Were We Even At The Same Concert?

Courtesy of the Carnegie Hall Music Educators Workshop, my wife was able to score us a couple of tickets to hear the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra at Carnegie Hall this Valentine’s Day. We both thoroughly enjoyed this concert of Schumann, Mozart, and Brahms. In my case, I enjoyed it almost in spite of myself. I was tired hours before the concert began, and felt as if I might pass out by the time we were seated. I foolishly anticipated experiencing the first half as a chore to wade through before getting to the Brahms. Instead, I was transfixed from the start, on the edge of my seat from the first sounds. I was impressed by how well a pared-down version of the Concertgebouw Orchestra melded with a select group of players from the National Youth Orchestra for the Schumann, thinking to myself: If I didn’t know this was half professionals and half teenagers, I probably wouldn’t guess. Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 was known to me in the sense that I was familiar with it thematically and formally. However, when it came to the splendor, excitement, chamber approach to the orchestration, and overall clarity of interpretation that Daniel Harding and the orchestra delivered, I was caught off guard. Those seated around us, many of them music educators and performers themselves, were very obviously equally impressed. Even my old friend and genre-transcending composer Josh Oxford, whose ranking among Mozart fans wouldn’t crack the top three billion, might have found himself enjoying this particular performance. I didn’t even lament Mozart’s failure to include trumpets in the orchestration, satisfying myself with the astonishing quality of the horn section and the fearlessly characterful playing of the orchestra as a whole. Following an intermission, the on-stage personnel swelled, and we were treated to a stunning Brahms 4. It really was stunning. During the notably short pauses between movements, you could hear “WOW” sprinkled around the balcony, along with the usual throat clearing and coughing of a New York concert audience. It’s as if these people gather in Central Park an hour prior to every event to ritualistically chug a quart of heavy cream before inhaling a fistful of shale dust. Or maybe Manhattan has a team of Ear, Nose, and Throat specialists whose therapeutic approach involves prescribing concerts of classical music to patients with the most acute breathing problems. At any rate, the control they have over their laryngeal contributions is a true mystery. I am happy to report that the playing of the Concertgebouw Orchestra more than compensated for these brief interludes.

Having so treasured this concert-going experience, I was a little shocked to read a New York Times review by Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim in which she revealed a much more lukewarm reaction to the same concert. Her references to “unevenness” in the Schumann, which she attributes to the “lovely gesture” of the NYO members playing side-by-side with the Concertgebouw Orchestra member, and to “shakiness” in the Mozart left me wondering if we were really at the same concert. I heard the Schumann as dynamically and coloristically engaging, and the Mozart as humorous and surprising, even as long sections repeated. I heard virtually nothing in the entire concert that struck me as unintentional. Her critical assessment of the Brahms was more positive, albeit frustratingly terse. Was this an editorial word-count related imposition, or did she simply have very little to say about what I would call one of the most transcendent musical performances I would ever care to hear. Who knows? She certainly attends enough orchestra concerts. She is mostly positive toward the next night’s concert, which I did not attend, but makes a bizarre comment at the end of her piece:

Mr. Harding conducted elegantly, with intelligence and purpose.

Even so, I couldn’t help noticing that the musicians’ eyes were often elsewhere. String players often glance at each other, or keep their eyes focused on the concertmaster’s bow. Part of what makes this orchestra play so well is that its members approach the music like chamber musicians. which means that much of the time they don’t look at the conductor at all.

She seems to think she is serving a point she would like to make about Harding having difficulty connecting with some orchestras in the past. From my perspective, she has accidentally complimented Harding for having done such a thorough job of rehearsing the orchestra and making it so clear he doesn’t need his ego stroked all the time, that the instrumentalists feel free to play without constantly looking up at him.

Ordinarily, I would be encouraged to see that my own opinion on something musical is just one of many. In this case however, it worries me that this person who seemingly hasn’t played with an orchestra since going to college in a non-conservatory program has such a global platform to send the message that this exciting concert with traits that could easily serve to bring more young people to classical music was only so-so. There might have been more hidden from my view, but I only saw one child at the concert, and the majority of the heads and faces I saw while scanning the hall were old, white, and half-asleep. PR is not a critic’s job, but perhaps if this critic would like to still have a job in ten years, she should consider hearing music for its potential to inspire and sustain an audience into the future, and write about it accordingly.

As always, I welcome your comments and questions below. Thank you for reading!

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Nikola Tomic3 Comments