Battle of the Bands

Osmo Vänskä 
Illustration by André Carrilho
I was in the doctor’s office yesterday to have my pinky sutures out, thumbing obligatorily through The New Yorker, and came upon this excellent example of music criticism by Alex Ross. I haven’t payed much attention to classical music since I lost the hearing in one ear and could no longer distinguish directions and balances, so now I’m a sucker for “inside” stuff like this:
“Orchestras do gain or lose ground over the years: a music director may instill confidence or sap it; newly hired players may add heft to fading sections or fail to grasp long-held traditions; the audience may add electricity or drift away, making even brilliant concerts seem wan. Philadelphia has been suffering from a lack of steady leadership, its cause not helped by a marketing campaign built around the inscrutable slogan “Unexpect Yourself.” The Cleveland Orchestra has gone through financial woes and labor friction, although in technical terms it remains impeccable. Chicagoans—whose orchestra is No. 5, according to Gramophone—worry that one or two weak links have appeared in their legendary phalanx of brass.
“For the most part, though, the events I saw during Carnegie’s informal tournament—I missed St. Luke’s and the Pittsburgh—achieved a striking consistency, in ways good and bad. Rhythms were executed with admirable precision (Cincinnati danced militantly through Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra); string sections emitted lush sounds (the Concertgebouw made of the slow movement of Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony a bubble bath for the mind); and climaxes were turned up to eleven (the Gewandhaus’s renditions of two Beethoven overtures, the “Leonore” No. 3 and the “Egmont,” caused Carnegie’s floor to rumble pleasingly). National idiosyncrasies remain—the edgy attack of German clarinets, the peculiarly pungent Russian brass, the unforced weight of the Dutch en masse—but the similarities outnumbered the differences.
“You had the impression of a cultural industry operating in peak condition….”
Interesting caveats follow, then Ross waxes eloquent about the Minnesota Orchestra. In Sibelius’s choral symphony “Kullervo” “…the Minnesotans, with the assistance of the Y. L. Male Voice Choir, from Finland, delivered a performance of uncanny, wrenching power, the kind you hear once or twice a decade.”
“Vänskä has been the music director of the Minnesota since 2003. For some years, it has been evident that he is a conductor of genius…. The crucial element in his work is unanimity—not unanimity of execution (although that was hardly lacking) but unanimity of feeling. The climaxes were as shattering as on any other night, but the quietest moments registered even more strongly.”
Well, I admit I’d never heard of either “Kullervo” or Vänskä. But even one-eared I’ll certainly give them both a listen now. Thank you, Alex Ross, for a fascinating and informative review.
(And thank you Dr. S, for subscribing to The New Yorker. The last health-care purgatory I was sentenced to was provided only with reading material for (astonishingly upscale) scuba divers, and people who know minor celebrities by their first names and bedmates.)

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