Not too long ago I was privileged to hear a concerto performance that was excitingly close to that special partnership between conductor and soloist that -- even under limited rehearsal times -- creates a rate sort of electricity.
The performer in question was the finest young cellist on the concert stage today, Yo- Yo Ma, the conductor was Zubin Mehta, the orchestra, the New york Philharmonic. Mehta is at his finest in an opera pit or as an accompanist in concertos. He listens with care, codding and supporting the soloist with sensitive, drama-suffused sound.
And Ma, the most recent winner of the Avery Fisher Prize, which made this date possible, can generate white hot intensity, and yet be meltingly gentle and quiet. It goes without saying that his technique is large. What is so rare, especially in one still relatively young, is the care, the control, the ability to spin endless lines, to phrase with such acute awareness of the import of the music, the ability to distill with intensity but without hysterics, the romantic thrust of this masterpiece for cello.
But this sort of talent gets together regularly with all the great orchestras. Most of the artists who play with these symphony orchestras have earned a right to be there. And still, this was an exceptional evening. Some of it was undoubtedly due to Ma's ear -- he is an avid listener, taking many of his spontaneous cues from what is going on around him, rather than merely fitting some ossified views of the concerto into the conductor's framework. And when faced with Mehta's fire and power, it was instant controlled volatilty. The two kept the audience virtually with bated breath for vast stretches (a rare happening indeed from an audience that is consistently -- and rightfully, as far as I have usually seen -- called the rudest in the world).
What usually happens in these concerto situations is a certain lack of communication that frosts over the lines of communication.Either the conductor has his set framework, or the soloist his set views, and the best that happens is a bland muddle of a compromise that finds neither especially interested in what the other is doing. It is rare when both soloist and conductor clash too obviously. Usually it is the soloist who tries desperately to fit his views into the conductor's framework.
I hear this quite often in Boston, where Seiji Ozawa, the BSO's music director, has an all-purpose approach to concertos that gives his soloists breathing room but does very little to collaborate. This proved disastrous last season with Martha Argerich. This year, it hindered somewhat the young and uncommonly gifted Peter Zazofsky's performance of Prokofiev's Second Violin Concerto. The debuting Zazofsky is another avid listener, one who searches for inspiration in what is going on around him, and one who prefers musical content over sheer dexterous flashiness. thus, his Prokofiev was less ostentatious than usual, more lyrical, more varied, more biting, less merely virtuosic. Behind him, Ozawa did his usual well delineated, suitably paced, rhythmically clear "thing" but it simply is not enough in this sort of concerto.
Ozawa is joined by an illustrous bunch of conductors past and present who do not shine in concerto work. They almost seem to resent the loss of the exclusive limelight. They feel that it is the soloist's moment, so they retire as completely as possible. This is slightly different from the old days on gramophone records where the soloist shone over a bland, faceless accompaniment by a bland and faceless conductor. Even when that name was Barbirolli or a Sargent, it was not expected that the conductor would give any insights, just solid underpinning.
Klaus Tennstedt takes this view in this day, as, apparently, does Ozawa. Sometimes Ozawa clicks with his soloist, and the results can be as offbeat as the raucous, edgy, percussive, almost brutal Bartok Second Piano Concerto, heard last November with Alexis Weissenberg, the soloist. It proved to be a fascinating view of the work -- angry, unyielding, unnerving, with pianist and conductor outdoing each other in savagery and force. It did not make for great lyricism, or much warmth, but it was intriguing to hear, nonetheless.
When Erich Leinsdorf conducted Mozart's 22nd Concerto for Emanual Ax in Boston, it seemed more of what it should have been -- a conductor who wants to show off his soloist, without deferring unduly, in matters of taste and style.