Learning the hard way how acoustics can differ
New York — Any orchestra is apt to sound best when playing at home in the hall that helped formulate its sound. And yet, rising to the challenges of variable halls on tour can also tell a lot about an orchestra's true mettle. The Los Angeles Philharmonic, under the baton of music director Andr'e Previn, gave three concerts here last weekend - two in Carnegie Hall and one in Avery Fisher. Neither hall is entirely orchestra-friendly these days.
In the case of Avery Fisher, this is old news; in the case of Carnegie, it is a recent post-renovation development. Because of this, it was particularly interesting to observe how Mr. Previn adjusted his ensemble to the two different types of acoustics.
At the first concert, it was clear that not much work had been done, so shrill, overinflated, and unappealing was the sound. (I found out later that there had been no ``sound test'' rehearsal before this concert.) The opening Dvorak Seventh Symphony sounded like every player for himself.
Things proceeded more satisfactorily during the Walton First Symphony that ended the first program. This monumental work has long been a Previn specialty, his 1967 recording with the London Symphony Orchestra (rumored to be released within the year on an RCA Victor CD) setting a performance standard that has yet to be excelled. The Los Angeles performance had a gruff earnestness and drive that ceded, eventually, to a fonder, warmer tone from the entire orchestra. This ensured the requisite epic sense of musical scope that allowed the finale to be really thrilling.
It was not until the next evening in Fisher Hall that the true sound and substance of the Los Angeles Philharmonic was revealed. The opening Vaughan Williams ``Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis'' was made into a dynamic showcase for the lush, vibrant strings. Also of note was Previn's remarkable ability to capture and sustain the mood and the sound of the work itself, from the vibrant, full-toned ensemble work to the distant antiphonal solo quartet, made to sound as if the instruments were from the 16th century.
That program closed with an ebullient account of Mendelssohn's ``Italian Symphony'' - another demonstration not only of the rich strings but of the balances and blends Previn has been able to instill in his orchestra since taking it over three years ago. Even more impressive than the sound itself was the spontaneous glow that enveloped the performance and the manner in which the orchestral sound resonated in Fisher Hall. (Previn had, in fact, held a ``sound test'' before the concert.)
The orchestra was in top form the following night back at Carnegie (where it finally had a rehearsal to touch up the night's program). And in the opening Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto, the sound was everything one could want. This was a considerable asset in the work that closed the orchestra's visit, the 40-year-old ``Symphony for Classical Orchestra,'' by Harold Shapero.
At a pre-concert panel talk, Previn noted that every note of this remarkably skillful work had to be well played, or it would not make any effect. And while the performance was not entirely blemish free, it did indeed give us a sense of the vigor and superb craftsmanship of the then-27-year-old composer. Unfortunately, it was a craftsmanship that lacked the ultimate stamp of individuality that would make us say ``Shapero.'' And because it arrived in 1947, just on the verge of the music establishment's capitulation to the cold calculation of serialism, the piece was effectively forgotten until now.
One can only imagine what might have happened to Shapero, or to music in general, had tonality not been so doggedly castigated for the next few decades. And it must be said that Previn and his orchestra played with the conviction that they were presenting a work that treated them with respect, that had something to say, and that said it with consummate skill and style.
Previn's former orchestra, the Pittsburgh, preceded him at Carnegie by a week and offered a program of Dvorak's Eighth and Janacek's ``Glagolitic Mass,'' under the baton of guest conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. The orchestra has always been first-rate, and as it prepares to welcome Lorin Maazel as its music director, it remains an important ensemble on the American scene.
In Mr. Thomas's program, one could appreciate the vigor and tonal plushness of the Dvorak and the nervous, propulsive thrust of the Janacek. That Janacek is a complex, difficult piece to execute, but Thomas was a complete master of the situation and was superbly assisted by the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh, prepared by Robert Page, and by the organist David Hart.