The good news first: yesterday's performance of Prokofiev and Berlioz by Martha Argerich and the UBS Verbier Festival Orchestra under the direction of Charles Dutoit was spectacular. More on that below. But first I need to whine and complain at length about a major irritation.
How can it be that a performance by Martha Agerich, one of today's most adored and inspiring performers, could possibly be barely more than half sold out in our age of instant transmission of information and advertising? Why is it that on a Tuesday night with no scheduled CSO performance, a unique, spirited international youth ensemble of great acclaim under the leadership of one of the world's leading conductors does not perform at Symphony Center but is instead banished into the depths of that cavernous architectural insult that is the Harris Theater - a space singularly unimaginative in conception and simultaneously inadequate for its intended purpose. The entire building seems as if meant to counterbalance the daring free spirit of Gehry's nearby Jay Pritzker Pavilion through sheer dullness. The architect of the Harris was apparently so embarrassed about producing such an ugly structure with such a wasteful and unergonomic use of space that he decided to bury the structure underground and have the interior camouflaged in shades of black and grey, lest the observer actually be able to discern too easily just how bad the design is. The whole thing has a bit of a makeshift feel. The seating arrangement seems to have been designed for the sole purpose of keeping a maximum number of people as far as possible from the stage (greetings from Avery Fisher Hall). Even accepting the constriction of a largely vertical space, a much more intimate auditorium could have been conceived (for one good, recent counter-example just take a look at NJPAC in Newark). But all of this could have been excusable if the result had at least produced acceptable acoustics. Instead, Harris is spectacularly dry, unevenly balanced and, in orchestral concerts, especially cruel to the woodwinds, who often have to strain to be audible over the brass and strings. Full tuttis often congeal into an undifferentiated blob. With the low numbers in attendance on Tuesday, the concert might as well have been moved to Northwestern's smaller, but acoustically far superior, Pick-Staiger Hall. It would have saved me a trek downtown.
But speaking of low attendance, what are the Harris administration and advertising department smoking? The same weed as their architect? First of all: the pricing. Tickets starting at $60? OK, so I know that the Berlin Philharmonic's concerts at Carnegie Hall in New York this week start at $62. But a) that's the Berlin Philharmonic, b) that's New York where rent for a studio apartment in Manhattan exceeds $2,000 and c) that's Carnegie Hall, where the price is at least partly justified by resplendent acoustics. Nobody will pay $60 for the "cheap" seats in Harris, no matter who's playing, sorry. Then there is the publicity. Did anyone even bother advertising this around Chicago campuses? Why was the audience for a youth orchestra concert so old? (A friend in Houston reports that the performance there of Argerich/UBS/Dutoit last Sunday was attended by a sold out audience whose majority was under 35. Tickets started at $25.) What's with the gimmicky website that has no problems directing you to buy tickets but doesn't clearly list what pieces are being performed? Harris could be so much more. It could be an alternative multi-purpose arts center of the likes of the BAM in Brooklyn, which presents a vast variety of touring opera, orchestral, dance and theater productions and draws in very diverse audiences that other New York venues often have trouble attracting. What is the Harris doing wrong?
So, back to the music... An evening with Martha Argerich is always an event. Even if she has played the Prokofiev 3rd a million times, there is never a trace of routine in her performance. All the better then when she is supported by a spirited youth orchestra that treats each concert with the same level of excitement for the moment. Argerich's playing often has a nervous urgency that takes a trusted, responsive and experienced partner on the podium to tame. If her exuberance at times threatened to uncouple soloist and orchestra, Dutoit was always alert and ready to reassemble them within a split second. One can only imagine how much work Dutoit must have put into drilling ensemble cohesion with the orchestra to allow him the flexibility to adapt to Argerich's capricious (yet always somehow organic) tempo adjustments. Throughout, Argerich's touch and technique were a marvel. She possesses that unique gift of a technique so solid that the technical aspects of the performance become completely secondary. The music simply seems to evolve out of itself with an ease, inner fire and naturalness that betrays the great deal of thought and work that went into producing it, yet without ever sounding simple or simplistic. Her performance of the Prokofiev was greeted with unrelenting standing ovations. Dutoit somehow managed to lead Argerich back to the piano and persuade the notoriously encore-stingy pianist to grace us with two encores: a Scarlatti sonata and a Chopin Mazurka.
The Berlioz Symphonie fantastique in the second half then allowed the orchestra to pull out all the stops and show what they - and Dutoit - could do. The beginning had me a tad worried as Dutoit started off with some slight mannerisms in the introduction to the first movement. But the vigor and conviction with which the orchestra dug into the Passions section quickly dispelled my worries. Indeed, the third movement was one of the finest renditions I have ever heard - the narrative perfectly paced, the moods ideally calibrated. The timpanists did incredible work with the approaching distant thunder at the end.
One of the problems with youth orchestras is that they rarely have a depth of color or a rounded homogeneous sound (the West-Eastern Divan is a notable exception), often due to irregular performance schedules, transient membership and possibly due to simply lesser quality of the string instruments they play with (as compared with professional orchestras musicians who can afford better equipment). So, if there is one thing the performance lacked a bit then it was color and atmosphere, particularly in the Reveries section of the first movement and in most of Un Bal. But this was more than made up by the sheer electricity of the performance. The final two movements were an edge-of-the-seat roller coaster ride. Clearly, Dutoit and the orchestra invested a lot of time and detail work in conquering this very difficult and demanding score, yet they managed to maintain spontaneity in the performance. What a difference to the overly micro-managed account of this work that Dutoit put to disc with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal in the 80s for Decca! Dutoit also evidently spent far more thought and effort on properly phrasing and articulating secondary voices than in his past traversals. One other notable improvement: Dutoit in the intervening years since his Montreal recording seems to have learned a few things about the dies irae from the HIP-movement. He had the tubas play with an eerie restrained guttural sound that blended with the bassoons, approximating thereby the timbre of the serpent and ophicleides from Berlioz's original orchestration - a far superior effect than the completely modern tuba-driven affair in his Montreal recording. (NB: CSO tubist Gene Pokorny does that effect marvelously as well and did so in prior performances with Barenboim and on their recording. The CSO performs Symphonie fantastique with Kent Nagano in late April, 2008.)
Not to be outdone by Argerich, the orchestra thanked the audience for its appreciation with two encores of their own: the Farandole from Bizet's L'Arlésienne Suite and Chabrier's España. These were quite vigorous, big boned performances of these two showpieces. Every member of the orchestra radiated sheer joy of collective musicmaking and pride in a successful international tour.