First trip to the CSO this evening...Mozart Symphony #25, a premiere by the British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage, and the Brahms 2nd Piano Concerto with Emmanuel Ax for the main event. I was really there for the Brahms, so that is where I shall begin:
Haitink's hyper-precise thing is really well suited to Brahms, especially in as rich and polished a work as the second piano concerto--try to force too much on this piece and you'll just spoil the thing--you get fake articulation where the precisely correct articulation was there all along. But Haitink conducts with the optimum expression of the notes on the page in mind, almost to the point of obsession, and nowhere was it more evident than the Andante. He built the thing from the ground up, hunched over the podium like a car mechanic, twisting and prodding each color and harmony into just the right place before moving on. Letting the details shine through where one usually gets Brahmsian fog made this piece thrillingly new.
Emmanuel Ax gave a tremendous performance even if there is a part of my Brahms luv that yearns for the kind of manic precision someone like a Pollini could deliver in this part.
The Haitink thing is less successful in Mozart. I wanted to be into it and go along with the experiment, but at some points it sounded a bit like Haitink was leaving the poor thing stranded, refusing to impose the structure that old-pro Brahms doesn't need, but maybe 19 year old Mozart does. That said, there were some find moments, especially that beautiful little wind interlude in the (I think) third movement.
I need to think about the Turnage a bit more, but promise I'll post later.
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So, here's a random Sandow-eque suggestion. The CSO is doing a really nice job with program notes these days--besides the standard biographical context and musical breakdown, they offer some insights into the bigger reasons why such and such piece is interesting. I.e., in the notes for the Mozart:
The opening of this symphony is probably the earliest music that sounds wholly Mozartean to our ears--not the charming, finely crafted, yet slightly anonymous music of the period, but something utterly individual, music that leaps from the page and lodges in our memories...A second theme in B-flat major, provides contrast and a glimpse of the generic musical world Mozart was quickly leaving behind.
This kind of thing allows the occasional or semi-occasional concert goer (among which I certainly count myself as far as Mozart symphonies are concerned) to situate the works in his or her own musical knowledge, even if they haven't thought about Mozart symphonies for a while. It sticks with you and helps to deepen your perspective and critical ear even if you're only going to two concerts a year.
So why don't we do something similar in the performers' bios? It isn't rocket science to figure out what people mean when they say they don't go to classical music because they don't 'understand' what to like in a performance. It's not a lack of deep musical knowledge, its just the simple fact that even if you go twice a year, you probably don't have enough reference points to judge another randomly selected performance out of the vast world of soloist/orchestra/repertoire configurations. So let's get someone to write a few interesting paragraphs about where Emmanuel Ax and Bernard Haitink fall in their respective worlds, what some of their specialties are, and what qualities set them apart.
A successful classical listener needs to want to learn something about classical music outside of what's going on onstage. It isn't as easy to get to a basic level of appreciation as it is with pop music that speaks directly to our era and comes in 3-minute packages. That's just the nature of the beast. But we can do everything to ensure that going to a classical concert is more than just one opaque data point in the concert going experience, we can actively try to get people interested in learning about the performance world and different or similar experiences to be had than what they're seeing at the moment.
Naturally this would require a change from the safe C.V. feeling of most program materials, and might make some uncomfortable. But the current impression an occasional concert goer gets in uncharted territory, that everyone in the classical world likes everything else, and it's all swell and beautiful and pristine is a big liability. Clearly, people who are engaged with the music don't talk about it like this, so the challenge is getting people past the edifice to the far more interesting debate on the other side. It's time we measure victories in the number of occasional listeners who can walk out of the orchestra and mutter "Haitink's Mozart really sucked ass."