Enigmatic Debut

The third movement of the Ninth seemed empty.

New York

Last Wednesday wasn't a routine night at the New York Philharmonic. The orchestra's new music director, Lorin Maazel, made a gala debut, and -- at least to people in the music business -- questions swarmed around him. Why was he chosen? If you believe Mr. Maazel's reputation, he's mostly famous for two things: virtuosity and cold self-absorption. Is this what the Philharmonic needs? I asked that myself, in these pages nearly two years ago, when Mr. Maazel's appointment was announced. (Orchestras plan things long in advance). But now that he's arrived, I want to be fair, so I'll describe his debut as dispassionately as I can.

The first thing I'll report is astounding. Right from the start of Beethoven's "Lenore" Overture No. 3, the first work on Wednesday's program, the Philharmonic played better than it used to. Spectacularly better, in fact; reports of Mr. Maazel's virtuosity may actually have been understated. In just one short series of rehearsals, he made the orchestra sound richer, warmer and far more unanimous. That's especially true of the strings, who seemed to sustain their notes with longer, fuller strokes of their bows. Their precision was as stunning as their sound; when they played the tumultuous scales that launch the climax of the overture, every note was not just clear, but luminous.
Under Mr. Maazel's predecessor, Kurt Masur, the Philharmonic never played soft passages quietly enough (something, I should add, that's true for most orchestras under most conductors). But now it played the main theme of the overture -- a breathless moment -- in a seamless hush. Loud music, too, was more vivid than before, especially when the timpani lashed out with the force of a whip.
But what was most astounding was the balance of the instruments. Under any good conductor, important instrumental lines are heard, while lesser ones recede into the background. Mr. Maazel, though, went much further, somehow giving every note its proper place on a soundstage that seemed almost three-dimensional. In Beethoven's Ninth Symphony -- which followed the overture and brought the concert to a close -- every sound came through. Every background passage came to life, as if the musicians now could sense, with unheard of precision, exactly how much force, what kind of tone, and -- an important detail, often neglected -- what kind of rhythmic articulation everything they played should have.

But there were oddities. The woodwinds, taken as a group, didn't blend as cleanly as the strings. The horns, when they took the lead, still detached themselves from the orchestra and played like independent contractors, just as they did for Kurt Masur. Sometimes everyone sustained too much, so much so that -- in what musicians call "dotted rhythms" -- long notes swallowed short ones. When , for instance, Beethoven (in the second movement of the Ninth) wrote music that goes TAH-ta tah, it came out sounding more like TAH-d'tah. Sometimes the short notes all but disappeared.
And so did almost all the feeling that the music ought to have. I'd never thought enough, I realized, about something that should be obvious -- that in anything by Beethoven, contrasts (and, even more, transitions from one kind of music to another) are powered by emotion. But I was forced to think about this Wednesday night, because the changes in emotion mostly didn't happen. When, in the recapitulation section of the first movement of the Ninth, a gentle theme emerges from the darkness, it made no sense; without the feeling that should color it, it sounded like a random accident.
Big moments often fell entirely flat. The third movement of the Ninth -- where in great performances I hear the breath of God -- seemed empty, despite the gorgeous playing; I got bored. In the final movement, the famous "Ode to Joy," where singers join the orchestra, supertitles projected above the stage translated the German text; this was the first time the Philharmonic had provided that useful service, but here the words rebuked what we were hearing. "Joy!" they said, but we heard no joy (except from the miraculous bass soloist, Rene Pape). After the concert, as I know from conversations then and in the day that followed, people in the business were dismayed. "The Philharmonic," I could have written, "has now become a stupendous musical machine. But anyone who wants the heart of music will have to find it elsewhere."

Yet I can't write that, because I went back the next night, and heard the orchestra again. This time the concert started with a world premiere, "On the Transmigration of Souls," which the Philharmonic commissioned from John Adams to mark the anniversary of 9/11. It's a sonic landscape, sober and restrained, for chorus, children's chorus and orchestra, with taped noises from New York streets and taped voices reading names of the 9/11 dead. It's not meant to provoke emotion, but instead to contain it, to create a musical space in which we can be alone with our thoughts. It rises, even so, to a troubling climax, but still it mostly made only a modest impression on me. Maybe that's because I'm sated with 9/11, or because Mr. Adams doesn't strike me as an accomplished electronic composer; the sounds on tape seemed more like a scrapbook than like art. Still, I was grateful for Mr. Maazel's uncanny skill, which brought this piece to a close that hovered on the edge of silence.
What surprised me most, though, was the end of the first movement of the Ninth, where the music settles into something like a grinding dirge. All at once, the score came alive, with pain and majesty nearly strong enough to taste. Parts of the second movement, too, came through with unexpected bite. Toward the end, as if he'd lost control, Mr. Maazel let go of his baton; a cellist had to pick it up for him. Coming right after that, the third movement wasn't dull. Mr. Maazel, I realized, can be impulsive; at times he rushed the music forward, like a man possessed.
The last movement was a patchwork, sometimes exploding with a very private kind of light and heat, then falling into blankness. Mr. Maazel, it seems to me, communes not only with the Philharmonic, but also with himself, with unpredictable results. He'll be with us for four more years. What those will bring, I won't try to say. But we just might be surprised.

Wall Street Journal, September 24, 2002