Monday, October 23, 2006
If the classical music world canonized its saints, Bernard Haitink would be one of them by now. During his fifty-year association with the Concertgebouw Orchestra of his native Amsterdam - debuting as a substitute for Giulini in 1956, then "First Conductor" from 1959, joint Music Director with Eugen Jochum from 1961 to 1963, Music Director from 1964 to 1988 and finally Honorary Music Director since 1999 - he was instrumental in ensuring that the Concertgebouw to this day remains the single orchestra with the longest uninterrupted tradition of consistent musical excellence and stylistic versatility. His tenure at the helm of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden was perhaps a bit less successful. The characteristics that make him a congenial and beloved orchestral conductor also impaired his ability to impose his vision with an unruly opera administration. In comparison to his more insistent predecessor Sir Georg Solti, Haitink's tenure in London was a mixed bag. In more recent years, Haitink more than redeemed himself by becoming the most sought-after orchestral babysitter. When Giuseppe Sinopoli keeled over mid-performance, Haitink dutifully replaced the suddenly deceased music director of the Staatskapelle Dresden for two years and even took the orchestra on a benefit concert tour to raise funds to repair the Semperoper in Dresden which had been damaged by the 2002 Elbe flooding. From 1995 to 2004 his work as Principal Guest Conductor kept the Boston Symphony Orchestra sane during the uninspired and acrimonious last years of Seiji Ozawa's reign.
As of this season, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is blessed by his presence. Left leaderless after Daniel Barenboim's precipitous departure, the administration quickly and wisely selected Haitink as interim "Principal Conductor" while the search for a more permanent successor continues. This past weekend saw the first product of this new alliance: a masterful, gorgeous performance of Mahler's Third Symphony with mezzo-soprano Michelle de Young, the women of the Chicago Symphony Chorus and the Chicago Childrens' Choir. Haitink has in the past stressed that his approach to orchestral sound is basically the same, irrespective of what orchestra he conducts: "transparency, warm sound in the strings but not at the cost of transparency, well-balanced brass - that's the grammar of all my conducting." Indeed, it paid off. The sectional balancing was as perfect as any conductor could dream to achieve in such a dense score as Mahler's Third. Yet, the sound was warm and full.
What I have always noticed about Haitink is that he somehow always manages to get a gorgeous smooth string sound. I noticed this when I heard him conduct the first time (CSO Mahler 2 ten years ago) as well as in subsequent appearances with the Staatskapelle Dresden, the Boston Symphony and the Concertgebouw. Whereas Barenboim in the Germanic repertoire sought a dark, glowing string sound grounded in a firm, weighty bass line and seamless, long legatos, the CSO strings for Hatink were radiant and more articulated - a Viennese lightness, if you will. One of the real joys of last Saturday's performance was observing the interaction of the CSO's new principal oboe, Eugene Izotov (ex-Metropolitan Opera Orchestra prinicpal oboe) with the other woodwind first chairs. Together, they generated a touching intimacy in Mahler's more introverted moments, drawing the audience in and making the listener forget the size of the auditorium. Jay Friedman's trombone solos (mellow tone, impeccable intonation and judicious use of vibrato) deserve special mention, as do Chris Martin's offstage posthorn calls.
Mezzo-soprano Michelle de Young delivered her part very solidly, with the appropriate expression and good German diction, but for my view lacked suffcient resonance in the lower registers to really project the low notes to the back of the auditorium. But the greatest praise must go to Haitink who structured this massive 100+ minute work as a seamless journey. And, despite the many starts and stops in Mahler's score, he was rewarded with rapt attention by the Chicago audience even in the many dead silences of the massive first movement. The ravishing final Adagio properly felt like the culmination of the musical discourse that preceded it. In lesser hands it often feels like an afterthought. I would advise any aspiring young conductor to closely observe Haitink in concert (or rehearsal), for I have rarely ever watched a conductor who accomplishes so much with such economical and unfussy gestures. You can practically transcribe every nuance of articulation, tempo and dynamics from the tip of his baton and the fingers of his left hand, yet he eschews wild gesticulation or other podium theatrics. Truly, a great master of the art of conducting. I, for one, am greatly looking forward to the Bruckner Seventh to which we will be treated in May.
John von Rhein's review in the Tribune of Thursday's performance can be found here, and Andrew Patner's review in the Sun Times here. (Note to Andrew: whatever the opening horn tune is (a parody of the finale of Brahms' 1st?), it is not really a chorale.) Marc Geelhoed blogged about the performance here.
Linzer Torte or Mozartkugel?
Another Dutch conductor took the CSO podium the preceding week, but his aims and results were rather different. Ton Koopman, a period performance specialist and founder of the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, treated Chicago music lovers to an evening of fun and games with Bach, Haydn and Mozart. Koopman, conducting a pared down chamber-sized CSO, opened with Mozart's Serenata notturna which showcased the talents of the principal string players as well as the superb timpanist Vadim Karpinos. There was an unabashed enthusiasm emanating from the grandfatherly conductor that was scooped up and translated into joyous musicmaking by the orchestra, even if some moments were corny. Such as the "whose cadenza is next?"-joke at the end of the last movement, which he has pulled with many other ensembles in this piece before. Principal second violin Albert Igolnikov joined in the corniness by trying to pass off bits of Kreisler's cadenza for the Beethoven violin concerto as Mozart. An enjoyably humorous Haydn Notturno followed, as well as Koopman's own arrangement of Bach's Concerto in C for three keyboards (BWV 1064) rescored for solo flute, oboe, violin and bassoon, with string-orchestra accompaniment, which was dispatched with marvellous execution by Mathieu Dufour, flute; Eugene Izotov, oboe; Robert Chen, violin; and William Buchman, bassoon. Though it should be noted that Chen sounded noticeably uncomfortable in the enforced period performance idiom.
The concluding Mozart symphony, No.36 "Linz", however, showed the limits of Koopman's approach. Ever since the period performance movement established itself as a legitimate force in musical scholarship and interpretation, it has become standard for large traditional symphony orchestras to perform classical and baroque repertoire with small ensembles and often with historically informed tempos, bowings and phrasings. But, ultimately, the goal of such performances is to reduce the fat of romanticized "traditional" Mozart and Bach and to regain a more authentic clarity and transparency of structure and voicing. But there can be too much of a good thing, as illustrated by Koopman in the Linzer. Instead of producing more transparency, the insistence on certain rococo mannerisms even when they musically don't make sense had the result of obscuring the phrase rather than clarifying it. For example, the dogmatic insitence on ending a phrase with a decrescendo results often in inaudible conluding passages. By searching for dogmatic authenticity, Koopman instead harvested lack of articulation. Rather than stripping Mozart of chocolatey romantic excess to gain depth through clarity, Koopman produced a sugarcoated lightweight Mozart that lacked the emotional depth and the darkness and emotional ambiguity that can be found in the score of the Linzer.
Philly Searching Again
In other music news..... the Philadelphia Orchestra recently announced that Christoph Eschenbach, inventor of the collarless Nehru-suit for conductors, has decided not to renew his contract as music director after the 2007-2008 season. This comes as somewhat of a surprise, as recent tours and recordings were uniformly hailed by critics (witness David Hurwitz' gushing review of their recent Mahler Sixth). My own experiences with Eschenbach are mixed, though generally positive. I have heard him give absolutely spellbinding performances (such as an unforgettable Bruckner Eight with the NY Phil) as well as completely wilfull, capricious and arbitrary performances (such as a mutilated, incoherent Dvorak Ninth), though the former numerically outweighed the latter. Eschenbach, having just conducted a Ring cycle in Paris, seems to have rediscovered a taste for opera and wants to reduce his orchestral duties to pursue "other interests". Philly thus joins Chicago and New York in searching for a permanent music director while the supply of available first rate conductors remains meagre. Given James Levine's precarious health, I am sure the Boston Symphony is also keeping one eye on successors for the long term, while the Los Angeles Philharmonic cannot be pleased at recent rumours that New York is courting Esa-Pekka Salonen. Let's not mention the Metropolitan Opera.
But who is available, really? Antonio Pappano, now firmly entrenched at Covent Garden, might consider a second, orchestral, job; Michael Tilson Thomas is not showing any inclination of ever leaving San Francisco, where he seems to be a permanent cultural fixture; Barenboim quit Chicago to concentrate on the Berlin Staatsoper and his piano playing and detests new administrative duties; Riccardo Muti, though nominally without a permanent job, is an unlikely candidate, having previously been music director in Philadelphia and having a similar disdain for the administrative duties of American music directors; Riccardo Chailly, just recently took over the Leipzig Gewandhaus and seems to be enjoying it there; Mariss Jansons is fully booked with double duties in Amsterdam and Munich; Christian Thielemann (thankfully!) seems to have decided to avoid America altogether; Simon Rattle has previously spurned overtures from Philadelphia to take the top job in Berlin; Paavo Järvi, hailed in Cincinnati, now has a second job in Frankfurt (and, from what I can tell, really isn't that interesting, musically).
American orchestral administrations seem to be holding out for a utopian master conductor with decades of experience but youthful exuberance who will mollify conservative patrons while expanding contermporary repertoire, drawing in new audiences and schmoozing extensively with wealthy donors. When this superhuman is meant to have free time to research and study scores, rehearse the orchestra and audition new members is anybody's guess. These duties are so diverse and contradictory that they really require several people. Barenboim in Chicago sought to square these contradictions by hiring Pierre Boulez as prinicpal guest conductor, who would bring new elan to neglected modernist masterpieces while commissioning and reviewing new compositions for the orchestra. Still, Barenboim caught a lot of flak from critics who bemoaned the expressionist bent of his 20th century programming which "neglected" the lightweight American neo-romantics which critics adore these days. But finally, what all departed recent music directors complained about was the need to schmooze with dim-witted wealthy donors and the half-hearted watering down of classical music to attract new audiences raised on more lightweight fare. Ultimately, American orchestra administrations will have to come to the realization that you cannot please everyone all the time and that talent can only be attracted and retained if the music director's job is to focus on the music and raise it to the highest levels without artistic compromises, while the administration focuses on the funding and new audience outreach. But diluting classical music by attempting to compete with other forms of evening entertainment is bound to backfire because music is fundamentally not just entertainment, and by treating it as if it were just entertainment you will inevitably destroy the very magic that continues to enchant and draw new audiences.
From behind the rose-colored glasses of American orchestra administrations, David Robertson has seemed to be their knight in shining armor. Orchestra presidents have wet dreams of Robertson giving eloquent, down-to-earth in-concert lectures to novice audiences and schmoozing with wealthy donors post-performance. He is everybody's favorite future son-in-law. But they fail to realize that ultimately, Robertson is not a particularly interesting musician. Nobody I have talked to has been musically impressed with his conducting. And administrators should not forget that ultimately what draws audiences is the quality of the performance, and convincing emotional structure and ability to maintain tension are far more important in this respect than technical accuracy.
Thankfully, the St. Louis Symphony recently announced that Robertson would be extending his tenure in St. Louis through at least 2010, much to the chagrin of John von Rhein of the Chicago Tribune and Mark Swed of the L.A. Times who have been speculating that the Chicago Symphony and the New York Philharmonic were planning on scooping up Robertson in 2008, when his original contract was set to expire. So we can breathe a sigh of relief that at least for now Robertson won't be foisted upon unsuspecting Chicago audiences.
If it were up to me, and I didn't have to deal with a conservative board with no balls, I would take the risk and hire a relative unknown in the US: Kirill Petrenko. He has been music director at the Komische Oper in Berlin since 2002 and recently was voted in second place behind Pierre Boulez in a "conductor of the year" survey by readers of the German opera magazine Opernwelt. Petrenko has all the stuff of a future great: meticulous score preparation, superb musicianship, vitality, humbleness, clear and precise gestures, and an endearing personality. Berlin, which certainly has no lack of high caliber competition, is enchanted by the young Russian maestro. I have watched him establish an instant rapport with the often listless Duisburg Philharmonic which pulled out all the stops for him and made Glazunov's Fifth sound like the wrongly neglected masterpiece it is. Semyon Bychkov described him once as "the only natural-born conductor I have ever met." Petrenko's contract in Berlin runs out at the end of this season. Deborah Card, are you listening?
Wednesday, October 11, 2006
Why is North Korea testing nuclear weapons? Do they really have nukes? And why does Kim Jong Il look like a really pissed off Big Bird in that demonstrator's poster? As these and similar questions puzzle the world, most news coverage fails to convey the intricacies of the strategic balance between the US, China, Japan and the two Koreas that underlies the issue.
Western media likes to portray Kim Jong Il as an irrational madman, bent upon destabilizing the region and suppressing his impoverished population. But this is a convenient set of smoke and mirrors designed to help obscure the ineptitude of Western diplomacy by pointing at the supposed unpredictability of the North Korean leader. In fact, Kim is nothing more than an unexceptional run-of-the-mill totalitarian dictator grasping at all opportunities to maintain his hold on inherited political power. None of his acts in office fall outside the usual repertoire of totalitarian dictatorships pursuing their power interests. Indeed, as far as totalitarian ideologies go, the North Korean version is largely harmless to anyone but the Koreans themselves. The North Korean ideology of juche (literally "main body") - developed during the days of the Sino-Soviet split in the 1960s as a form of distinction from the Maoism and Stalinism of North Korea's two main supporters - practically applied means a severe form of autarky. Meaning to reinvigorate a mythical tradition of the Korean state as the "hermit kingdom", it seeks total self-reliance and isolation from foreign influence. Leaving aside the apparent contradiction between the ideological ideal and the de facto increased economic dependence of North Korea on outside powers like China, juche is a fundamentally non-expansionist ideology. Even if Kim had the military wherewithal, his regime harbors no territorial pretensions outside of the Korean peninsula.
So then, one might ask, what is the danger of a nuclear-armed North Korea? Will it not be subject to the same logic of mutually assured destruction that has kept the peace even in such unlikely areas as India and Pakistan? If we dismiss the popular idea that Kim Jong Il is a lunatic Korean Strangelove, there is no reason that North Korea would not behave just like any other state that has joined the nuclear club since 1945. There still remains the problem of proliferation, though. North Korea has previously shared missile technology with less than savory characters around the world and given its economic predicament it is unlikely to be particularly stingy with its nuclear know-how when in need of hard currency. However, Korea is very unlikely to share scarce and expensive fissile material which it needs for itself. And access to scarce fissile material has always been the barrier to entry for wannabe-nuclear powers. The technology itself, as Albert Einstein remarked decades ago, "is no secret". Dilapidated former Soviet arsenals still remain a far greater proliferation risk than anything North Korea could do. So, the proliferation issue again is a smokescreen designed to conflate unfinished East Asian business from the 1950s with the current "war on terror."
The real issue is a strategic powerplay between China, Japan and the US over future political and economic control of East Asia, with North Korea getting increasingly irate, as this powerplay is at North Korea's cost. Diplomatically speaking, all roads to Pyongyang lead through Beijing. North Korea is politically and economically dependent on China for sheer survival. And China has no interest in genuinely defusing the standoff. But why is that? It is often forgotten what deep impressions Japanese colonialism has left on current East Asian politics. With the rise of Japanese economic might in the 1970s, China was left an impotent bystander as Japanese zaibatsus gobbled up economic interests all around China's borders and within its former sphere of influence. Yet, issues of wartime responsibility and reparations remain unresolved. Now that China's economy is booming, China's vote in foreign policy matters has gained new weight. And the Chinese leadership is no longer afraid to throw that weight around when needed.
At the same time, within Japan a new militarist-nationalist historical revisionism is resurgent, seeking to rehabilitate the role of the Japanese armed forces in WWII. Conservative Prime Minister Koizumi's visits to the controversial Yasukuni shrine are viewed in East Asia as a tacit governmental approval of this stream in Japanese society. One outgrowth of this reactionary cultural revolution are the militarist mangas of Yoshinori Kobayashi, which have gained notoriety even in the West (see here and here). To the irritation of China, Japan is also seeking a permanent seat on the UN security council. The blundering Bush administration is but a pawn in this game. It cannot move one way or the other without China or Japan, both of which finance the massive US budget deficit through purchases of US treasury bills.
China's goal is simple. It wants to prevent Japan from extending its economic control too close to China's borders. The Chinese realize that many in the US see no concrete purpose in continuing to maintain a large standing army in Korea and Japan when the main global hotspots seem to be elsewhere entirely - and the US would be all too eager to retreat. But a US withdrawal is a nightmare for China, for it would induce Japan to rearm in order to fill the security vacuum left by the Americans. Indeed, the Japanese conservative revisionist movement would jump at the opportunity. The Chinese therefore would much prefer to keep US forces in the region as a buffer against Japanese expansion. But to do so, the US needs a reason. Enter the "Axis of Evil". The problem with the current situation is that while China wants a restive North Korea to keep the US military interested in the region, testing actual nuclear weapons goes a bit too far even for them. After all, a nuclear-tipped North Korea could in and of itself be an inducement for Japan to rearm. Meanwhile the North Koreans are fuming and losing their patience as Bush is reneging on Clinton's promises and while China is trying to keep them on a short leash without providing the desired amounts of economic support.
But it is hard for anyone involved to figure out how further to punish the North Korean regime for its misbehavior. The sanctions against the country are already some of the most draconian ever imposed and they have sofar been largely futile, injuring the population more than the government. The only ones who are genuinely interested in short-term regime change are the deluded neo-conservatives in Washington. Neither Japan nor China are prepared to deal with a stream of impoverished North Korean refugees if the regime were to collapse. Likewise, South Korea's "sunshine policy" of rapprochement with the North was specifically designed as an incremental long term policy of gradually reforming the North rather than short term regime change. Having observed the massive economic cost West Germany incurred when it absorbed the former German Democratic Republic, South Korean politicians quickly came to the conclusion in the '90s that for South Korea to absorb a significantly more populous and more impoverished collapsed Stalinist state would be a financial disaster.
So we are stuck between a dozen rocks and two dozen hard places while the blundering American elephant is stumbling into yet another porcelain shop. Having missed the strategic implications of eliminating the one secular totalitarian counterweight to a massively populous Islamic theocracy in the Persian Gulf, it is naive to hope for wisdom from Washington's chickenhawks in this East Asian web of complications. Meanwhile we can sleep reasonably soundly with the knowledge that many nuclear experts question whether the North Korean test was in fact a nuclear weapon at all. No radiation leakage has been confirmed so far and the explosion itself clocked in at a force smaller than the 14-kiloton bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
A few good articles on the subject here and here.