by Margaret Croyden
Reflections August 1, 2007
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.
When going to the theater or a concert one always wonders what makes certain performances special, or makes some artists more exciting than others. Have they developed their craft to the ultimate point, or are they endowed with some secret we can never divine? Years ago, the Broadway play, “Amadeus” posed that question: what made Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart a genius, while his well known contemporary, composer Antonio Salieri was not. In the play, Salieri grapples with this question but does not discover an answer. Neither does the playwright Peter Schaffer.
I thought about this when I attended the Summertime Classics program of the New York Philharmonic in July. Not that there were any genius competing with each other, but I wondered why this British conductor Branwell Tovey, not well known in New York, was as enjoyable as the regular Philharmonic maestros. Despite Tovey's ordinary programming: Elgar's “Pomp and Circumstance,” the Greg Piano concerto, Smetena's “The Moldau,” and the loud bombastic “William Tell Overture of Rossini” (can any programming be lighter?), the Philharmonic played with an energy and verve sometimes missing in its regular season. Does it all boil down to the conductor's personality and the atmosphere created by the event?
The most important difference between Summer Classics and the regular season is that the Bramwell Tovey, a charming, witty unpretentious Englishman, is thoroughly delightful as he explains the background of the music, tells anecdotes about the composer and explains the function of the various sections of the orchestra, all this before he begins. The audience is delighted, and well they should be.
Though this might strike some as throwing a bone to the hoi polloi, it is no small accomplishment to capture the audience's attention, invoking their laughter and generally encouraging people to have a good time. For he is a splendid raconteur. I cannot imagine Maazel, Masur, Muti, or James Levine ever amusing the audience. Though the Philharmonic can play anything they are given--light, heavy, classic, modern-- the evening is never really fun. True, a Bach oratorio is not meant to be fun, but the atmosphere at the New York Philharmonic is entirely too restrictive.
When Lorin Maazel, Ricardo Muti, or Kurt Mazur conduct, the house is somber, sober, serious. No movement must be made, not a sound must be heard (other than the music). Even breathing must be controlled, not to speak of coughing. No one may get up to go the bathroom in the middle of a concert (this is not a movie house, you know). If one must leave the Hall, that's it. They cannot get back in; the doors are shut and no one may enter. The rules are strict. You know you are at a CONCERT given by the New York Philharmonic. And don't forget it.
While one can say that this atmosphere is what great music demands, perhaps this laced up, tight aura prevents people, particularly young people, from attending the concerts. For even the greats sometimes play to half full houses, while Summertime Classics with conductor Bramwell Tovey drew capacity and shouts for encores.
But maybe now the elders have finally caught on. They have just announced that after Mr. Maazel retires, they have selected a young American conductor to take his place. Maybe things will change. We need a young conductor; we need the young in the audience, we need a less stodgy atmosphere or the brilliant New York Philharmonic may not survive. And that cannot be tolerated.
MARGARET CROYDEN's recent book is "Conversations with Peter Brook, 1970-2000" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
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