Sunday, January 21, 2007

Conflict in the Orchestra

L.A. Times
A classic coup
Conductors once ruled orchestras with an iron baton. Now, some ensembles are downright uppity, getting in clashes with no sign of grace notes.
By Mark Swed
Times Music Critic

January 21, 2007

WE'VE heard a lot lately about the death of a tyrant. No, not that one. Tuesday marked the 50th anniversary of the passing of Arturo Toscanini, one of the most famous conductors who ever lived. And, no, he wasn't that kind of a monster, either. We, in fact, revere him in part for his honorable political convictions, his refusal to remain in Mussolini's Italy or conduct in Hitler's Germany.

But he did not rule over his orchestras with kindness; he was never known to invite players to participate in a democratic process. The Maestro was demanding, brusque, temperamental, formal, formidable. His withering glances inspired terror. No one called him Artie.

Toscanini was not the last dictatorial music director. There were, at the time of his death, still the scary George Szell in Cleveland and the frightening Fritz Reiner in Chicago. But the last 50 years have witnessed a steady empowerment of orchestral players.

Perhaps it is symbolic, but the year Toscanini died, Leonard Bernstein was appointed music director of the New York Philharmonic and took up the post in 1958. Before long, he was Lennie to everyone, even those who didn't know him. Today, it's Simon and Esa-Pekka.

Unionized and feisty, orchestra members now wield significant power. When the longtime Montreal Symphony music director Charles Dutoit angrily resigned in 2002 after a public letter by the Quebec Musicians' Guild accused him of favoritism and abusive behavior in rehearsals, he was seen as an anachronism. Few Canadian tears were shed, even if that meant four precipitous years for the orchestra, which is finally said to be coming back into its own now that it has Kent Nagano as its gracious new music director.

With power, of course, comes its misuse. No one wants to go back to the old orchestral days of part-time employment, miserable pay and little or no benefits; the days of sexism, racism and exploitation; days of imperious conductors doling out abuse. Still, a couple of uppity American orchestras have gotten out of hand.

As in families, orchestras tend toward dysfunction. There are members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic who complain that Esa-Pekka Salonen is a too-cold conductor and those in the Berlin Philharmonic who think Simon Rattle too hot. Impatient San Francisco Symphony players find Michael Tilson Thomas self-indulgent. No conductor will please a hundred musicians all the time, most of the time or even some of the time. But L.A., San Francisco and Berlin are great success stories, and a disgruntled minority has found a way to fit in. Even Bernstein had his detractors in the New York Philharmonic.

A few problem spots

THUS the Baltimore Symphony, financially failing and artistically irrelevant, did itself no favors two years ago when players publicly insulted the appointment of Marin Alsop. Not only had this been the historic hiring of the first slated woman to head a major American orchestra, but Alsop has proven popular with audiences and other orchestras. Her recordings — whether of Bernstein, Brahms or Philip Glass — are top sellers.

Things seem to have been smoothed over. But Alsop doesn't assume her post until the fall of this year, so we'll see.

The situation in Seattle is more shocking. In October the local press began reporting alleged instances of "orchestra terrorism." It appears that a majority of the orchestra feels it is time for Gerard Schwarz, now in his 23rd year as music director, to step down. And supposedly Gerry's supporters (yes, he's Gerry to all) in the orchestra are getting the treatment from his detractors. In this little mafia, if reports are to be believed, attacks have included scratched cars, threatening phone calls and a cup of scalding coffee being left in a French horn player's mailbox in hope he might burn his hands. These allegations have been denied by the anti-Schwarz faction. But the airing of such laundry in leaks to the press, which the players knew would be sensationalized, is bad behavior in itself.

The players may have a point, given the current sense of stagnation in Seattle. Schwarz's career has lost luster of late. But the orchestra owes him. Over the last two decades he increased its profile enormously, made many recordings and played a major role in building Benaroya Hall, which opened in 1998.

He is, moreover, still making useful recordings in Seattle. A new disc on Naxos of music by William Schuman includes his most important symphonies, the Third and Fifth. The Third was recorded in 2005 in Benaroya, the Fifth in 1992 in the old, acoustically awful Opera House. The improvements in playing and orchestral sound are dramatic. A graceful exit for Schwarz needs to be found, but the orchestra has now made that all but impossible.

The most disturbing situation is in Philadelphia. Just as word of the hot-water warhead leveled against Seattle's first horn came out, Christoph Eschenbach announced that he would not renew his contract as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra when it expires at the end of next season, after only five years with the orchestra.

Three weeks later, Peter Dobrin reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Eschenbach announced to the orchestra his reasons for leaving. Management told him that 80% of the players left concerts "feeling great anger" and that the orchestra was a "ticking time bomb."

Eschenbach is not the problem, or at least the main problem. He is one of the world's finest musicians and widely recognized as such. He has ideas. He has sophisticated tastes. He is cosmopolitan. He is an exciting interpreter. Colleagues speak of him warmly, and he is a favorite accompanist for singers. With a wide knowledge of arts and culture, he makes a good interview. He is hip. He is social and a willing fundraiser. I'm told in Paris — where he is music director of the Orchestre de Paris — he has a lavish, authentic Art Deco apartment that's to die for. I last saw him conducting three Wagner "Ring" operas in Robert Wilson productions in Paris last April. The cast was uneven, the Orchestre de Paris proved a little too French for this repertory. But it was a great occasion full of unforgettable moments, and Eschenbach had much to do with that.

Under the orchestra's previous music director, Wolfgang Sawallisch, a revered aging German conductor with an Old World connection to Brahms and Dvorák, the Philadelphia Orchestra pretty much dropped out of the modern world. While recordings by such stellar previous music directors as Leopold Stokowski, Eugene Ormandy and Riccardo Mutispread the orchestra's fame wide, labels lost interest in Philadelphia during the Sawallisch years.

Eschenbach's presence changed all that. Three live commercial recordings have been released on the Finnish label Ondine, and they are glorious. Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra is gorgeously tinted, the famously colorful Philadelphia sound retained and updated. Eschenbach offers a strikingly rhythmic interpretation of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony.

Just out is a deeply affecting, dramatically incisive, brilliantly played performance of Mahler's Sixth Symphony. Recorded in super-audio CD, the sound on the series has an immediate presence. Listen to these discs and you might be lulled into believing that Eschenbach and the orchestra are a marriage made in heaven. Dare I say that Philadelphia hasn't come across this dynamically on disc since its brilliant live recordings with Toscanini made in 1941 and 1942 and now effectively remastered by RCA to coincide with the anniversary of his death.

So what's wrong? Just about everything. It is well known that the orchestra opposed the hiring of Eschenbach. He hadn't conducted in Philadelphia for five years when the appointment was made, and a memo was leaked to the press with 75 players' signatures asking management to hold off any decision until the orchestra got a chance to work with him. From the beginning, the relationship started off on the wrong foot.

Nor did it work that he came to Philadelphia with a broom to sweep away musty tradition, a musty tradition the audience and players maintain a worrisome fondness for. Indeed, a highlight of the season will be a special concert conducted by Eschenbach and hosted by Tom Brokaw on Saturday celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Academy of Music. The new Verizon Hall may be acoustically far superior than the Academy, but nostalgia still seems to be strong enough in Philadelphia to sell even sight-restricted seats at the top in this bone-dry hall for $150.

A documentary most revealing

SOME answers for the Philadelphia problem can be found in "Music From the Inside Out," a documentary about the players in the orchestra that was released in theaters last year and now available on DVD.

One banality after another comes out of the mouths of very good musicians. They're asked: What is music? They answer: It's a mystery. It's just whatever. It's something about intense personal experience. It's everywhere. It tells a story. It takes you on a trip. It's like riding a motorcycle.

I'm sure these regular-guy-and-gal players are sincere, and my guess is that they have been manipulated by the filmmaker. But watching them play second-rate bluegrass, jazz or salsa is painful. Listening to them grapple with the notion of noise and music without a background in musical aesthetics is just plain embarrassing.

And where's the edge? This can be one angry orchestra. In 1996, a bitter 64-day strike over wages, benefits and media rights left a lasting riff with an unresponsive management. At the end, the film strings together Brahms' buoyant theme from the last movement of his First Symphony with snippets either performed by individual players on their instruments or sung. Each musician tries to give his or her bar or two something personal. The result is saccharine.

Then we see Eschenbach conducting the orchestra in a decent chunk of the movement. All the sentimentality is suddenly gone. He is rapt, intense, concentrated. This is the essence of Brahms. These Philadelphians are the Fabulous Philadelphians once more.

But the players don't like Eschenbach, and there is nothing to be done about it. He is considered a fussy interpreter. Sometimes he does exaggerate. But if I compare the laser-like Ondine recordings with the kind of trivia in "Music From the Inside Out," I can only come away with new awe for Eschenbach and the superb playing he inspires despite orchestral animosity.

And more evidence of interesting music-making can be found on performances from Eschenbach and the orchestra now available for purchase as downloads at, the ensemble's website. The downloads are overpriced. They are offered in lousy sound as MP3 files or, for a buck more and a lot more computer hassle, in decent sound as FLAC files. But they are also worth the trouble and expense. A Beethoven symphony cycle from last year is quirky (OK, fussy but an interesting fussy) and excellent.

Eschenbach has also given Philadelphia its first significant look at contemporary music since the Stokowski days. This is the orchestra that in the '80s commissioned Milton Babbitt's "Transfigured Notes" and then found the music too difficult to play. A year later a student orchestra in Boston premiered and recorded the score. Now you can download a sensational performance, conducted by Eschenbach, of Magnus Lindberg's Chorale.

But the Philadelphia orchestra has not been exactly transformed by Eschenbach. I've been hearing reports of players looking bored onstage. Audiences walk out during performances. Even two years ago, at my last visit to Verizon Hall, the atmosphere was palpably unpleasant.

And now there is Fredrica Wagman's little novel, "His Secret Little Wife," as the final insult. It concerns Otto Von Ochsenstein, "the world-famous composer, pianist and famed conductor of the Philadelphia Philharmonic, then, the greatest symphony orchestra in the world." The egocentric conductor is a mean-spirited, grotesque parody of a larger-than-life Bernsteinor Stokowski-like figure who begins a sexual relationship with his 12-year-old neighbor.

What offends me is Wagman's description of the elegant Ochsenstein, who lives in a lavish home to die for and who is "bald as an egg — not one hair on his long shiny head." The name, the house, the elegance, the head are all too humiliatingly close to Eschenbach's for comfort.

A novelist is, of course, free to invent as she pleases. But given the sourness in Philadelphia right now, I'm not surprised that is where she found her inspiration. Not surprised. But saddened.

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