Whenever you get a guest conductor back after a year’s absence or more, it’s often a good time to take stock of where the orchestra is at artistically, where the guest conductor is artistically, and what sort of trends you can divine from these observations. When the guest conductor is a former music director, in this case one who served in that position for 22 seasons, it’s all the more interesting. I don’t know if I’ve got anything really profound to say about the subscription series with James DePreist that concluded last night, but a few thoughts have crossed my mind in the five days of rehearsals and concerts.
The orchestra, I’ve noticed, has become much more responsive to conductor inputs. With us Jimmy has largely been a hands-off type of conductor. He prefers to give the larger gestures and let the solo winds and other melodic line-holders sort out the small stuff. “Don’t sweat the small stuff” could be his motto. The approach lends itself well to large-scale pieces that are Romantic in nature – the Rachmaninoff Second Symphony is a perfect case in point.
It was interesting to note that it took some time for us to get our footing in rehearsals (and concerts, I must admit) in the Rachmaninoff, despite the fact that it’s a piece that we’ve done many times (and recorded) with Jimmy. We’re used to the tension of fighting against a very determined will with Carlos – if we start to push, he really holds us back, and I think that there’s a healthy tension there – even if it might be a bit frustrating at times. With Jimmy, there’s not that sense of being held, it’s more like being gently herded – parts of the orchestra respond quicker than others, and some don’t respond at all, and the general sense of listening to other parts of the orchestra also goes by the wayside. When you have long, spun phrases, this can be ok – there’s more than enough time to let it gel. But the intricate filigree, that never really comes together, sadly.
Anyway, back to the responsiveness idea that I neatly took a tangent away from – when Jimmy gave a very clear and unmistakable cue or gesture that indicated a certain character or tempo or feeling, the orchestra gave it to him quickly and clearly. As soon as the focus from the podium waned – whether a miscue, or lazy upbeat or just a marking of time with no other inputs – you could feel the orchestra slacken as well. I remember from a New York Times article about 10 years ago concerning a conducting masterclass with Pierre Boulez and the Cleveland Orchestra which was held at Carnegie Hall: the writer said that it was almost cruel to put a student conductor, no matter how talented, in front of the Cleveland Orchestra – they would do whatever she showed them, whether a good idea or not. I think we’re approaching that level where we can give very keen, brilliant, chamber-music like performances if we’re given that kind of leadership, but if someone comes in and gives less than 100 percent, we’re likewise likely to equal less than the sum of our parts.
That being said, I found there were some very enjoyable moments throughout the concerts this week. Nadja Salerno Sonnenberg was entertaining, and thought-provoking with her very individual interpretation of the Bruch Violin Concerto. I wasn’t sure what to expect, not having heard her live for some time, but she gave committed performances and the chemistry between her and Jimmy was the usual fireworks display we’ve come to expect. The Wagner Prelude to the Act III of Die Meistersinger was a nice easy way to open the concert, and showed off the wind and brass sections to good effect with some nice sustained and sonorous playing. I have to say that I have listened to the original version which does not hit a final cadence (it just goes into the next scene without interruption) that I actually prefer that sense of unease that results from the lack of harmonic resolution. It’s a minor quibble, though, and a lovely piece that I enjoyed getting to perform. The Rachmaninoff had its scary moments as well as its delights, and I won’t go into them here – it was good to see the obvious enjoyment on the faces of our three audiences this week, and nice to revisit this piece for one last time with Jimmy.