The Philharmonic: Strong but Showy

Lorin Maazel and the New York Philharmonic showcased works by Tchaikovsky.
Lorin Maazel and the New York Philharmonic showcased works by Tchaikovsky. (Washington Performing Arts Society)
By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 6, 2008

The New York Philharmonic often plays with the insouciance of a society belle: projecting an expensive elegance, purring, "Don't hate me because I'm beautiful" over an exquisite shoulder.

And it was thus that the orchestra played a lovely all-Tchaikovsky concert on Saturday afternoon at the Kennedy Center. Tchaikovsky is generally viewed as being sort of down-market, and there has been a move in recent years to correct that view and show that there is more substance to him than just lots of pretty tunes. One indication of this, perhaps, has been the support of Lorin Maazel and the Philharmonic, which released the "Pathetique" (Symphony No. 6) as part of their ongoing recording-for-download deal with Deutsche Grammophon last season, and now follow with this concert.

But their performance was not an argument for the composer's intellectual chops. It was, like so many Maazel outings, a showpiece. And it was really, really pretty.

Maazel and the Philharmonic had not been to Washington for six years, and this is Maazel's last season with the orchestra. It is not clear that this is a reason for mourning in Washington. Maazel's tenure with the Philharmonic has been decent but unspectacular. He is a brilliant technician, but despite some notable highlights such as the concert in Pyongyang, North Korea, on the orchestra's Asian tour earlier this year, the orchestra has not done much to stake out its claim to a place in the forefront of New York's cultural life.

Meanwhile, his retirement means that those in the Washington area who admire his work -- and there is much to admire -- will get to see more of him. He recently announced that he is starting a summer music festival with young artists at his property in Rappahannock County, Va.

Moreover, his relationship with the Philharmonic has not had great musical substance. Maazel is perhaps the most technically brilliant conductor on a podium today, he is able to conduct almost anything, and yet he is not responsible for many definitive interpretations. In this, he corresponds to the Philharmonic's worst instincts. This is a big, beautiful orchestra with a real opulence of sound, something spotlighted particularly in the first piece on Saturday's program, the Suite No. 3, an orchestral showcase. Together the players and Maazel are able to perform prodigious feats of musicianship that, at the same time, tend to feel a little shallow. You may leave a Maazel-Philharmonic concert exhilarated at the physicality of it; seldom, in my experience, do you leave deeply moved.

At his worst, Maazel is willful, doing unusual things with tempos and beat because he can. On Saturday, this was most evident in his tendency to plunge into the beginning of each movement as if in mid-thought, thrusting the listener's ear into the deep end of the rhythmic pool. At his best, he holds the whole ensemble in taut control.

The extremes, of course, were more evident in the more extreme of the two pieces, the Fourth Symphony. The intense hand-wringing of the Fate theme has, to me, the emotional pitch of an overwrought monologue offered in a drawing room; the Philharmonic filled it out admirably but did not make it say anything new.

Not that there needs to be anything new to say. We hear these pieces in part to revisit them, and in part to marvel -- at, for instance, the pizzicato opening of the third movement, which, if it didn't have the inviting hush of some other readings, offered a breathtaking virtuosity, the spectacle of something mammoth (the orchestra) performing a feat of highly focused dexterity, like an elephant dancing on a dime.

The orchestra also needs this control; even under such a precise leader, there is often a certain blowsiness in its playing. The robust winds sounded tousled in the courtly theme and variations of the last movement of the Suite; one horn tripped a bit at the start of the symphony; and Glenn Dicterow, the concertmaster, epitomizes the gorgeous sloppiness to which the orchestra is sometimes prone.

Maazel has been a good counterweight, though neither party seems to have pushed the other to any artistic extreme. Still, his authority was such that the whole audience, as well as the orchestra, was pin-drop silent in the dramatic pauses he drew out in the last movement. And there was no faulting the certainty of the breathtaking wild gallop that led to the piece's conclusion. There may be greater depths to plumb; but on one level, like the record-breaking run of an Olympic sprinter, it doesn't get any better than that.

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