The Concertgebouw, on a Human Scale

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 5, 2008

It looked, on paper, like a big orchestral program that the Concertgebouw Orchestra and Mariss Jansons offered, courtesy of the Washington Performing Arts Society, at the Kennedy Center on Sunday afternoon. Taken together, Strauss's "Don Juan" and Mahler's Fifth Symphony amount to, first, rather conservative programming, and second, a whole lot of orchestra.

But size was not the focus of this performance. Certainly the orchestra sounded terrific -- full and warm -- and certainly it showed that it was able to generate a considerable amount of noise. Yet what came across was a veritably humanistic approach. Rather than assailing the listener with pounding fortes, Jansons brought out a quality of intimacy. The Germans use the word "transparency" to describe an orchestra's ability to allow a listener inside the music to hear all the different voices, large and small; in this sense, the performance was transparent indeed.

The Concertgebouw is an urbane orchestra, a slender and at times sardonic figure among the portly, ruddy figures of other Central European ensembles. Even at moments of excess, it maintains a certain elegance. In "Don Juan," the strings prickled and the brass soared with a taut energy that, from this group, passes for Straussian brashness.

It makes an interesting and exhilarating match for Jansons, who as a musician is all openness and straightforward emotion, without a calculating bone in his body. This "Don Juan," accordingly, was a seducer at once debonair and credulous, whose love music at times became hymnlike. The kinetic energy of his exploits built to a huge discharge in the vivid silence of the moment of his death -- a silence Jansons extended until it had as much weight as the preceding music -- and the final coda was simply the sound of the energy bleeding away, along with the title figure's life.

Jansons is not a predictable conductor. He capitalizes on the energy of performance to try new things, demanding the attention of his players at all times. This can lead to some blurred moments -- even in the razor-sharp Concertgebouw -- when a player is taken too much by surprise.

His relation to the baton is also ambivalent. He avoided using it for most of his tenure at the Pittsburgh Symphony, and though he uses it now, he appears to view it as an impediment to direct communication, often sheathing it in his fist in passages of emotional intensity and conducting with his bare hands. The high-strung baton is a visible symbol of orchestral precision; and Jansons, as his use of it might indicate, is anything but a hyperanalytic conductor. His approach is governed by feeling and an intuitive rather than intellectual grasp of structure. This makes for heartfelt, searing performances but also for occasionally shaky architecture. Sunday's Mahler showed both, with "heartfelt" in the ascendant.

The Concertgebouw is as if to the Mahler born; its tradition with that composer was forged in the crucible of the 50-year tenure of Willem Mengelberg, who knew him personally and edited many of his works. Its interpretation involves thoughts about time and tempo: the second theme of the first movement taken strikingly slow, so that it is as much keening as lyrical; or time pausing, briefly, to allow the mellifluous cellos to ruminate in the second movement; or the supremely controlled horn soloist to execute exquisite decrescendos in the third.

At the same time, Jansons kept a fluid line, running one movement directly into another -- leading the orchestra up to the precipice of recapitulation, and easing it over that edge, in the famous fourth-movement Adagietto, then waking it, as from a dream, with the opening of the finale. If the need for more structural deliberateness showed itself anywhere, it was in the beginning of this last movement, which sagged after the weight of various emotions that had preceded it.

But more telling was the individualism that marked the symphony from its first notes. The beginning of this symphony can sound like a military flourish of defiance. But here, the solo trumpet sounded vulnerable: a lone voice raised before a crowd. Even when the whole orchestra came in, it entered on a human scale. The end of the exposition, for all of its deep rumblings, evoked something of great power performing a specific act of delicacy, like a giant cradling a robin's egg. In the end, the long path of this symphony emerged as very much the story of an individual journey -- Mahler's, Jansons's, or the listener fortunate enough to hear it.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company