A progress report on six fine American orchestras
New York — The concert season here is winding down. Nationwide, orchestras are closing their winter seasons. Many ensembles are contemplating moves to summer concert homes. So now would be as good a time as any to discuss the six I have heard this spring when they passed through New York.
Rating orchestras has always been a pet project of critics, usually on the basis of at best intermittent hearings, or, at worst, of single nights at Carnegie Hall, where the extra-well-rehearsed program is designed to show the group off to best effect. I prefer, therefore, to give ''progress reports'' that point out any changes heard since my last encounters with the orchestras.
The Baltimore came to town with the hoopla of a laser light show offered with a performance of Scriabin's ''Prometheus - Poem of Fire.''
The end result was silly, with out-of-focus laser formations smeared across a scrawny screen far above the orchestra. And it almost obscured the qualities of the ensemble, which during the dreary Scriabin outing (his most amorphous, least interesting major work) became a sound-track band.
But the orchestra heard in Carnegie Hall is elegant and fully capable of communicating the exotic colorations of ''Introduction and Cortege'' from Rimsky-Korsakov's ''Le Coq d'Or,'' through to the restrained elegance of the accompaniment to Saint-Saens' Third Violin Concerto and the nearly silent whispers of Debussy's ''Nocturnes.''
These accomplishments are all the work of music director Sergiu Comissiona, who apparently asks a good deal of his players and gets it. His innate taste and fastidious ear ensure that balances will be optimum. He can be low-key and some-times a bit deliberate, but he is a structuralist when needed and a colorist almost all the time. His account of the ''Nocturnes'' proved especially haunting.
On this visit, the Baltimore brought the young Chinese violinist Cho-Liang Lin to play the Saint-Saens concerto. He has a superb tondeal, and Gielen's Fifth was no ordeal. It was a bit fast, a bit untraditional, but it made sense. He understands the humor in the piece. He also has an insight into the sprawling vistas, and he gave a particularly coherent line through the length of the four weighty movements. Boston Symphony
I came to love this orchestra passionately in the nearly 10 years I worked in Boston. Since I have been away from it for over two years, I have sometimes wondered if the sound was as glorious as I remembered it to be.
Well, in the BSO's last Carnegie Hall concert of the season, it was just as splendid, refined, and sumptuous as ever. The sound was perhaps misplaced in Mozart's 31st Symphony, and Ozawa did not have much of an interpretive handle on Strauss's ''Death and Transfiguration'' but the sound. . . !
The featured soloist was Hildegard Behrens, who offered a bold, forthright, exciting ''Come scoglio'' from Mozart's ''Cosi fan tutte,'' and a no-holds-barred account of the final scene from Strauss's ''Salome.'' Miss Behrens suffuses her performances with wild intensity, and in the Strauss in particular, the effects were hair-raising. Ozawa reveled in the orchestral colors without ever giving any sense that he knew what specific purposes Strauss had given those colors. Chicago Symphony
There is no question that the Chicago is now one of the most spectacular orchestras in the world. One might note that the orchestra no longer plays with a distinctive timbre, but it sure plays with unstinting expansiveness, capable of a tremendous spread of dynamics without ever losing tonal quality. The all-orchestral program included the overture to Mozart's ''The Magic Flute,'' Bartok's ''Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta,'' and Dvorak's Ninth Symphony (''From the New World''), and offered numerous facets of the orchestra's strengths - which seem to be all but limitless. Sir Georg Solti's Bartok was more refined than in the past, and his Dvorak reveled in grand symphonic gestures. It may not have been particularly Czech, but it was remarkable symphonic playing, with an account of the Largo that has to be one of the most beautiful things the maestro has done in New York in the past six or seven years. Houston Symphony
Maestro Comissiona is now music director designate of the Houston, and he brought them to town for a program that featured the Rachmaninoff Second Symphony for the second half of the program.An uncut Rachmaninoff Second takes almost an hour (which is why it is rarely heard without cuts). In that hour a large orchestra is put through quite a workout. As is evident in his work with the Baltimore, Comissiona's fastidious ear and his remarkable grasp of overall line ensured that this reading would cohere exceptionally well. Comissiona also proved the point that only when all the cuts are restored can the composer's vision be fully appreciated.The conductor is a bit reserved for all this dark and gloomy brooding, so some of the moments were more demure than passionate, but it was so lucidly put forth, the compensation was ample. The Houston players were clearly up to the score; the tone they produced under Comissiona's guidance was consistently appealing, and they seemed to be playing with relish. In short, the Houston is a fine orchestra that has a chance, under Comissiona, to become truly important. San Francisco Symphony
I heard the San Francisco years ago in the War Memorial Opera House under Seiji Ozawa. Several years later, I heard them open their new concert hall, and last fall I heard them again in their new home - a home that is still undergoing fine tuning. The orchestra came to New York with two programs, of which I heard one. Its music director, Edo de Waart, is a serious musician who clearly works diligently to get things to go right. In Bruckner's Fourth Symphony, he had a clear sense of where the piece was going, and most of his work was insightful, heartfelt, and candid. He did not quite keep the final movement together, but he is still young, and Bruckner does not come easily to younger conductors.
The orchestra appears to be making solid progress under de Waart's baton, with more attention to blends and tonal quality than I recall hearing in the past. Unfortunately, the principal horn played consistently flat throughout the Bruckner, and the brass was having a generally clammy night. The evening opened with a trenchant account of Mozart's 27th Piano Concerto (B-flat major, K. 595), with Alicia de Larrocha the eloquent soloist and Mr. de Waart the caring partner-accompanist.