Re: Departures Make Hearts

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Posted by cut paste article on July 01, 2002 at 15:23:11:

In Reply to: Departures Make Hearts posted by Grow Fonder on June 30, 2002 at 12:19:07:

Departures Make Hearts Grow Fonder

ONGEVITY has its drawbacks. Life without end, job security, presidency for life — the promise of a future without foreseeable closure, no matter what form it takes — is not the problem solver it is made out to be. Life around us has beginnings and ends built in. Permanence is a bad fit.

In the world of symphony orchestras and their music directors, knowing that an end is in sight radically changes how musicians play. Boston Symphony players sulked under Seiji Ozawa's seemingly interminable tenure, going so far as to publish an anti-Ozawa newsletter. A near-great orchestra simmered with potential, but with Mr. Ozawa's music directorship extending year after year, 29 in all, with little promise of closure, one could often hear the despondency.


Other conductors learned their lessons better. Christoph von Dohnanyi leaves the Cleveland Orchestra after 20 years in charge with its loyalty and respect for him intact. Mariss Jansons has told the Pittsburgh Symphony goodbye after a relatively short relationship, now scheduled to end in 2004, after seven years. Orchestral musicians almost inevitably become tired of their music directors, no matter who they are. Mr. Jansons has pulled out well ahead of that point.

In Boston, after so many years of dithering, the firm promise of James Levine finally arrived; and at those Ozawa farewell concerts at Symphony Hall this spring, affection oozed from both sides of the footlights: good will that could be cut with a knife. Even the marvelous talents of the Boston players could not turn Mr. Ozawa's Mahler into a deeply spiritual experience, but, goodness knows, they tried. The prospect of closure shapes our lives at every moment. And when the musicians could see to the end of the long Ozawa arc, they were liberated, free to play for him as they had perhaps not been since his earliest days among them.

Kurt Masur's 11 years at the New York Philharmonic were like a moment compared with Mr. Ozawa's time in Boston. Yet Philharmonic players had time enough to wriggle with discomfort. The Masur years had characteristics of a boot camp: independent-minded, occasionally arrogant musical soldiers being whipped into shape by a tough German drill sergeant. After years of Zubin Mehta's superficialities, the musicians longed for a master conductor who would lead them into depths not often explored by Mr. Mehta during the 1980's. What they got was a man intent on discipline.

Piecemeal and behind the scenes, a number of players told of harsh criticism from the podium during rehearsals, including public humiliation of individuals not up to Mr. Masur's standards of the moment. Musicians wanted a Wilhelm Furtwängler but found themselves, according to some, with a provincial Kapellmeister: a small-town musical functionary, often ill-tempered, the kind of conductor special to the lower rungs of German culture, with little vision beyond his own city limits.

They were not completely wrong. Mr. Masur's attentions to the new and the American were dutiful and correct, but his interests lay with Central European repertory: Beethoven and Brahms that flew past the ear briskly, bluntly. The performances were unassailable but less often heartwarming. Mr. Masur went through the Classical and Romantic repertory like a passionately meticulous keeper of records. Nothing would be misrepresented. The crack in this unrelenting earnestness, the clue to a musician's humanity, lay in his love of big and hopelessly impractical choral pieces, like Debussy's "Martyrdom of St. Sebastian" and Franck's "Psyché." It pleased us to know that a hardheaded disciplinarian like Mr. Masur could also joust at windmills.

Orchestra musicians, the wisdom goes, are not always the best judges of the people waving their arms in front of them. The conductor who has insulted them might well have used insult to produce better music. The reverse is, of course, just as true: ingratiation from on high can induce warm feelings of friendship but not necessarily good Beethoven.

The real evidence of the Masur chemistry was not anecdotal but in how the performances sounded. And here it was hard to deny that evenings at Avery Fisher Hall had become less like Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic than like Kurt Masur versus the New York Philharmonic. Gratifying was the rectitude of the music. Disturbing was the short leash on which this gifted orchestra was being held.

Few if any rivals in the world can match the New York Philharmonic in talent, both technical and musical. Somewhat like the Berlin Philharmonic, and unlike its famous counterpart in Vienna, this is a "blank check" orchestra. It can be round and soulful for Colin Davis or Riccardo Muti, remarkably fine for Pierre Boulez and uproariously vulgar for Mr. Mehta. Depending on the skill and persuasiveness of the payee, it can bestow almost any amount in any currency.

Week in and week out under Mr. Masur, one sensed the boot camp rigors and felt grateful for the absence of superficiality. One also had the impression of hearing about 60 percent of this great orchestra's substance. The sound was akin to a muscular athlete struggling to function in a suit two sizes too small.

Then something happened. Mr. Masur was leaving. A continuing process now had an ending. Players rejoiced in the prospect of Mr. Masur's opposite: the smooth and worldly Lorin Maazel. Players knew that their days of tough love were coming to an end and, with them, any feelings of despair or resentment for the future. Their music director changed in their eyes. You could hear it in the music. In that last month of farewell concerts, the Philharmonic sound broadened, deepened, floated, shone. The rectitude of Mr. Masur's musical nature and the rich potential of this orchestra seemed to coalesce. The paradox is this: Had he remained as music director, it might never have happened.

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