TV offers rare look at a dynamic conductor

This week's installment of television's ``Great Performances'' is indeed aptly named, and it makes a potent case for TV as a valid way to experience the artistry of musicians who rarely make it to the United States. The program is devoted to Carlos Kleiber conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam in Beethoven's Fourth and Seventh Symphonies (PBS, Friday evening, simulcast in many areas, check local listings).

Mr. Kleiber's is not a household name, but he has gained the reputation of being something of an eccentric, whose rehearsal demands and perfectionist tendencies create working environments that only a few orchestras can either accommodate or respond to.

In this country, his reputation has been built on some remarkable operatic and symphonic recordings, and on stories of his walkouts and apparently ridiculous contractual requirements. In fact, he has conducted only twice in the US, both times with the Chicago Symphony. He is slated for his US operatic debut at the Metropolitan Opera next season in a run of Puccini's ``La Boh`eme.''

This particular 90-minute program gives the viewer the unique advantage of watching Kleiber from the players' vantage point, so that we can actually see how the music is reflected in his face. The camera work is remarkably unfussy, giving us straightforward Kleiber rather than intrusively artful camera angles and all the other visual devices deemed so important today, which invariably detract from the music and the performance.

What emerges from Kleiber's performances is a conductor almost dangerously involved with his music. At times, Kleiber becomes so deeply immersed that his face takes on a disturbing cast - something he does utterly without a self-consciously theatrical effect. In fact there is nothing self-serving about Kleiber's podium manner. His gestures are simple, communicating intention and broad phrasing rather than specific meter from measure to measure.

Interpretively, the perfectionism appears to have been carried out in so many minute aspects of the performance, though the sound on my review tape was so inferior as to preclude my being able to discuss the manner in which the Concertgebouw responds to him.

Nevertheless, the two performances are refreshingly free of mannerisms and illuminate the thrust, passion, and spirit of the music. The Concertgebouw seems to be in perfect accord with his ideas, and many of the members can be seen applauding him at concert's end.

Also worth noting in this program is the brief intermission documentary about both the Concertgebouw and the conducting tradition from which Kleiber - son of the late great Erich Kleiber - has emerged. Included in that intermission is footage of such conductors as Strauss and Furtw"angler conducting European orchestras.

Unfortunately, that part of the program is no where near long enough for those of us who have never seen this footage.

Musicmaking of Kleiber's high level is rare in any era. Pairing him with one of the finest orchestras in two classic symphonies makes for uncommonly rewarding TV.

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