Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Rise and the Fall

It was not surprising to hear Manfred Honeck becomes the next music director for PSO. The praise of his artistry has grown since his debut last year, not only from music critics, but also from orchestra members. In the official statement, Mr. Honeck said:” It is with great joy that I assume the post of music director of one of the world's finest orchestras”. While I am happy that the trio system finally comes to its end (which I don’t think has achieved its expectation), the fate of the new collaboration cannot be predicted based on the first impression.

Sure, Mr. Honeck should be excited. He is stepping on the podium which saw the rise of several legendary maestros. Except William Steinberg, the other conductors such as Fritz Reiner, Lorin Maazel and the latest Mariss Janssons built up their career from PSO and soon moved away for better orchestras. Reiner chose to rein Chicago, Maazel went to nurture NYC while Janssons now leads both the Royal Concertgebouw and Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. But even so, Honeck’s background is more green than any of his predecessors. Before Janssons came to the Steel City, he had brought Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra to an international-acclaimed level and made several critics-lauded EMI recordings such as works by Tchaikovsky. But besides recordings of Waltzes by Strauss, no CDs can be found to know about Honeck’s style.

Although it is known that Honeck was certainly the choice of the orchestra members, I doubt whether the managerial level have had a second thought: after all, Mr. Honeck is no name in music industry. It is true that with the donation from Simmons’ family, PSO’s financial status should be pleasant for the next few years, but it is essentially the orchestra’s own responsibility to operate independently, or in nowadays situation, not to build budget short like a rolling snowball. The season box office income usually accounts for one third of the annual budget. (With a fresh unknown name, a near-full house of season seats is unlikely to be possible) Then orchestra has to find contracts from other sources such as touring or recording for subsidy, but sadly similar to Hollywood film industry, whether it sells or not is largely determined by the stars. During Janson’s seven years’ tenure, only one recording of Shostakovich was made with EMI. It would be hard to think that PSO can seal another contract (unless they decide to create their own recording brand) since even the Big Five now are waiting for the nods from ever-shrinking recording industry. As for touring, for the first time in decades, PSO cannot even secure a date in Carnegie Hall. Unless paired with super stars, PSO’s own brand name with an unfamiliar music director may sound just as rustic as the old image of the city.

What prevailed about the collaboration between Honeck and PSO is chemistry. It was described as love at the first sight (although marriage after the second-date seems definitely reckless). Probably this is the most important criterion for selecting a music director for it is, in the end, through the musicians that music can be made. But marriage between music directors and the orchestras is just as complicated as family affairs, whether it will work or not cannot be simply predicted from the reaction in the honeymoon. In some cases, great collaborations have been witnessed in some authoritative, even tyrannical manner. Fritz Reiner, George Szell and Arturo Toscanini were not amicable persons but somehow it worked out in an honorable way, even Celibidache was notorious for extended rehearsals. While the fondness by the orchestra members is a bless for Honeck at the very beginning, it may become an obstacle for him to build up his authority especially when the final words have to be said when arguments arise. In my mind, PSO has great musicians, but they have lost keen ears to hear each other. It will be the music director’s job to balance different sections and bring back ensemble intimacy and coherence.

If Honeck’s designation is largely due to the unanimous support from the orchestra, Eschenbach’s leave due next season just shows in the opposite way how important the chemistry is.

I finally got the chance to sit in Kimmel Center last month. In fact, I was so close to the maestro that it would be unfair for me to comment on the sound of the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra: My seat was orchestra section Row B117, a seat which allowed me to see the socks of Eschenbach in great detail (and in fact I did).

The reason that I chose the seat was to get a better view of Thomas Quasthoff, but his performance was canceled due to illness. The first half of the program was hence changed from Mahler to failure-proof Vivaldi featuring orchestra’s own violinists. Even with advantage of being close to the fiddlers, I didn’t feel much connection through their bows except that of the concertmaster David Kim. Although all the principles from Philly and Boston orchestras possess skills for Vivaldi’s four seasons, all except Kim seemed a little bit pressing as if they wanted to make Nigel Kennedy sound authentic.

It was the beginning of the second half that I realized how awful my seat was. The great Bruckner Sym. No 9 was hour long, but all I could hear was the string section with exaggerated pluck sound. The bombarding brass section was blocked by the stage and when gradually the music came to the climax in the end of the first movement, the orchestra sounded a little bit mellow from my seat.

Verizon Hall is probably twice as big as Heinz Hall. The mahogany-clad cello-shaped hall not only renders a fresh warm feeling but also provides an advanced acoustic effect. However, one begins to wonder why a city which opted for a shinning new symphony hall couldn’t accommodate a conductor who yearns for probing something new. Eschenbach’s intensive scrutiny of Mahler and Bruckner finally won critics’ favor, but it failed to please some orchestra and board members. Even though the music ended in a pensive mood, the audience burst applauds immediately as if they were glad to get out of the hour-long boredom. Without note, Eschenbach filled the last symphony of Bruckner with space, fragility and meditation. Eschenbach is one of the rare conductors who could integrate the mosaic-like sections into a mesmerizing narrative essay.

But to be a successful music director, music talent is not the only required caliber, communication skill, managerial manner, negotiation capability and even strategic planning are all necessary. Eschenbach’s devotion to heavy-taste of Mahler and Bruckner could win admiration from peer and connoisseur, but it is economically unjustifiable if every concert calls for a full orchestra after intensive rehearsal due to its difficulty while only a tiny portion of the audience is fully satisfied. As the music director, Eschenbach may never look at the exact number on his salary slip, but those musicians sitting on the stage know what it means if the audience number keeps dropping, not to mention now the hall is bigger than ever. Maybe artistically Eschenbach did win, but without compromise he couldn’t please those whose favors he needs for continuing his careers.

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