Mariss Jansons; photo by Marco Borggreve
The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra came to Carnegie Hall for a three-concert stand. They were led by Mariss Jansons, their Latvian-born chief. He is also the chief of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. Those are two plum posts, and Jansons deserves them.
He began the opening concert on Friday night with a piece by John Adams: Slonimsky’s Earbox, from 1996. Someone asked me afterward, “Was that an OOMP?” In other words, was the Adams work an “obligatory opening modern piece”? Yes and no. Slonimsky’s Earbox is a little long to be a standard OOMP. It takes about 15 minutes to play; your classic OOMP is six or seven minutes of lip service. Relatedly, Slonimsky’s Earbox is more ambitious than your classic OOMP.
My guess is, the Bavarians wanted to lead their series with something American.
In any event, the Slonimsky of the title is Nicolas Slonimsky, the Russian-American musician, musicologist, and character. He died at 101 in 1995, making Adams’s piece a kind of homage. It is bright, brassy, and American. (American in feeling.) Minimalistic, at least in part, it is very, very busy—unrelenting. This sort of music gets old in a hurry, I find. One longs for relief. And when it comes—as it does in this piece—it is extra-relieving.
Still, Slonimsky’s Earbox is clever, musical, and commendable: a high example of sound design. (It is more than that, too. I’m being a little churlish.) Jansons led an alert, neat performance. I question, however, whether this piece should be so determinedly loud.
By the way, one of the many things Nicolas Slonimsky was was a frequent guest on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. I remember one particularly painful episode: Johnny was having the old man show off his perfect pitch. (Slonimsky titled his autobiography “Perfect Pitch.”) Doc Severinsen, the bandleader, played a very high note on his trumpet. Slonimsky, sitting on the couch, said it was a C. Severinsen, apologetic, said it was a C sharp. Slonimsky reacted badly to this. Again, a painful episode.
Next on Jansons’s program was a Strauss tone poem, Don Juan. If I said that he and the orchestra performed it conventionally but well, you would know what I meant, right? They did nothing unusual, and they did nothing objectionable. They traversed the piece with honor.
Hang on, this was unusual: At the climax of the work, there is a long rest—and from Jansons, it must have been the longest on record. When the orchestra at last came back in, it did so with a poor entrance.
In the best performances of Don Juan, a listener feels he has been through a wild ride. He did not on this occasion, or at least I didn’t.
After intermission came the Symphonie fantastique of Berlioz. And I was unprepared for the performance we got. You experienced the piece at its best, really.
The first movement, those daydreams and passions, was measured and sensible—but far from dull. The music was plenty dreamy and passionate. It also had refinement and common sense. Jansons brought out a certain nobility, I would say.
Then comes the waltz, which he phrased beautifully and stylishly. An air of enchantment took hold in Carnegie Hall. During the next movement, the pastoral scene, a phrase came to me: “intelligent Romanticism.” This was a model of Romanticism, intelligently expressed.
The symphony ends with the March to the Scaffold and the Witches’ Sabbath. These were tight as a drum (in the good sense) and riveting. Berlioz’s piece had some of the newness and weirdness it must have had when it was first played in 1830.
A great Symphonie fantastique from a German band? Yes. I should phrase that more accurately, or more completely: from a German band led by the laudable Latvian? Yes.
For an encore, they gave us a stretch of waltziness from Strauss’s opera Der Rosenkavalier. The playing was matter-of-fact—unforced, at ease—and all the more enjoyable for it.
This evening was, among other things, a festival of cellphones. I would have thought that, with the passage of time, people would get the hang of cellphones—get the hang of turning them off in settings such as concerts. It should be automatic, reflexive, by now. Frankly, I think the problem has become worse than it was when cellphones were novel.