Thursday, September 11, 2008

Critics Can't Agree on Salonen's Hollywood Bowl Farewell

Part of the fun in discussing a concert is comparing your own reactions to those of others in the audience. Do they share your perceptions and musical sensibilities? Or did they come away with an entirely different experience? If your reaction was particularly strong–"That was the best/worst performance I've every heard"–and someone else disagrees, your inevitable reaction is surely some variation of: "What performance was he listening to?" or "I can't believe we were at the same concert?" or "Did he hear the same thing I heard?"

I didn't hear Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic perform Mahler's gargantuan Eighth Symphony on Tuesday night, but I know two people who did: Tim Mangan and Anthony Tommasini. Mangan is the music critic at the OC Register and Tommasini is chief music critic at The New York Times. Both reviewed the concert in the September 10 edition of their respective papers, and their reactions couldn't be more divergent.

Tommasini praises Salonen's "urgent, sweeping and nuanced account of the score," but his review is primarily a historical and critical analysis of the music itself. He does, however, make some complimentary observations about Salonen's reading:

Mr. Salonen's performance managed to convey the piece as a whole, as a cogent entity. While the sudden emotional shifts of the music came though, both the passages of ruminative quiet and the tumultuous outbursts, so did the compelling narrative arch. Maybe it was the informal outdoor atmosphere, but this epic symphony just swept right by, seeming almost succinct.

He closes with some kind words for the vocal soloists.

Mangan, on the other hand, is much less enthused, almost apologetic in his negative reaction:

Musicians often bite off more than they can chew. It's a problem for a critic who would like to acknowledge honorable but who much also report results. In choosing this work to perform at the Bowl, Salonen may have overestimated both his ability to get this many musicians together in limited rehearsal time as well as the venue's capabilities for doing the work justice.

Which is to say that Tuesdays performance sounded like an approximation, at least much of the time.

. . .

We don't need to get into the performance in much detail. It sounded like a second run-through, more or less, with a good deal of ensemble work left to do. In a word, it was sloppy.

Ouch. That's a stinging indictment. For an orchestra of the LA Phil's calibre, calling a performance a sloppy second run-through is about as bad as it can get. But how did Tommasini miss that? After all, a messy performance is a messy performance; there's little room for interpretation. Either the musicians played together, or they didn't. 

I suspect that Tommasini is fully aware that the orchestra played poorly, but he inexplicably chooses not to address it. Instead, he indirectly acknowledges and dismisses the substandard performance with one line: "An outdoor, amplified performance of this daunting work . . . is not an occasion for close critical scrutiny." 

In my opinion, this line is a cop out. Hearing a youth orchestra valiantly attempt Mahler's Eighth is not an occasion for close critical scrutiny. Hearing an understudy make her Met debut in the middle of the 2nd Act of Tristan is not an occasion for close critical scrutiny. Hearing a major American orchestra and its celebrated music director perform one of the epic works in the symphonic repertoire is unquestionably an occasion for close critical scrutiny. Critics have an obligation to fully report on the concerts of leading ensembles. If an orchestra like the LA Phil doesn't have its act together on stage, say so. Period. Critics like Tommasini should hold world-class artists accountable to the highest standards of performance, not make excuses when they fall short.