Friday, January 18, 2008

The Gustavo Dudamel School of Conducting

Young Estonian Olari Elts, tonight's conductor of the Lithuanian State Symphony Orchestra, must have been busy watching the even younger Gustavo Dudamel's conducting videos. The same arms high up in the air, the conducting for expression (he does not seem to do beats), pulling the expression out of the orchestra, shushing them when they are too loud, often holding on to the conductor-guard, sometimes doing nothing - it was great watching him! My friends in Scotland should know that he is the principal guest conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra - look out for him! (How does the SCO always get these talented and usually young people? There was Joseph Swensen, that lovely and lively Alexander Janiczek as the first fiddler....).

He really, really did his best, and most of the time the orchestra paid attention and followed him. But here is a message to engrave in the orchestra management's heart:

Never Ever Play A Piece That Starts With A Cello Solo!

Every time I hear this orchestra I forget just how bad the cello section is, until they start playing. Since Mindaugas Backus left, that is. If the cello leader were a social security official, she would be sitting in front of her desk, which might be full of paper but that paper would not move, nor would she, and every time a client entered her room, they would be greeted with a miserable face expressing annoyance that perhaps this official might have to do some work. But it's only this official - some of the others in that section have a pulse. Questions of leadership arise in orchestras, too. God help the orchestra if they ever want to play the William Tell overture.

So we started with Kodaly's Dances of Galanta. I've played this in Hungary, with a Hungarian conductor, and while our amateur orchestra had multifarious issues relating to the right notes at the right time, boy, did we do the spirit of the piece! Here the cellos fiddled down the opening which should be taut, full of tension, waiting for what happens next ....it was a muddy, enjoyment-lacking playing of notes. The following entry by the horns - hmmm, the horns in that orchestra are another question - there could be a job for young Zoltán Mácsay who played this piece with us in Hungary lots better. These horns, too were just muddy - maybe they had been 'inspired' by the cellos. Delightful Zbignievas Levickas, the leader, did a lovely Austro-Hungarian thing where he microscopically delayed the entrances in another section; shame that his group did not follow him. And the first flautist did a solo in an almost Klezmerish way - very interesting. They did not quite get the passion of the piece - they could have been more elastic with tempi etc, but you know, Northern temperaments and Hungarian music, even if Estonians have a related language. (Earlier today I listened to György Pauk's recording of a Bartok violin sonata - what a difference! He has fun and he takes big risks!)

Nikita Borisoglebsky (listen to him on this You Tube link) and the band followed this with Sibelius' violin concerto. Young Nikita won the second prize at the 13th International Tchaikovsky Competition last year, just beating the German Yuki Manuela Janke (who's one of at least 3 Janke children of whom two are prize winning violinists and there's a pianist, too). Apparently at the competition he won the audience prize. Now, it was ok; there were a few smudges, but in general I thought that the phrases did not quite hang together - they stopped to early, and the tension was not there (tension = word for today). Also he and the orchestra seemed to have different ideas about tempo from time to time. Then suddenly, 3 minutes before the end, it all came together stunningly. He followed this with two encores; one was a virtuosic 20th century treatment of someone else's theme (and if he had not played the second encore I might have kept the tune in my head to check it out later), and having thoroughly wound up the audience, he finished with a quiet movement from a Bach solo partita or sonata, very nicely played, walking on the knife edge between romantic and historically correct. In both these he seemed vastly more comfortable (perhaps because he did not have a tricky orchestra to deal with?).

Brahms' first finished the concert. Someone should have had a stopwatch - it seemed very brisk indeed. The conductor shot into the first movement, timps going like the clappers, and the violin solo at the end of the second movement had a friskiness quite of its own. Elts danced away on the podium, pulled out the dynamics
from each fiddle almost personally with his fingers, the oboist's hair's parting went red with the effort, the double bassists had a lot of fun in their corner; the cellos pottered along the way sluggishly (though the back desks did their best)....it was very enjoyable. If the orchestra would have gone all the way with Elts who knows how they might have played. I suppose even if Dudamel were bouncing up and down in front of the cellos, he would get no response.