Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Notes from Abroad (1)

I had to come to Dresden to get a line on the much-ballyhooed young British conductor Daniel Harding. Well, somewhat ballyhooed — the torrents of extravagant praise that have been heaped on him (mostly among his fellow countrymen) have been followed more recently by the revisionism and bewilderment that so often come in the wake of such an introduction. There seem to be only two categories among people who've heard him conduct — those who think he's the Second Coming and those who can't imagine what the fuss is about.

Based on Harding's mediocre performance Sunday night with the Bavarian Radio Orchestra and Chorus, I'm going to claim membership, at least tentatively, in the latter camp. In Brahms' "Haydn" Variations, Harding managed to be fussy and sloppy all at once — conducting the life out of every note and phrase without bringing any kind of discipline or direction to the music. (The red-faced gentleman seated in front of me in the Kreuzkirche turned to his neighbor when it was over and proclaimed in a stage whisper, with the kind of outrage that only cultured Germans can truly muster in these situations, "That was a joke!") The rest of the program, including Schumann's Nachtlied and Schubert's Mass No. 6 — which Michael Tilson Thomas, coincidentally, will conduct June 10-13 in Davies Symphony Hall — skated by on the strength of the chorus, a truly first-rate ensemble. Aside from a couple of deft touches scattered throughout the Schubert, Harding's role was largely to get in the way.

I'm not in Dresden, of course, to scout conductors (for that matter, Harding was actually a last-minute substitute for Nikolaus Harnoncourt). The city's tourism office brought a passel of music critics over to take in a bit of the Dresdner Musikfestspiele, the intensive 2½-week festival that fills the various churches and concert halls of this neo-Baroque/Cold War/21st century city. This is the festival's first season under the artistic leadership of Jan Vogler, the genial and energetic young cellist who's busy planning seasons ahead that build on the festival's traditions while taking it in new directions.

This year's title and theme is "The New World," and the schedule is replete with nods toward the Americas among the expected Teutonic faves. Saturday night, before I got here, Gustavo Dudamel led the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra at the Semperoper in a program that included Carlos Chávez's Symphony No. 2, the "Symphony India"; on Monday, the New York organist Gail Archer provided the unusual chance to hear the music of Barber and Persichetti played on Gottfried Silbermann's majestic 1755 organ (his last) in the Hofkirche. Also, and unrelatedly, Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking is on at the Semperoper tonight; also, and totally unrelatedly, the city is semi-agog over next week's visit by Barack Obama.

There's no mistaking the fact that Dresden is a city in transition, still recovering day by day from the twin calamities of the 1945 firebombing and the ensuing decades of Communist rule. The old center of town is split about equally between painstakingly reconstructed historic facades and massive construction sites; this view of the Frauenkirche from just off the Neumarkt is pretty representative.


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