Friday, March 18, 2011

Nelsons' Ninth

I was all set to begin this post with a little paean to serendipity. With one free night during my weekend pleasure jaunt to New York, I surveyed the field a couple of months ago and decided to spend the evening at Carnegie Hall, hearing James Levine lead the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Mahler's Ninth. Then the whole Levine thing happened, and there was the unknown (to me) Andris Nelsons taking over; and after that he swiftly went from unknown to the next hot new thing, and I couldn't believe my luck at being in the right place at the right time.

Yeah, well. I'm not in a position to tease out what was Nelsons, and what was the BSO, and what was presumably a shortage of rehearsal time, but Thursday's was not what I'd call a good performance of the Ninth. Others felt differently (there was tumultuous applause, and Big Marc Geelhoed, for one, nigh about wet his pants in delight) but to these ears the whole thing was a struggle and a disappointment. Nelsons often didn't do much to delineate the formal outlines of the piece (without which the first movement in particular can easily sound like just one damn thing after another); and when he did decide to mark a formal juncture, it was generally with an exaggerated ritard followed by a muddy entrance.

On no evidence at all, I'm going to chalk up some of the tentative Alphonse-and-Gaston footwork between Nelsons and the string players in the outer movements to lack of rehearsal, and give a pass to the technical infelicities elsewhere. But I'd still like to think that a conductor so extravagantly lauded could bring out the ironic wit of the Ländler a little more deftly, and make the finale sound really tragic rather than simply becalmed. Maybe next time.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Breaking from Boston

As predicted elsewhere by those with their ears to the ground and their noses in the wind, the official word just came in that James Levine is stepping down as music director in Boston as of Sept. 1. This isn't exactly a surprise — Levine's been in poor health and missing appearances for a while now — but it does bring a premature close to what sounded by all reports like a fairly exciting chapter in the history of an orchestra that has badly needed same. (I was on the list to hear Levine and the BSO do the Mahler Ninth in Carnegie later this month — no word yet on who or what will replace that.)

For me, the interesting tell now will be how quickly and how skillfully the BSO management finds a successor for Levine. I know I tend to harp on this, but the business of lining up and landing music directors is one of those areas that really do separate the orchestra managers who know what they're doing from those that operate at Lincoln Center. I don't have a good sense of where Mark Volpe falls on that spectrum, but this could be the make-or-break moment for him. Levine's health issues have been obvious for so long that there's no excuse for not having someone ready to step in on short notice. If that happens, then bravo for Volpe and the BSO; if this is their cue to start forming committees and launching a search, then they're hopelessly behind the curve.