To the layman, what conductors do is something of a mystery. Actually, to many musicians it is as well; the projection (or lack thereof) of depth, authority and musicianship is as individual as a face or personality. It’s often difficult to articulate why one maestro is inspiring and another stultifying, particularly so when the latter might have clearer stick technique.
But one way this alchemy can be dimly understood is when it is manifestly absent. The American Symphony Orchestra, a part-time, midsize group composed of New York freelancers, performed at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts last Friday evening, led by its music director, Leon Botstein. The ASO musicians are highly competent, but competent professionals are trained to give what they’re asked for, and it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that this worthy assemblage wasn’t asked for anything.
In two large works teeming with genius, nuance and surprises — the Brahms Serenade in D and the Beethoven “Eroica” Symphony — Botstein seemed asleep. None of the well-known balance issues in the “Eroica” were addressed; vast stretches of music were undifferentiated “white noise,” as the winds and brass covered the undermanned string sections with sustained notes, obliterating all detail. Botstein just beat leaden time, his left hand often dangling indifferently by his side.
The one time I sensed an actual musical idea being expressed (a slight rubato toward the end of the Menuet II of the Brahms), it was bungled; the viola accompaniment was ignored and the moment simply became an ensemble breakdown. For the rest, it was a flattened-out, joyless read-through by musicians who were clearly capable of much better. They need a conductor!
Battey is a freelance writer.