s BIS label conducted by Neeme Jarvi, father of Paavo. It‘s good, solid late-romantic stuff, but you’ve heard it all before. Mahler lurks, as does Strauss and, in the more daring moments, Stravinsky. The woolly blanket of sound that smothered the music (and the listener) at the Music Center may have been the fault of the orchestrator, but what I heard in the work as content was also mostly gesture and cliche. (It too, pace Beethoven, begins with drumbeats.) Would it attract attention as the work of some minor Rhinelander circa 1911? Don‘t bet on it.

What got my back up about this insignificant time-waster was an article by Edward Rothstein in last Saturday’s New York Times that spoke directly to the current dark clouds over all of music, but over symphony orchestras in particular. His concern, in brief, is a growing lack of concern. It is no longer important, as it once was, for the nation‘s major orchestras to choose distinctive and adventurous leadership. The New York Philharmonic, which once had entrusted its bully pulpit to Leonard Bernstein and then to Pierre Boulez, has sunk to the hiring of Lorin Maazel, a move too inexplicable even to be explained away as “safe.” (Maazel is not only 70, conservative in programming taste and blandly efficient in quality of performance, but his history of inspiring unrest among players is vast and famous. Zubin Mehta was finally brought down by the New York Philharmonic’s failure to sell his recordings; who do you know who ever bought a Lorin Maazel disc?)

The sense of “cultural irrelevance,” says Rothstein, grows out of a lack of brilliant young talent, and out of a decline of orchestral attention to new music; the one, of course, feeds the other. A survey of patrons conducted in 1993 by the American Symphony Orchestra League produced the news that orchestras could attract new support by, among other things, redecorating their halls. That being so, the prospects should be bright in Cleveland (where the made-over Severance Hall reopened last month), Philadelphia (whose new orchestra hall opens next fall), New York (where plans for a rebuild of Lincoln Center were recently announced) and, of course, Los Angeles. But where are the announced plans, from any of those edifices present and future, for a rebuilding of cultural attitudes, for demonstrating a caring for music still awaiting creation in our new millennium -- or, for that matter, of bringing awareness of the music around us up from its present circa-1915 level to, at least, the day before yesterday? The specious “novelty” of a symphony by Eduard Tubin doesn‘t go very far toward answering that question.

Esa-Pekka Salonen in Los Angeles, Michael Tilson Thomas in San Francisco -- by that margin, the major West Coast orchestras are a few notches up from Ed Rothstein’s dour outlook. A festival of Stravinsky‘s music here in the upcoming weeks, or in San Francisco two summers ago, may not exactly advance the dateline. What is significant, however, about these events past and present is this: They have been planned (“packaged,” if you prefer) as if to offer a lot more than just a bath in some great music, as if an audience still exists for interactive programming -- one work reflecting on another -- along with talks and discussions.

Oh yes, about the Beethoven. It’s about time Thomas Zehetmair showed up here; his discs (especially several on ECM, of all labels the one most hospitable to the free of spirit) proclaim him one of a small band of trustworthy originals. His Beethoven bore this out not only in the goodies-laden cadenzas, but in the body of the work as well: the thread of pure, lustrous silk he fashioned in the heart-stopping G-minor episode in the first movement, and again throughout the slow movement.

The first-movement cadenza was a hoot and a half. From Beethoven‘s alternate piano version of the concerto, Zehetmair lifted the idea of inviting the timpani to join the solo violinist; he then took both instruments on a fabulous joy ride. Another escapade of similar high imagination linked the slow movement and finale, again with no harm done. Lovable though it be, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto needs a boost here and there, which it got this time -- and how!

Jarvi, now 38, moves up in his world; he was a trainee back in the glory days of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute under Leonard Bernstein. He takes over the Cincinnati Symphony next September, an act of high bravery considering that the orchestra‘s great old hall confronts him with 3,417 seats to fill. To end last week’s concert he offered a goofy, pulverized version of Schumann‘s “Spring” Symphony, punctuated with tempo changes and huge timpani outbursts. At least it was interesting; this too is music that needs all the help it can get.


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