Chetana Nagavajara

 The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in the Philharmonie, Berlin


The audience went wild after hearing  Gershwin’s An American in Paris performed as the last item of the concert in the Philharmonie by the visiting St. Louis Symphony Orchestra on 5 September 2012. “Genius!”, I exclaimed to myself. This man Gershwin was an autodidact. He knew as much as the learned Schoenberg what a symphony orchestra can do. And how intuitively inventive he was. Musically he was never short of ideas; one great idea after another, just as in the case of my beloved Johannes Brahms (again?).

To be fair, full credit must be given to the orchestra under its Music Director, David Robertson.
It was technically a great performance, and also a spirited and inspired one. The brass section especially was very, very outstanding, although I could not help feeling that the orchestra could have done with at least 8 more violins. The musicians were enjoying themselves as much as the audience. This was music-making in the best sense of the word. In this same hall almost 20 years ago, I heard this very same composition played by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra conducted by Lorin Maazel. It left me cold then.

As an encore, the visitors from St.Louis gave us Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to Candide, the overture which is better known than the full-length operetta of the same name. The orchestra played it with the verve and energy that were captivating. I was sitting next to a lady visitor from Brazil. The association with the composer Bernstein led her to think of the conductor Bernstein, and that prompted her remark to me, “This young conductor will soon become a second Bernstein.” My answer was, “I hope I will live long enough to witness that.” Her immediate repartee was, “Of course, you will. It won’t take that long.” We shall see if her prophesy will come true.

I brought up the subject of Leonard Bernstein as a conductor, because most leading American Orchestras in their early days had to rely on (dictatorial) European conductors, whether in New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia or Boston. Bernstein, although “made in America”, did eventually conquer Europe. (Willy Boskovsky, then Concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic, with a typical European stance, remarked that Bernstein came to Europe to “to put a jewel to his crown”.) In this connection, I shall have to take issue with my Berlin hosts again: there were many empty seats in the Philharmonie. As I walked around the foyer during the interval, I heard many non-German languages spoken by members of the audience. An American (orchestra) in Berlin did not mean much to the Berliners. And the conductor’s name – with that flat Anglo-American ring without even an Eastern European exoticism – just simply was not worth the attention. (Simon Rattle is at least knighted!) The Berliners did not know what they missed.

It was bad planning to have the orchestra perform An American in Paris immediately after Arnold Schoenberg’s Fünf Orchesterstücke. I could sense what Schoenberg in 1917-19 was after: nuances, yes, very fine nuances, whether in dynamics, rhythms or emotions. To be honest, these refined differentiations did not quite come through, and the music sounded so bland, only to be shoved off the stage soon enough by the irresistibly vivacious American in Paris. Just too bad! It should have been placed next to something like Debussy.

Those who planned the programme must have been seriously thinking as to how to combine the old and the new, the Old World and the New World, for they decided to place Beethoven’s Violin Concerto amidst 20th-century music. The choice of the soloist fell on the German violinist, Christian Tetzlaff. (He had collaborated with David Robertson before.) I heard Tetzlaff for the first time over 20 years ago when he was only 18, playing the Mendelssohn Concerto. I knew then that he had an axe to grind: Germany was lagging behind in terms of producing world-class violinists, and Tetzlaff knew that he was already in a position to outdo those young Russian or American virtuosi on their own terms. In that respect he was quite successful, but at what price! It was forgivable for an 18 year-old violinist to try to turn Mendelssohn into Sarasate. But his platform manners, now that he is 46, did not quite reflect a real process of musical maturation. You just cannot play the Beethoven Concerto like the Zigeunerweisen.

The audience loved it. It was fun. It was entertaining, completely oblivious that that Tetzlaff’s actual task was to scale the spiritual heights of the Beethoven Concerto. Tezlaff particularly enjoyed playing the cadenza (by Schnittke?) with a dialogue with the timpani. With stupendous technical prowess, with long years of solo and chamber music experience, he should not have become so self-indulgent as to turn Beethoven into an extrovert. The guiding principle of this concerto is serenity that rises to sublimity, though not disregarding entirely dramatic moments and playfulness. I am not bluffing, as I have experienced two sublime performances of this concerto which were unforgettable, one by Isaac Stern in the late 1950s and the other by Igor Oistrakh in the early 1960s. They played it straight, knowing full well that, though not a sacred icon, the work was a challenge to probe the depths of the human soul. It is the duty of responsible critics to tell Tetzlaff that he is not exploiting the full potential of the great work.

Instead of the soloist, it was the conductor who showed profound understanding of the work.
The long introduction was taken as a symphonic statement, but when the soloist made his entry, the conductor saw to it that his orchestra should  exercise utmost flexibility to respond to the former’s demands. It was by no means an easy task, for Tetzlaff oscillated between extreme dynamics and took great liberty with rhythms and tempi. This orchestra played in such a way as to allow every note played by the soloist to be audible. Lord Yehudi Menuhin once remarked that some great conductors are also “superlative” accompanists, and he named Bruno Walter and (Sir) John Barbirolli. (The latter accompanied great soloists like Kreisler and Rubinstein in recording studios in London so well that these recommended him to succeed Toscanini in New york during the Second World War, when he was still in his thirties.)

The concert began with Elliott Carter’s “Holiday Overture”, thus linking up with the previous concert’s “Amériques” by Edgard Varèse. There is something genuine about Carter’s overture, unpretentious but festive, thus demanding the full forces of a symphony orchestra. (I forgot to mention that in the Varese piece, the Concertgebouw deployed 140 musicians including 18 percussionists). It’s a long way from St.Louis on the Mississippi to Berlin and they could not afford to bring more musicians. (As I said earlier, the strings sounded a little thin.) As things stood, the St.Louis Symphony Orchestra proved itself that it could deservedly represent the New World in terms of music. This “American in Berlin” has not come as a tourist; he is a connoisseur of Western musical art, ready to prove his mettle at every moment.