Music beyond the Hudson

I’ve been looking forward to Alex Ross’s On the Road: Three Orchestras, Three Cities, Two Days New Yorker piece since he blogged about trip. I’m still not sure why the quick had to be so quick, but perhaps two days is all an urban sophisticate was willing to risk in the Bible belt (and he was able to hear the orchestras in very close succession). Alex, come back again and stay long enough for a fried pork tenderloin sandwich. (OK, I see why he didn’t tarry.)

First stop was my neighbor the Indianapolis Symphony, which he praises for its

cleanly articulated, richly expressive performances of Berlioz’s “Francs-Juges” Overture and Mahler’s First Symphony. The ensemble showed strengths and weaknesses; occasional smudged notes appeared amid glowing textures. Ju-Fang Liu, the principal double-bass, played the solo in the third movement of the Mahler as elegantly and hauntingly as I’ve heard it.

Ju-Fang, who has given master classes at DePauw, is an extraordinary young bassist and a genuinely nice person. Her presence has energized the Indy double bass community. She’s given some wonderful recitals and master classes here.

Then Ross heads down to Nashville and on to Birmingham.

Orchestras at the level of the Nashville used to be described as “regional” or “second tier,” but increasingly they display the virtuoso panache of front-rank ensembles. The conservatories are producing wave after wave of almost excessively skilled players, and, like Ph.D.s in the humanities, hundreds of them fan out across the continent each year in search of jobs. They may stay with a regional orchestra for only a season or two before moving on to a higher salary, but they raise the level of playing as they go.

The level of the younger players I know in string sections is extraordinary (other instruments too, but I know more string players). There is no shortage of extremely well-trained players who look at an orchestral career as a priviege, not a refuge for failed would-be soloists.

After the Alabama Symphony concert in Birmingham, Ross comments that he

understood more deeply that building a major orchestra isn’t a matter simply of gathering the best players from the leading conservatories and paying a celebrity maestro millions to lead them. Great performances can happen anytime skilled players respond with unusual fervor to a conductor whose vision is secure.

That’s one of the great things about classical music right now. There are great musicians everywhere, not just in symphony orchestras but also freelancing and on college faculties (and not just at the big music schools). There are first-rate chamber music and recital performances available for a low price, often free, across the country.

And perhaps this all relates to Eric Lin’s comments in the fascinating conversation on Greg Sandow’s blog to which I linked yesterday, in which he reflects on why he didn’t enjoy the Emerson Quartet at Carnegie Hall:

Perhaps it’s not so much my discomfort with the age of the audience as with the feeling that for a good portion of the audience, going to hear the Emerson Quartet was something routine rather than special. Nobody seemed excited, or perhaps I missed something and they all felt the Beethoven quartets were such introspective music that it should only be received with drooping heads, yawns or a hand on the face, supporting their head.

Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium is a cavernous place to hear Beethoven quartets. It is chamber music, after all, written well before a concert hall the size of Carnegie was imagined, let alone built. The Emerson Quartet played wonderfully, Eric tells us, but clearly the event itself didn’t work for him. Hear a less-known but terrific quartet play in a much smaller venue (like the church and synagogue where Cincinnati’s Linton chamber music series is held, or our local Greencastle Summer Classical Music takes place) and the experience can be intimate and electric.


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