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Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

at Orchestra Hall, February 13

By Lee Sandlin

Riccardo Chailly and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, currently on a world tour, stopped off at Orchestra Hall the other night for one sold-out concert. On the bill were Alban Berg's Violin Concerto and Gustav Mahler's Fifth Symphony. Chailly has been getting ecstatic reviews over the last few years, and from this concert it was easy to see why: in his hands both works had the weight and heft of classic art. The concerto was richly felt, and the symphony was consistently dramatic and often thrilling. The concert built to a spectacular climax that had just about everybody in the audience jumping to their feet for a standing ovation. Except me.

It was an awkward situation. Nothing gives you a purer rush of trapped-behind-enemy-lines paranoia than realizing you're the only one in the room who isn't wildly enthusiastic about what's happening onstage. I was reminded of when I saw Star Wars on its opening weekend 20 years ago; everybody in the movie theater was cheering so furiously they were like the possessed mob in Euripides' Bacchae, and I was afraid that if I didn't join in they'd turn on me. But I've since attained a higher degree of moral integrity--or perhaps I've lost some of my instinct for self-preservation. Chailly's concert left me bored and exasperated, and I don't care who knows it.

To begin with, the RCO was having a bad night. The Mahler in particular was marred by fluffed notes and miscues. Well, big deal--maybe their plane got in late and they were a little frazzled. (In fact, they were rehearsing until the last possible minute, while the audience was kept milling around the lobby.) But given their huge reputation, I was expecting an immaculate performance. I was also bugged by the way their style of playing, even at its best, went against the grain of Orchestra Hall. Of course the whole problem of the hall's acoustics is a soap opera with no end in view. More work was done over Christmas, and the place sounds distinctly better than it did last fall. But it will probably always be a relatively dry sonic environment, where an orchestra like the RCO will never sound right. Their style is all rich bass and subtly shaded tone colors--and clearly dependent on those magical European halls where the reverb slowly melts away into a honeyed silence. Here the soloists sounded raspy, painfully loud, and sometimes out of tune, and the orchestral accompaniment was consistently thin.

But these aren't decisive complaints. I wouldn't have liked the concert any better if it had been technically flawless and the tones had blended together as delicately as in a Turner watercolor. My problem was with Chailly's take on the music. These two pieces are among the darkest, most wayward and mysterious works in the whole repertoire, and Chailly conducted them so firmly and forthrightly he was like a fullback punching through to a touchdown.

I'll give him this much: at least with the Berg his style had novelty value. Berg's Violin Concerto is always a puzzlement--it's famous for being the only orchestral work of atonal modernism that mainstream audiences have learned to like. Nobody has ever adequately explained this. People usually point to the tragic circumstances of its composition--Berg died in December 1935, a few months after the concerto was finished--but that's not really a good enough reason. No matter how melodramatic the story behind the music might be, most audiences won't buy atonalism; Arnold Schoenberg could have been devoured by escaped circus tigers while he was finishing the Variations for Orchestra and it would still get booed off the stage. Another explanation you sometimes hear is that the concerto was a requiem--for Berg's beloved Manon Gropius, who'd died that spring, and perhaps for Berg himself--making it one of the few works of atonalism specifically intended to have an emotional effect.

That's actually unfair. The music of atonalism's greatest figures does have a lot of emotional range--or at least it sounds like it ought to have a lot of emotional range. A typical Schoenberg piece is as densely overgrown as a cottage garden gone to seed; you could never mistake it for Anton Webern's music, which is so glassy and remote it's like a radio signal from a distant star. But what they have in common is reticence--you have to fight through a lot of abstract compositional theory to find any genuine emotion. Berg's music by comparison is almost embarrassingly forthcoming. Its garishness and fractured lyricism express a kind of yearning, as though he were reaching back toward a past where the traditional forms of music still had emotional meaning--even if he can reproduce it only in lurid and parodistic fragments.

The violin concerto has a lot of strange echoes of the past. The violin solos have a sliding, off-kilter edginess that isn't totally removed from the meandering poetry of the solos in Beethoven or Mendelssohn. The orchestrations are often jarring in the best modern way, but they also have a creepy Wagnerian allure. The two movements seem at times to be groping toward a typical concerto structure--though ultimately they proceed more by association and drift. The focus glides weirdly from one array of shifting tones to the next, ignoring expected lines of development and unfolding into more elusive and more troubling vistas of psychic turmoil. In a sense, it's a brilliant psychological portrait of grief: it catches perfectly how muffled one's moods become, how easy it is to wander down dark trails of thought. This may be why its atonality works even for the most conservative listeners--the dissonances so plainly mean something. Berg is exploring something extremely grim but recognizable, not taunting the audience for its bourgeois conventionality.

Chailly's take on the concerto was to stress as much as possible its connections to the Romantic tradition and to treat its nebulous texture as though it demonstrated a steady emotional progress. The narrative line went from brooding sorrow and remembered sweetness in the first movement to melodrama and final acceptance in the second. This isn't an impossible way to read the work, and it did result in some superb effects, particularly in the second movement; it was quite lovely the way Chailly made the ferocious allegro open into the dreamy adagio as if a torturous mountain pass were widening into a secluded valley. But more often Chailly's drive wrecked Berg's deliberate vagueness. The forward momentum in Berg is supposed to be erratic and dubious, losing its way like a marching band swallowed up in fog. Chailly was determined to cut through to the end and keep everybody in line. Even the great orchestral shriek of despair that opens the second movement was tamed; it came off as nothing more than a Beethoven-style fanfare, a gorgeous burst of meaningless bombast.

But that was only a warm-up for what he did to Mahler. God knows, Mahler can stand to be reimagined; he's far too often dismissed as the most ponderous of the great Romantics, a kind of dour decadent contemplating the metaphysical horror of the universe. I'm in favor of any performance of the Fifth Symphony that stresses its wit, its quicksilver drama, and Mahler's Midas touch with orchestral color. So I give Chailly full credit for trying something new--his Fifth was consistently bright and often exciting. But it was also shallow, unfelt, and wrongheaded. I can accept a lot of different approaches to Mahler, but I just can't buy him as a robust and expansive regular guy.

The Fifth is typical of Mahler in its vastness; his symphonies usually run two or three times longer than Beethoven's. This sheer bulk gives them the air of an epic, but their world is actually closed and intimate. The immense spaces they open up are wholly interiorized and operate according to private and irrational rules. He pushes to the limit the Romantic ideal of orchestral music as a revelation of the self: he demands more and more musicians onstage, and a bigger and bigger cut of a concert program's time, to explore an ever more inward zone of emotional experience. More so than with almost any of the great Romantics, when you listen to Mahler, you're inside his mind hearing how it works--and it can be awfully dark and tumultuous in there.

This is a neurotic form of art almost by definition, and so it's not surprising that the world Mahler reveals is so damaged. The Fifth begins at its happiest moment--with a funeral march. That's followed by one shard of music after another: a panicky dance, a vaguely sinister hunting song, a wild surge of melodrama, a heartbreaking adagio. These passages have nothing in common except their instability--at any moment any mood can disintegrate and reveal its opposite. The cheer of the dance can collapse in misery and horror, the bleak tumblings of an allegro can be swept aside by a bold, if unpersuasive, burst of optimism and health. Mahler takes Beethoven's famous tactic of swerving across wildly incongruous lines of thematic development and elevates it into an organizing principle--this is the orchestral version of a bipolar disorder.

But Chailly seemed to think this jumble of affects was nothing more than a genial panorama of everyday life. He did everything possible to defuse the tension and flatten out the freaky contrasts, beginning with an excessively slow and solemn funeral march. The whole point of the march--the reason it's so disturbing and affecting--is that it isn't solemn. It's jaunty, it even swaggers. It's a fair sample of Mahler's black but weirdly invigorating humor. Chailly played it as though it were a respectful farewell to some prosperous citizen. He also smoothed out the folk melodies and hunting songs, to the point where they came out like a travelogue about picnickers in an Austrian forest. But Mahler deliberately made these tunes garish and jangling, because they represent the way the outside world impinged on his consciousness--they're a kind of psychic assault, street sounds shattering the nerves of an invalid. Chailly also stretched out the adagio unconscionably, without finding any particular compensations. It wasn't spiritually consoling or ominously seductive--it was just pretty. Yet it should play something like Rilke's famous line, "Beauty is the beginning of terror." For Chailly, beauty was the beginning of complacency.

Still, disappointing as the concert was, I do think it's interesting that Mahler and Berg are now considered so respectable and mainstream. A couple of decades ago Mahler was still suspect and Berg was in exile in the outer darkness along with Schoenberg and Webern. Now Berg and Mahler are being welcomed into the heart of the repertoire. (Even Schoenberg has started emerging from the shadows--the CSO has just announced that next season it will do a concert performance of his rebarbative opera Moses und Aron.) But I wonder if this is wholly to the good--because neither Mahler nor Berg wanted to be at the heart of the repertoire. They stood a little to one side, picking what they wanted from the great tradition while still being open to other ideas--rogue inspirations, strange winds from somewhere else. Chailly made them come off instead as long-winded, almost befuddled. It was as though the two composers were trying to write wholly orthodox music but just weren't very good at it. I'm always glad to hear these pieces played with such energy. I even thought it was fun that Chailly could make the last movement of the Mahler Fifth into such a spectacular crowd pleaser. But I'd have been happier if he'd remembered that both works were supposed to be music for the dissenters in the audience.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Riccardo Chailly photo.

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