Symphony orchestras, like fine wines, travel badly; yet travel they must. It's not enough, for both commodities, to garner fame and fortune in their own back yards. The Philadelphia Orchestra must also conquer audiences in Costa Mesa, as a superb Burgundy must lubricate the plastic at a four-star Manhattan eatery. Hearing the Philadelphia at Segerstrom Hall in the Orange County Performing Arts Center, or the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra at Royce Hall, or the City of Birmingham Symphony at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion – to cite three recent forays by visiting orchestras into our midst – is, however, a little like sipping fine Burgundy from a plastic cup.
An orchestra plays upon the acoustical and visual properties of its home concert hall as subtly as its members play upon their violins and oboes. On tour, with the weariness in the bones brought on by an excess of air and bus travel, experiencing a new complex of sight and sound every couple of days – and, usually, with no more than an hour's worth of sound-check and rehearsal time – a touring orchestra can offer its public only a facsimile of its hometown quality.
Having its orchestra on tour, hailed with lavish outpourings of exclamation points by critics in the boonies, is an ego massage to the boards of directors back home; the promise of tour dates is an effective carrot-on-stick for keeping conductors in their posts as well. Our Philharmonic's own Esa-Pekka owes his current New York acclaim almost entirely to his yearly visits there with his orchestra.
There was a time when the “Philadelphia sound” – lush, seductive, wrong for the classical repertory but what the hell – was reason enough for enduring the mediocrity of Eugene Ormandy's musical insights. You could hear it even in the orchestra's home base, the hooty and echoey Academy of Music, and Ormandy was able to re-create that sound in every whistle stop on the orchestra's tours. In the acoustic aridity of Costa Mesa's Segerstrom Hall, the Philadelphia under Ormandy's successor-once-removed, Wolfgang Sawallisch, played Dvorak and Tchaikovsky – with a little Samuel Barber tossed in for a semblance of adventurous programming – without style, without tone, without anything that could identify it as one of America's most renowned orchestras and not just some band from the boonies. Sure, the Philadelphia Orchestra is famous for being famous, a triumph of the record-company blurbmastery as much as musicianship; both programs played to turn-away crowds.
So, of course, did the Met Orchestra at Royce and the Birmingham at the Music Center. There are interesting similarities. Both are historic entities – the Met since 1883, the Birmingham since 1920 – whose current born-again eminence is entirely the work of spellbinding conductors fiercely dedicated to abolishing their orchestras' status quo and imposing upon them an entirely new personality and purpose. Against the “ho-hum, another tour date, another Tchaikovsky Fifth” pall over the Philadelphia concerts, there was something undeniably fresh in these orchestras' performances; it came from the fact that neither orchestra, and neither conductor, has yet had the time for the sense of routine to set in. It showed.
The Met Orchestra has given concerts throughout its century-plus existence, but only under James Levine has it become great on its own. The new Royce acoustics are kind – bright and somewhat in-your-face, certainly the livest sound of any local large hall – and turned Vadim Repin's dash through the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto into audible flame; I don't remember ever coming so close to being moved by the work. Better yet was the amazing detail, the glinting winds and the bright blare from the brass, in Levine's performances of Rossini's Semiramide Overture at the start and Wagner's Die Meistersinger Overture as the encore. In between there was some more of Tan Dun's arty and ludicrously extended pretentiousness.
When I first interviewed Simon Rattle – for Newsweek in 1985 – he confessed that he had just begun learning the Beethoven symphonies. A dozen years later he gave us his extraordinary reading of the Ninth with the Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl last summer and, last week, the “Eroica” with his own orchestra – both conducted from memory. There were indications of edges still to be polished; the overenthusiastic timpani in the “Eroica” may have been an acoustic miscalculation, not repeated in the Mahler Seventh the next night. The energy on both nights was something you had to feel: not just the foot-stomping, hip-wriggling athletics of a Bernstein, but the work of an exceptional young talent as obsessed with defining each musical detail in turn as with pushing forward. Sure, the young orchestra was hard-pressed at times; the teensy flaws in the ensemble were about as important (i.e., not much) as the equally infinitesimal gray areas that still await exploration in Rattle's growing mastery. Both programs – which also included a marvelous and little-played Haydn Symphony (No. 86) and Oliver Knussen's intense, vital Third Symphony – were exactly what the musical world needs right now: assurance that within the hoary institution of symphony concerts the spark still burns bright.
There was a Haydn symphony the next night, too: Leonard Slatkin leading off the final concert of the Philharmonic season with the rich fantasy of No. 93, as preface to the glorious clatter, bang and unbridled hell-raising of Gyorgy Ligeti's Piano Concerto to end the orchestra's extended homage to that cherishable composer. The soloist was Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who bears the standard for Ligeti's piano music and does so with awesome skill and imagination, and who earlier in the week had dispatched all 16 of the Etudes in a jaw-dropping evening at the Gindi Auditorium.
Slatkin's program also included a lively run-through of Samuel Barber's First Symphony, which Sawallisch and the Philadelphia had also pecked at in Costa Mesa the week before. I was delighted to read Paul Griffiths' program note for the Philharmonic performance, in which he pretty much ticks off the work as imitation movie music. Hurrah for free thinking!
Meanwhile, back at Royce, there was Verdi's Falstaff, produced by the UCLA Department of Music, sung by an almost entirely student cast (save for John Del Carlo's Falstaff), conducted by the L.A. Opera's William Vendice with the school orchestra, directed by the University of Indiana's Vincent Liotta, and funded by the Maxwell H. Gluck and Gladys M. Turk foundations to test the possibility of an ongoing opera program at the school. Some distance must still be covered; at the moment UCLA has only two full-time vocal coaches and about 30 voice majors. All the more remarkable, then: Galvanized by Del Carlo's “Immenso Falstaff,” and created with wonderful wit and energy by both Vendice and Liotta, this turned out to be the brainiest, most stimulating and beautifully produced operatic performance of the entire season. Yes, the entire season.