Heat Conductors

Now that the podiums of so many major orchestras are about to be vacated, the great conductor hunt has gone global, and the name everyone hears is Simon Rattle. Soon to leave his City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra after a fruitful association of almost twenty years, the hot, youngish (43) British maestro, some say, is bound to snatch the big plum, the Berlin Philharmonic, when Claudio Abbado steps down in 2002. The Cleveland and Philadelphia orchestras are also in the market for music directors, and it’s safe to say that Rattle has at least crossed people’s minds in those cities. Even our own Philharmonic has begun to think about a successor to Kurt Masur a few years down the pike, although management denies having approached anyone as yet. When it does, I suspect, the Philharmonic will show little interest in courting a music director as highly spiced and with so many unconventional notions about how a symphony orchestra should function as Rattle. I was even more convinced of that when, on my way to attend Rattle’s farewell concert in Avery Fisher Hall, I met one connoisseur of orchestras and conductors headed homeward to watch the season finale of Ally McBeal.

Rattle himself plans to leave his options open for now. Even if he does eventually decide to take another permanent post, I would be surprised to encounter him hereabouts in a capacity other than that of an occasional guest. Despite a few significant exceptions, our East Coast orchestras have traditionally looked to central Europe for music directors, preferably conductors with strong credentials in the classic German-Austrian repertory that has been basic listening for American symphonygoers for more than a century. Take our soon-to-depart maestros: Wolfgang Sawallisch in Philadelphia, Christoph von Dohnanyi in Cleveland, and Masur in New York – solid, dependable German conductors who have kept Mozart-to-Mahler performance standards high but, I think, are not original musical personalities destined to join the immortals. But since they have successfully maintained the status quo, kept conservative subscribers happy, and created little controversy, their orchestras will probably play it safe by trying to find three more music directors just like them.

Although Rattle is hardly a fire-breathing Young Turk, he is still no doubt too radical for such supercautious and delicately balanced organizations as the orchestras in Philadelphia or New York. On the other hand, the local orchestra scene might be a livelier place if someone took the chance. One of Rattle’s long-range projects during his Birmingham tenure has been an end-of-the-millennium survey of twentieth-century orchestral music, some of the thorniest scores by Stockhausen, Boulez, Birtwistle, and Tippett as well as the by now comforting classics of Stravinsky, Bartók, Hindemith, and the rest. Everyone was certainly challenged and not everything was liked, but neither did the world end; the audience did not vanish, community support for the orchestra is apparently stronger than ever, and Birmingham is a more musically literate city than it was ten years ago. Such adventurous in-depth programming, of music old or new, is unimaginable in New York, even though audiences here may not be as unsophisticated, unreceptive, or just plain lazy as they must sometimes seem to Lincoln Center’s tastemakers.

In any case, Rattle was wise enough to avoid offering anything threateningly outré for his swan-song concerts. Even at that, the two programs were cleverly organized to show off his and his orchestra’s versatility, while at the same time giving a chronological mini-overview of the orchestral repertory. Covering the styles of three centuries, the journey started out in the Baroque (a suite from Rameau’s Les Boréades), proceeded through the Classical age (Haydn’s Symphony No. 86), moved on to the early Romantic (Beethoven’s Eroica) and late Romantic eras (Mahler’s Seventh), and ended up in the present (Oliver Knussen’s Symphony No. 3).

No, all was not perfect. Anyone who swoons over the creamy sounds produced by the Vienna Philharmonic would be disappointed by this orchestra’s rather gritty textures and occasional technical lapses. Then, too, the Birmingham phenomenon has been typically oversold by an enthusiastic British press, and that may have turned off a lot of people to the qualities of both the orchestra and its conductor. But for anyone willing to listen beyond surface beauty, never a Rattle priority in any case, this is a remarkable ensemble, one that articulates its leader’s ideas with uncommon clarity, precision, and freshness, while projecting a fierce commitment I rarely hear in sleeker but dégagé performances by more glamorous orchestras. And if Rattle’s ideas are sometimes debatable, they are always valid and worth pondering – I’ve seldom heard an Eroica performance that turns all the corners in this still-astonishing work so boldly to confront an audience with its revolutionary symphonic thinking. That is just one of Rattle’s special strengths, and one reason why orchestras everywhere, whether they know it or not, are sorely in need of him.

Another valuable conductor from whom we hear too little passed through town not long ago: James Conlon. It’s ironic that Conlon, an American in his mid-forties, bases his career in Europe, as principal conductor of the Paris Opéra and music director of the city of Cologne in Germany. We could also use him here, but perhaps no one thought to ask. At least Conlon returns home now and then as a guest, and he recently appeared with the Philharmonic leading a rare score by Alexander Zemlinsky: Die Seejungfrau, an extravagant 45-minute tone poem based on a variation of the familiar Rusalka-Ondine legend.

A composer rated highly by Schoenberg and Mahler, Zemlinsky, along with his music, was pretty much snuffed out when Europe went to war. He made it to America, but lacking even Schoenberg’s meager survival skills, Zemlinsky died a forgotten man in Larchmont in 1942. His fastidiously crafted music, mostly in a lush late-Romantic idiom, has come back into fashion lately, and nearly all of it – operas, symphonies, songs, string quartets – has been recorded, much of it for EMI Classics by Conlon. I call this music “lush,” but only in the sense that Zemlinsky makes full use of post-Wagnerian harmonic and thematic transition techniques; like the tonal music of the young Schoenberg (a Zemlinsky pupil), his scores have a peculiarly abstract, even chaste quality that sets this composer’s work apart from the more erotic music of contemporaries like Strauss, Korngold, or Schreker. In that respect, Zemlinsky’s personal style is ideally suited to express the tragic fate of the pure little water sprite. Die Seejungfrau is a lovely discovery, and the Philharmonic under Conlon made every note sound absolutely gorgeous.

Heat Conductors