Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Maintaining the Oregon Symphony: Is that such a bad thing?

By Barry Johnson

Sometimes the brain creates a little lull for itself before it pushes "publish" on a series of thoughts it has doubts about.  During that lull, it can weigh the consequences and measure the doubts. My lull on a little matter that involves the response of the New York Times critic to the Oregon Symphony's Carnegie Hall concert is about over. Here goes.

Followers of the symphony already know what I'm going to talk about -- the word "maintained." But really, I want to speculate about musical memory and the power of narrative, and maybe let Kozinn off the hook a little bit.

For those catching up, the Times critic Allan Kozinn wrote a very favorable account of the Oregon Symphony's recent visit to New York. In that account he wrote the following sentences:
"The orchestra was formed in 1896, and its international reputation has grown since 1987, when it began recording big, opulent works and sonic (sic) spectacular CDs for the Delos label. Many of these discs, conducted by James DePreist, the orchestra’s music director at the time (and now emeritus), remain in print and show the ensemble to be a highly polished precision instrument. Since 2003 it has been directed by Carlos Kalmar, a Uruguayan conductor who has maintained it admirably."
And the symphony's principal violist, Charles Noble, who writes a very useful blog, responded this way:
"However, to say that the orchestra was simply “maintained” at a certain level by Carlos Kalmar for eight years until our concert two nights ago is not only naive, it is laughable."
Noble then goes on to explain how much better the symphony has gotten since he arrived in 1995 as Kalmar pushed them toward his particular musical vision. Kozinn responded to Noble's criticism of his criticism, by saying that 1) "maintained" wasn't an insult, 2) that those Delos recordings are "very impressive," and 3) they are the only way a New York-based critic would have to judge the Oregon Symphony during DePreist's years.

In short, Kozinn was reasonable. I remember listening to the 1992 Delos recording of the Oregon Symphony playing Sibelius (Symphony No. 7), and it was quite beautiful and precise to my ear. Or that's what I remember, anyway, because just now when I looked for the CD, I couldn't find it. All I had were the words I'd used to label it then and smudges of that symphony, "polluted" by other encounters with the music. Back then, I remember "us" thinking (and here, "us" meant my colleague at The Oregonian, music critic David Stabler) that DePreist and the orchestra were great on music from the Romantic era, the more sweeping, the better. But we're talking about the 1980s and early '90s, and without consulting recordings, I just have those dry husks, those words, left from that time.

I suspect that trained musicians have better memories for the way things sounded. On the other hand, though, they listen to and play far more music than I do. So, I have some skepticism about anyone's recall of how something specific sounded that long ago. We know he or she is in a subjective position anyway, right? In the middle of the orchestra or sitting in the first balcony? That their meal before the concert might have disagreed with them or that they suddenly had a panic about whether they'd turned off the stove? And maybe their musical ideas and values have changed subsequently? I certainly hope so.

How did the "old" Oregon Symphony sound? My suspicion is that during the last few years of James DePreist's tenure, things started to deteriorate some -- rehearsals weren't so rigorous, maybe, and tough personnel decisions were tabled for the new music director to make. That makes sense to me as an explanation, but my sonic memory of music made in the late 1990s and early 2000s simply doesn't exist to verify it. How about before that?

I have a memory of "us" (this time Stabler's predecessor as music critic, Robert Lindstrom) thinking how much better the symphony sounded under DePreist than it had under his predecessor, even after the jump from Civic Auditorium (now Keller Auditorium) to the acoustically challenged Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. And we had a plausible account for it -- DePreist's musical charisma and the fact that he was working with a full-time orchestra, instead of part-timers.  Again, the account remains with me, but not the music.

So, I understand the importance of establishing the Kalmar Narrative for Noble (and Stabler) not to mention the symphony itself. We want to think that things are getting better, that hard work is paying off. I find Noble's account of things, especially the practice of the string section in which he sits, quite persuasive in this way. And I'm even willing to defer to his musical "memory" when he says the orchestra sounds better now than it did when he arrived in 1995, though implicit in my deference would be, "to him." But that's difficult to demonstrate, isn't it? We need to capture the experience with words, because the experience itself, which is very unruly for the rational mind to begin with, starts to leak away almost immediately.

Maybe the problem is simply "better." How can we possible evaluate the performance of each of the members of an orchestra during a performance in such a way that we could compare it to the performances of a different set of musicians? "The principal violist was 3 percent better" -- it just doesn't make sense. Even with recordings, unless one of the versions is truly awful, usually we are choosing between accounts according to our own subjective preferences. We like the "saturated" sound of Philadelphia better than the precision of London, or then again, maybe Philadelphia sounds mushy to us.

Ultimately, we are counting on our symphony orchestra to give us an account that conveys much of what makes a particular composition important -- to the conductor, the musicians, the audience, musical history. And frankly, in that, there's quite a bit of latitude. What I like about Kalmar is his seriousness of purpose and his enthusiasm for the music he conducts. He helps to pull me along, even when I'm not so very interested in a particular piece of music myself. And you know what? I'd say exactly the same thing about James DePreist.

Maybe that drops me into Kozinn's camp, at least this far: Kalmar has restored the sense of excitement of DePreist's best years at the symphony, which were the years of most of the Delos recordings that Kozinn remembers (and maybe listened to before he took in the symphony at Carnegie Hall).

Personally, Kalmar's tastes are closer to my own than DePreist's were, at least what I took to be their preferences. I like the Classical period and I like 20th (and 21st) century work, and Kalmar seems to lean in that direction. On the other hand, I loved to listen to DePreist talk, loved his presence, loved how he persevered here during some of our toughest times, economically and culturally. Both have made the Oregon Symphony a credible musical force, capable of delivering musical value over a range of compositions. So, "maintained" isn't such a bad word.

Like any word, though, it smooths and erases actual experience. Noble's narrative is an important one for us to consider when we listen to the symphony now -- we can compare its sound to his words profitably, I think. But his words smooth and erase experience, too, even though he's writing from the inside. Maybe even more because he's writing from the inside, because his view is going to be shaped by all the things that limit and color our accounts of our own workplaces.

And now that I've expressed my sympathy for Kozinn, Noble's description of his use of "maintain" as "naive and laughable," often fighting words for journalists and critics, can be applied to me, I suppose. They aren't fighting words for me, though, just business as usual in this particular game.

Today, the New York Times ran an account by Peter G. Davis about Gustav Mahler's time in New York. Mahler died in Vienna 100 years ago today, after spending most of his last three years in New York, where he first conducted the Metropolitan Opera (only to be replaced by Toscanini) and then the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall.  Davis makes sense of Mahler, his painstaking approach to rehearsals (15 for Mozart's Don Giovanni, for example) leading to the rapturous response of critics and audiences to his concerts and operas.

And I'm wondering about "better," again, not so much as an objective "fact" and more like "something that fills my cup of needs to the brim and then runneth over."  Art at its better and its best is more a matter of this plenitude than an account of practice schedules and wind sections, a plenitude that we register individually and in the company of each other.

I think when Kozinn calls the symphony's performance "fantastic" (as he did in the comment section of Noble's blog) he means that it supplied that plenitude. And when he uses the word "maintains," he suggests that Oregon Symphony created a similar effect in the past.  I do remember that -- the feeling of abundance -- with both eras of the orchestra. And I suppose at the end of the day I'm happy with that.


James Bash said...

Hi Barry,

I've heard and sung with the Oregon Symphony under both DePreist and Kalmar. I think that the Kalmar-led ensemble is much better for many reasons, and one of the most obvious ones is that the string section bows together. This is especially crucial when the string are playing music that is going by really fast. By bowing together, the strings can produce a unified sound. Under DePreist, this unfortunately, was never the case. Some of the bows, for example, in the first violins would be going up while others were going down. This kind of thing doesn't happen with first rate orchestras, and now, under Kalmar, you can see unified bowing, and it does make a big difference in terms of the sound.

Barry Johnson said...

James, Welcome to Arts Dispatch and thanks for commenting!

Your line on the string section is confirmed by Charles Noble, and I understand what you're both saying, I think.

What I'm suggesting is that my memory of musical quality means I can't compare the string sections of "peak years" DePreist to the current sound. There are plausible reasons why the current ensemble should sound better, but I myself can't hear them in my head. And then there's the matter of the recordings, which Kozinn cites. Do those recordings sound worse than the current ensemble? Especially the string section? And then, if our ears can detect the difference, how do we measure it or talk about it?

Ultimately, I'm not arguing for the "equality of sound." I'm sure there are measurable differences between orchestras and orchestras in different eras, if our instruments are acute enough, and even that those differences can be heard by humans. But I'm expressing skepticism about our ability to lock in those auditory memories over time, and I'm suggesting therefore that the words we use and the explanations we employ substitute for the "real" thing -- the sound itself.

And ultimately, I'm redeeming the full, satisfactory experiences we remember from DePreist's orchestra. On many nights, they filled many people with delight. Which is a very good thing!

James Bash said...

Hi Barry,

There are a lot of things that a good sound engineer can do to enhance the sound of an orchestra. For example, a sound engineer can add a little bit of reverberation, which adds warmth to a recording. I have done a few recordings, including one commercial recording with the Oregon Symphony and the Portland Symphonic Choir. It was a great experience, but I learned that retakes for specific increments of time can fix a lot of problems.

So when I compare orchestras - including the Oregon Symphony from this year to previous years - I draw on my concert-going experiences, and I have a lot of them. The string section example is just one of many improvements that have been made. I could mention specific musicians and problems that I heard, but I think that this not a good idea. So, I like your ending, which accentuates the positive regarding the DePreist era.

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