By Mark J. Estren
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, March 16, 2009
Five-sixths of the way through the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra's season-long search for a new music director, there is not a front-running conductor to be seen. Or heard.
So far, all the candidates have offered similar skill levels in programs containing one work featuring a soloist, one shorter piece reflecting their personal interests, and one big and splashy orchestral showpiece. It is in the last of these -- the standard repertoire works that lure audiences despite, or because of, their familiarity -- that the conductors have shown themselves most distinctive, for better or worse.
Think of the candidates as potential orchestral superheroes and you can give them nicknames based on their style in the well-worn works. Gregory Vajda, who offered Schumann's Symphony No. 2 on Saturday at George Mason University's Center for the Arts, is the Swooper, favoring the very broad podium gestures more often used in conducting opera. Daniel Meyer, who conducted Brahms's Symphony No. 1 in January, is a bargain-basement Bernstein, with long hair and overdone podium acting. Laura Jackson, who offered Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in November, is Ms. Angularity, conducting with slightly jerky, nervous mannerisms. Marcelo Lehninger, who conducted Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade" in October, is Mr. Methodical, serious and businesslike. And Paul Haas, who offered Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 in September, is the Tinkerer, constantly changing the composer's tempos to try to extract additional emotion from the score.
Of these, the most musically satisfying performances came from the conductors who did not feel obliged to try to outguess the composers' stated intentions: Vajda, who did especially well contrasting Schumann's problematic first movement with his tightly knit, scurrying scherzo, and Jackson, whose Beethoven was intellectual and a little cool.
For the rest of their programs, all the conductors drew on their own heritages. Vajda, born in Hungary, offered Liszt's "Les Préludes" and Bartók's Piano Concerto No. 3 (played with rhythmic fluidity by Andrew Armstrong). Lehninger, who is Brazilian, created a Latin flavor with Villa-Lobos's "Little Train of the Brazilian Countryside" and de Falla's "Nights in the Gardens of Spain" (with heartfelt pianism from Angela Chang).
The other candidates were born in the United States, and each offered a polyglot program including one American piece. Meyer imitated some of Bernstein's podium eccentricities in conducting "Three Dance Episodes from 'On the Town,' " and offered clear but unsubtle backup to Jennifer Frautschi in Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1. Jackson also conducted a violin concerto -- Prokofiev's First, with soloist Rachel Lee steadily improving through the three movements -- and presented Christopher Theofanidis's "Rainbow Body," a tonal and tuneful work that strives unsuccessfully for transcendence. Haas gave pianist Alexander Ghindin the foreground in Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini," and presented Joshua Penman's "Songs the Plants Taught Us," a stylistically mixed bag that ends in lyricism.
Where does all this leave the audience? FSO attendance has hovered in the 1,000 range -- a respectable showing, although 20 percent below the most popular concerts conducted by former music director William Hudson. Some of the conductor candidates have tried to charm the audience -- which is invited to fill out comment cards after each concert, even though FSO management will make the final decision. Meyer, for example, was clearly putting on a show; Vajda offered some self-deprecating humor; and Haas was especially talkative.
But how much sense can audience members get of these candidates from a single performance? Not really enough -- and besides, many duties of a music director, from education and outreach to recruitment and fundraising, occur outside the concert hall. Still, a strong musical connection with listeners and musicians alike would go a long way toward anointing one of these candidates as a clear, if not super-heroic, choice. But at this point -- with one concert to go, on May 2 -- things remain murky.