Several years ago when that very eminent Englishman, Sir Colin Davis, reportedly passed up potentially lucrative music directorships in Cleveland and Boston to go instead to a less high-profile post in Munich, lots of observers were left shaking their heads in wonder. What drew Davis -- a great master of Berlioz and Mozart -- to the Bavarian Symphony Orchestra of Munich instead?
Last night we heard at least one of the reasons why, in a marvelous concert at the Kennedy Center by Davis and orchestra.
The program was, on the whole, a departure for Davis -- mostly heavy German works a little atypical of the Davis that we know from his zillions of recordings. It is the natural me'tier of the Bavarian Symphony, though, and it was clear from the sustained ovation for both last night that the marriage of conductor and orchestra is a memorable one.
The climax was an incandescent rendering of one of the most challenging of all Germanic works, the enormous Bruckner Seventh Symphony.
Washington has never had much of an appetite for the long, long phrases and majestic proportions of Bruckner. So, when the work gets the kind of ovation given last night you can rest assured that something very special has happened. The listeners would not let the conductor go, and finally the players themselves joined the ovation for their chief.
Nothing I know from the past prepared me to expect Davis to be brilliant in Bruckner. Perhaps the closest comparison was a Mahler "Das Lied von der Erde" several years ago that was tepid by comparison.
Davis always has been skilled at maneuvering massive forces, as you must to be a specialist in Berlioz. But last night I was prepared to hear a meticulously tailored Seventh that would be a little short on Germanic soul.
Instead there was a magnificently conceived Seventh, at its greatest precisely where the work itself is greatest -- that eloquent, enormous tribute to Wagner on his death that is the slow movement. This is one of the masterpieces of Germanic music, and one that is notoriously elusive to non-Germanic directors. The trick is to bend these mighty phrases so that they breathe, without sacrificing any of the symphony's essential solidity (this is, after all, more than just an elegy to Wagner; it is a tribute to an entire culture).
Davis' concentration was marvelous. Always deliberate, but never square. Even in the work's moments of stillness the pulse was never in question. And the precision of Davis' dynamics and textures was so complete that there was nothing anticlimactic about that great climax with the cymbal near the end.
The orchestra played this music with an authority that few others could come close to. The tricky balances between brass and strings were as fine as I have heard in the Seventh.
The rest of the program was pretty grand as well. It opened with Mozart's odd little Symphony No. 32 in G, K. 318, polished in predictable Davis manner. There also was a grand Strauss "Don Juan," ardent but also often broader than usual. An especially outstanding detail: the beautiful oboe phrasing of its lyric theme.