Rebuilding a poor performance

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Brahms was taking a bruising. Not too long ago, in elegant old Jordan Hall, which has seen more than its share of ham-handed routs, the Boston Philharmonic, under the peripatetic direction of Benjamin Zander, was barging through the old man's First Symphony like a taxi going through a Friday evening traffic jam.

What they did and where they eventually wound up produced a few valuable lessons on the anatomy of a symphony.

The problems were legion. This reading of the First was all sinew and little grace. The push and pressure created a kind of excitement, but the excitement had little to do with the music. There was too much of Zander, too little of Brahms.

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Sadly enough, a potentially great performance - the kind of well-crafted, carefully thought-out performance that Zander generally delivers - lay smothered under the bombast. All that was necessary, it seemed, was another couple of weeks' work by the conductor to get his ideas straight and communicate them to this mostly amateur orchestra.

Two nights later, however, across the Charles River in the vast architecture of Sanders Theatre, Benjamin Zander mounted the podium and swept the Philharmonic into an elegantly controlled Brahms First that sang when it should sing, whispered when it should whisper, and overwhelmed when it needed to overwhelm.

The Philharmonic and Zander illustrated a process vital to the making of good music - and one that is sadly lacking in much modern performance. The search for values, decisions, and weights is indispensable to music that won't wind up as some preprogrammed monolithic enterprise.

The big questions are: What happened in 48 hours to turn a muddle into a masterpiece?

The orchestra had a Wednesday night dress rehearsal for its performance Friday evening. All went according to plan. And, the way these things go, the performance should have rested there. But sometime Thursday, Zander, as he explained it to me, was listening to rehearsal tape, and he began to realize that he had made two giant-size interpretive mistakes.

First, he hadn't realized that the opening measures should be thought of as a prefiguring of the coda; that this was the way to bring out the beauty and power in the sweeping gestures and lyrical currents in the woodwinds and strings. Second, he realized that he was taking the main allegro at too fast a tempo in the beginning - and that this would make it impossible for him to move easily into the slower tempo required to bring out the gorgeous architecture later in the piece.

At 1 o'clock Friday morning he sat with his wife, the score scattered all over his bed, saying: ''How could I have been so stupid? I've got to change this.''

Indeed, by refocusing the opening, he would reaffirm what 75 percent of the work is all about; and the tempos just had to be readjusted. If you get one element wrong in a demanding piece like the Brahms First, you wind up distorting the rest of the work. The art is to master the interlocking motions of the work, and that had to be done by making these corrections.

These aren't exactly small questions of polish. They are substantive revisions. But Zander decided to try to make the changes anyway. Twenty minutes before the Friday performance he was frantically explaining to the orchestra that everything had to change. Five minutes before performance he was coaching the timpanist in a rehearsal room.

There just wasn't enough time, and the whole enterprise slid back into the original tempo, with the added liability that everyone was confused about the way it was supposed to go. The timpani sounded as out of place as a jackhammer in church.

But somehow between Friday night and Sunday night, Zander and the orchestra reframed the performance, practiced at the slower tempos, and grew comfortable with the work as it really should be played.

Zander's thinking about the piece brought new revelations about its subtle integrity, the fact that it holds together in minutiae of gesture and phrasing. This was a First that showed its classical underpinnings in the common idealism of structure and philosophy.

It was a moving and enlightening performance, all the more exciting for having been snatched daringly from the fire.

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