by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, June 25, 2007.
On the Internet, the landscape of American orchestral life is visible as never before. Almost all professional orchestras have their own Web sites, where you can study schedules, listen to MP3s, admire pictures of the executive director with donors, and read cute bios of the players. (The oboist bungee-jumps; ergo, musicians are human beings, not alien geeks.) Wandering around this virtual map, you can see signs that America’s orchestras are vacillating between vague optimism and raw panic. In some cases, straight-up classical works are perilously rare; concertos of Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky huddle among prepackaged pops programs like “Barbie at the Symphony” (an edutainment event backed by Mattel) and “The Music of Barbra Streisand” (Babs not included). Nearly as often, you stumble on happy surprises. Who would have guessed that the Redwood Symphony, a volunteer orchestra in the Silicon Valley area, has played all of Mahler’s symphonies? That the South Dakota Symphony has featured eight Pulitzer Prize-winning composers this season? Or that the Rochester Philharmonic just recorded, on the Harmonia Mundi label, one of the snappiest Gershwin disks in years?
To hear the grand old ensembles of Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Cleveland, a New York critic need only ride the subway to Carnegie Hall. Last month, I decided to check in on a few orchestras that can’t afford to tour in grand style around the country. After picking up a rental car at the Indianapolis airport, I drove down Interstate 65, seeing as many performances in a stretch as I could. Thanks to generous speed limits, I was able to catch a Thursday matinée by the Indianapolis Symphony; a performance that night by the Nashville Symphony; and, the following day, a concert by the Alabama Symphony, in Birmingham. I learned what touring musicians have been saying for years: that lesser-known orchestras can deliver sure-footed, commanding performances, and that the notion of a stratospheric orchestral élite is something of an illusion.
The Indianapolis Symphony is the oldest and richest of the three groups I visited. Founded in 1930, it now has a budget of more than twenty-seven million dollars. In recent years, it has benefitted from a downtown revitalization effort that has actually worked; its concert venue is a renovated movie palace in the shadow of the State Soldiers and Sailors Monument, in the heart of the city. Like many orchestras, the Indianapolis is reporting a decline in subscriptions but a compensating rise in single-ticket sales—a sign that the audience of the future may not want to pay for clusters of concerts in advance.
Since 2002, the music director in Indianapolis has been the Swiss-born conductor Mario Venzago. I heard the orchestra under the guest direction of Stéphane Denève, a towering, frizzy-haired, electric young Frenchman who has received semi-delirious reviews for his work at the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Denève drew out 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.
Orchestras are obsessed these days with audience demographics. The average age is hovering in the mid-fifties; in Indianapolis the average seemed even higher, although school groups added diversity. There was a lot of nodding and dozing around the room, at least until Mahler unleashed his colossal dissonant chord in the finale. Seeing such an audience, you wonder who will show up a generation from now; then again, it’s telling that, even back in 1970, half of the Seattle Symphony’s listeners were over fifty. The classical audience has been skewing old for several decades, perhaps because this is one field of American culture where youth does not dictate content.
The Nashville Symphony, founded in 1945, just finished its first season in the new Schermerhorn Symphony Center, a hundred-and-twenty-three-million-dollar, eighteen-hundred-and-sixty-seat hall that stands across the street from the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Defying the international trend toward sleekly contemporary concert-hall design, Schermerhorn is almost insolently traditional: the façade, with columns supporting a Grecian pediment of naked figures and a lyre, might have been trucked in from the Munich of King Ludwig II. The design won’t win raves in Metropolis, but it contrasts effectively with Nashville’s glass-and-steel skyline. The interior, a classic shoebox shape, evokes the fabled Musikverein, in Vienna, as do the richly reverberant acoustics. Too reverberant, perhaps: the music is sometimes lost in a somnolent haze. I ended up moving to a front row so I could hear more detail.
There were a lot of empty seats to choose from; the orchestra’s Thursday-night concerts haven’t been selling as well as the weekend ones, although over-all ticket sales have more than doubled this season. The audience seems more youthful than elsewhere; demographic analysts from the American Symphony Orchestra League will rejoice at the news that I ran into the younger sister of a high-school classmate. The program included a brief, elegiac piece entitled “. . . this noble company,” by the young American composer Kevin Puts, along with Haydn’s “Drumroll” Symphony and Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. Alasdair Neale, the guest conductor, elicited careful, emotionally neutral performances; the Bartók never caught fire, its ebullient, folkish phrases straitjacketed by a too even pulse. Yet the playing itself was polished nearly to perfection.
Amid the hoopla of its new home, the Nashville is undergoing a tricky transition. Kenneth Schermerhorn, the orchestra’s longtime leader, for whom the new hall was named, died suddenly in 2005; he had helped put this orchestra on the map with a series of recordings on the Naxos label, including “West Side Story,” Villa-Lobos’s complete “Bachianas Brasileiras,” and the new critical edition of Ives’s Second Symphony. (Nashville’s nine Naxos disks have sold well over a hundred thousand copies.) Leonard Slatkin is filling in as music adviser, but what the orchestra needs is an energetic, ambitious, preferably American director who can give a gifted group of players focus and fire.
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. A well-travelled soloist recently told me that players are often better than the conductors who lead them.
The Alabama Symphony is the happy reincarnation of an orchestra that was once given up for dead. In 1993, after years of crisis, this perennially underfunded organization went bankrupt. (A few orchestras usually go under in troubled economic times; six of them folded at the beginning of this decade, although all but one have got back on their feet or been replaced.) With the assistance of a stubborn band of donors and volunteers, the Alabama started up again in 1997. The orchestra is hardly drowning in cash—its budget is six million dollars, about a fourth of Nashville’s or of Indianapolis’s—but you wouldn’t know it from listening to the music. A young Romanian concertmaster, Daniel Szasz, leads a violin section that plays with exceptional finesse and force. Winds and brass are rough in places, but passionate in their attack. All told, the orchestra calls to mind one of those old-school Central European ensembles that make up for a few technical shortcomings with musical intelligence and authentic style. Adding to the lustre of the group is the Alys Stephens Performing Arts Center, whose main auditorium supplies a warm, bright acoustic.
Last fall, Alabama brought in a new music director, the English conductor and pianist Justin Brown. He strikes me as a conductor of substance. The program I heard followed well-worn grooves: Weber’s “Freischütz” Overture, Elgar’s Cello Concerto (with Anne Gastinel, a tensely lyrical soloist), and Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony. But Brown’s programming hasn’t lacked for daring. Already in his first season he has championed contemporary pieces by Poul Ruders, Kurt Schwertsik, and Magnus Lindberg. On one program next season, he will lead Elliott Carter’s “Soundings” and Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto from the piano, then conduct Beethoven’s Fifth after intermission. Another concert will bring together Ruders’s “Light,” Jonny Greenwood’s “Popcorn Superhet Receiver,” and the première of Paul Lansky’s “Shapeshifters,” for two pianos and orchestra. In less than a year, Brown has established the Alabama as one of the country’s most adventurous regional orchestras.
At the same time, Brown, a forty-five-year-old Cambridge graduate, navigates the mainstream repertory with authority. His “Eroica” had a gritty, slow-burning intensity that reminded me of Otto Klemperer’s monumental 1959 recording. In the G-minor variation in the finale, the one that sounds like a Turkish march, the strings dug in furiously, pushing the episode toward the tragic. Thinking about the performance afterward, I 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 what happened in Alabama, when an underpaid but committed orchestra put together as potent a performance of Beethoven’s revolutionary symphony as I’ve heard in several seasons.