Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Berlin noch einmal

Between fighting the nastiest cold in years, and teaching, playing and getting prepared for an overseas recital, I have tried to find time to enjoy my subscription to the Berliner Philharmoniker's Digital Concert Hall. The benefits of viewing a great orchestra perform as if I were sitting in the middle of the group are many, although some of the observations haven't been all positive. Firstly, due to the distance and the nature of the internet, connections are not always working ideally. This should not come as a surprise to anyone using one of the numerous VoIP services: sometimes the calls are as good or better than over regular landlines, but at other times there are annoying interruptions. For the most part this hasn't been a major issue. Seeing musicians at work from a close distance is revealing. Some string players seem to play over the fingerboard, thus not contributing much to the orchestra's sound. Who would have guessed that at least two of the trombones and a French horn use instruments which at a first glance look like they came from the Salvation Army, certainly not shining the way everything is supposed to do in America? On closer inspection one, of course, notices that these instruments are a labor of love in the true sense of the word, hand-forged by a master maker. Unlike violins among an American collector's treasures, not even the string instruments have to shine as if they came from Sears. Many of them actually look the way a well-used violin or other string instrument should and would have, before the annoying habit of making everything gleam and glitter as if they were right out of a factory, finished off with glass-like hard layer of French polish.

As Germany today has over 130 professional orchestras, it is obvious that classical music is still serious business over there. In comparison, the United States should have over 460 such orchestras, following the same orchestra/population ratio. That obviously is hardly the case, and fundamentally the two systems couldn't be more different. There an orchestra, an opera company or a theater is part of the social fabric and mainly paid for from monies collected in taxes. Here, unfortunately, most such institutions have become a playground, or sandbox, for the very wealthy philanthropists. Often they are crooks (just think of Madoff, Axelrod and some other Murky characters) with no real interest in the Arts. They love to see their names on a wall of a hall and to be treated as if they are great humanitarians. Brownnosing knows no limits: conductors are often masters at that, telling some wealthy old prune that she looks ever-so-youthful and beautiful, with a phony smile. But in any American orchestra there are also individuals among the musicians who manage to flatter major donors, simply to advance their own agendas.

Like their American counterparts, the European institutions are suffering in the present economic crisis. Berliner Philharmoniker is no exception and has had its problems even before today's financial meltdown. One of the reasons the players like Sir Rattle so much is that he went to battle for better wages for his musicians. He has faced a lot of criticism from papers over there, some claiming that he is the weakest conductor they've ever had. That isn't evident from their playing, at least when they are doing standard repertoire. Perhaps the Germans aren't used to someone looking like he is in ecstasy all the time. In any case the group plays very well for him, in spite of the minimal help he is offering to keep them together. But the orchestra is forced to play as a large chamber group this way, listening to each other at all times, and they do so remarkably well. Sir Simon Rattle is no Sir Metro Gnome, that's for sure. The other day I was watching Zubin Mehta conducting Mahler. Either he has had to work a lot with less capable orchestras or his approach to conducting is more mechanical. Observing him carefully beat time even during rests made me understand why the orchestras he spent a lot of time with, Los Angeles and New York Philharmonics, usually sounded uninspired. Accurate, yes, but over-conducted as well.

The obvious difference between the people who end up on the podium in Berlin is that they perform the major works always from memory, unlike some self-proclaimed "greats" on this side of the Atlantic. Even all the tricky cues in Mahler were there in Mr. Mehta's performance. The nasty but brilliant Finnish critic Seppo Heikinheimo once wrote a review with a big headline "Pää pahvissa" or "Head in Cardboard" about a respectable musician who felt the need to use music for everything. Yes, playing tricky concertos from memory can be too frightening a thought for some want-to-be soloists, but a conductor doesn't make sounds (although some grunt and hiss) and wrong notes are not an issue. If he/she thoroughly knows the composition, waiving one's arms to the music should be child's play. Of course, if the orchestra is not top notch and there is a possibility musicians might get lost and come in wrong, a score is useful to have. I have played under baton-wielders who have conducted from memory but actually got lost in something like the "Rite of Spring." That's when we write "DLU" for "Don't Look Up" in the parts. But this is more understandable because of the complicated rhythm patterns, and of course with accompanying a soloist a Partitur should be at hand, as many of those artists make mistakes, no matter how seasoned they are.

Visually, due to the stage being in the middle, a maestro cannot make the ugly faces at his workforce some feel the need to do, as much of the audience has a clear view of them. In case of Berlin, there is also a camera that is zoomed on them, and they have to be on their best behavior. This naturally makes the workplace far more pleasant to the players. The new hall in Copenhagen is very similar to the one in Berlin, even more radical in design. Initial reports are that it sounds wonderful. It is satisfying to play in a string section and know that the audience can hear you or your section at all times. It clearly wasn't designed by a brass player whose idea of great sound is blasting horns and deafening percussion.

It has been exciting to follow President Obama's inauguration festivities. It is amazing that we have a leader who can speak in complete sentences and intelligent ones yet. I'll write more about him later but wanted to point out the tiny fraction of performances during the celebrations that would fall into the "classical" category. This art form has obviously become ever more elitist. My darling wife was upset about all the popular music but I reminded her that this has always been the case in America. In the past the pop artist might have been called Caruso or Kreisler; now times are different. Obviously what many of us old-timers regard as noise is appealing to majority of people. Those desiring a profession in classical music can only dream of the tens of thousands of jobs 460 orchestras would provide.

Berlin and Copenhagen Concert Halls