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Subject: Great but unglamorous conductors
From: Maxwell Paley <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:Maxwell Paley <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Sun, 30 Apr 2017 21:07:28 -0700

text/plain (29 lines)

Much as I’m devoted to the human voice, both in opera and in popular music and jazz, for me the conductor is the foundation of a great operatic performance. The shape and color he gives, at least for the way I listen, creates the template that makes the statement of the work and serves as a platform for the expressive capabilities of the soloists. A great conductor doesn’t just “accompany” but he has to allow space for the artists to make their own statements about the role and music.

I realize, thinking back, that most of what I remember as the most satisfying performances I’ve heard, at least thinking of the performance as a totality and not just individual solo moments, have been led by conductors who weren’t the superstars of their generation.  I’m certainly not knocking Carlos Kleiber, Karajan, Abbado or Muti and I’ve been galvanized by their work, but there are others whose performances somehow stick in my memory as those that stood out over the rest.

Charles Mackerras was one, for sure. On the short list of “greatest performances” I’ve attended over 50 years of opera-going, a 1986 “Jenufa” in San Francisco with Benackova, Rysanek and Ochman ranks up there. Extraordinary as the soloists were, it was Mackerras who pulled it all into a magnificent statement of Janacek’s work. Similar was a 2000 “Rosenkavalier” he conducted in SF with Fleming and Graham.  To be sure, Fleming still sings her role quite beautifully but there was something different in those days when, on that high B at the climax of the trio, she would let forth a Sierra waterfall of sound. But it was Mackerras who held my attention at times it could otherwise droop (the long conversational bits in Act 1 and the Inn Scene in Act 3).

He was also at the pult for two of my most exciting early experiences in 1971: a “Ballo” with Pavarotti, Arroyo and Dalis and a “Eugene Onegin” with Thomas Stewart and Evelyn Lear (gorgeous Stuart Burrows as Lensky) in which Lear was vocally labored but musically and dramatically splendid. I think this was Lear’s low point; she came back a couple of years later in much better form.

Just after the “Rosenkavalier” in 2000, my other half and I happened to find ourselves on a beach in Hawaii near Susan Graham and some friends of hers. Of course, we chatted about current performances and performers. I asked her why Mackerras wasn’t more of a superstar. She said that she thought he just didn’t care about all that, that he was “all about the music.”

Another is Colin Davis. No wallflower, but also not one of the glamour boys. He opened peoples’ eyes and ears with the freshness and illumination he brought to Mozart operas we thought we knew, but also was a revelation in Berlioz. He wasn’t the most famous Wagner or Verdi conductor of his time, but a “Tristan und Isolde” I saw him conduct at the Royal Opera with Vickers and Lindholm was an “experience of a lifetime.” Not far behind that, and two nights later, was a really splendid “Simon Boccanegra” with Milnes, te Kanawa and Lloyd.

I loved how he reacted whent, just after Valery Gergiev agreed to use Andrea Bocelli in his Verdi Requiem recording, Colin Davis was getting pressured to perform something with Charlotte Church. He was having none of it and flatly stated he “wasn’t going to waste my time with a squeaking teenager.”

Another of this ilk, of whom I’m unaware of any opera performances, is Eduard van Beinum. I find his orchestral performances, mostly with the Concertgebouw, where he was Haitink’s predecessor, extremely beautiful, moving and somehow unusually “satisfying.” Good as Haitink was and is, I actually think the Concertgebouw orchestra, based on recordings I’ve heard, took a step down under Haitink compared with how it sounded under Beinum.

Max Paley
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