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How sound is the symphony?

Times Staff Writer

Don’t believe everything you read.

The orchestra is not dead. It is not dying. It is not sick.

The West Coast gloats. The Los Angeles Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony play to respectably large crowds, have popular and innovative music directors, try out new ideas and sound great. The Pacific Symphony in Costa Mesa (where a new concert hall is under construction) and the San Diego Symphony are experiencing major growth spurts and attracting big bucks. Walt Disney Concert Hall makes everyone feel good about classical music.

The hidebound East Coast should be philharmonically flush as well. Fresh blood flows at the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Boston Symphony, all of which have relatively new music directors. Technically, each band is in robust health and easily lives up to its hallowed reputation.

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Of course, like many of us who are otherwise fine, orchestras may be subject to bouts of depression, moments of insecurity, financial woes. Not all orchestras in all towns throughout America thrive all the time. They never have and probably never will. But that hardly seems justification for the reports about the end of the institution as we know it that have widely and frequently irresponsibly circulated, especially on the East Coast.

This month I dropped in on orchestra subscription concerts in New York, Philadelphia and Boston to try to gauge the mood, to see what’s up and whether California, symphonically speaking, is, as in so much else, an anomaly.

NEW YORK

The first piece of music Lorin Maazel conducted when he became music director of the New York Philharmonic in September 2002 was the premiere of John Adams’ “The Transmigration of Souls.” Commissioned to commemorate the victims of 9/11 on the first anniversary of the terrorist attack, it is caring music and won a Pulitzer Prize. As Maazel’s first recording with the orchestra, the new Nonesuch disc of it is an odds-on favorite to win a Grammy next month.

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Given that no one has a bad word to say about Maazel’s superior conducting skills, given that under Maazel the New York Philharmonic sounds better than it ever has (at least in modern memory) and given that the players of the orchestra (notorious for giving conductors the business) reportedly love the man, you would be forgiven for thinking that the oldest orchestra in America is basking in a new golden age.

And it is downright bizarre that it is not. The concert I attended began with Maazel leading an early Mozart symphony (No. 29) in which every phrase, every subphrase, practically every note, was exquisitely, affectionately shaped. The beauty of tone, and care with detailing, were a sheer delight.

Also on the program was Richard Strauss’ Horn Concerto No. 1 (another early work), with the orchestra’s principal horn player, Philip Myers, as soloist. The orchestral sound was hardy, and Myers, who is large and robust (the horn looks like a toy in his arms), was reliable. Although Myers curiously noted in the program book that he brings next to nothing original to the concerto, Strauss’ luxuriant score did manage to envelop the room in rich, feel-good sonorities.

Then came intermission, and everyone left.

OK, not everyone, just the music director and enough of the lackadaisical audience to make Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall feel depressingly empty. The second half of the program was turned over to the orchestra’s assistant conductor, Xian Zhang, who led the world premiere of British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage’s “Scherzoid” and the “Four Sea Interludes” from Benjamin Britten’s “Peter Grimes.”

A Maazel protege, the young Chinese conductor stylishly etches phrases as if they were fine calligraphy. Full of grace, she lacked the grit, however, for the 44-year-old Turnage’s manic, jazz-inflected music. Nor was his music manic and jazz-inflected enough. The score was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, and during a run-through of it last year, the orchestra persuaded him, he has said, to tone it down -- as if that was good advice.

The audience was not particularly responsive. But then the orchestra was not particularly responsive, providing little demonstration of why it had bothered commissioning the piece in the first place. The Britten fared only a little better, the players revealing little enthusiasm for the conductor.

Just about everyone I know in New York, and many in the local press, complain about the New York Philharmonic. They complain that Maazel, for all his technical brilliance, can be a destructively willful interpreter. They complain that the orchestra coddles socialite audiences. They complain that it is an insular institution with little effect on the cultural life of the city.

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Some of those complaints rang true the night I was in the audience. Maazel’s performances, I thought, were highly engaging, if not deeply probing. But at the moment, the orchestra, its management, its audience and its critics -- and to some extent its music director (who can indeed be willful) -- all manifest a kind of New York tough-guy stance. They’re trying to prove something rather than being willing to accept that they have something. An attitude adjustment, and this orchestra could fly.

PHILADELPHIA

Two days later, Christoph Eschenbach conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra in an important concert in its newish modern home, Verizon Hall. As part of a series devoted to late works, the program featured Luciano Berio’s last piece, “Stanze” -- a profound exploration of death, divinity and destruction finished just weeks before the composer’s death in 2003 -- and the third act of “Parsifal,” Wagner’s final transcendent music.

But first came the clown.

Before the concert, the orchestra’s music animateur (I’m not making this up, it’s a formal administrative title), Thomas Cabaniss, gave a condescending half-hour introduction to Berio for the handful of people who bothered to show up at 6:45 for an 8 o’clock curtain. I assumed the tiny crowd meant that most of the orchestra’s audience had graduated kindergarten.

But once Berio’s searing, searching, captivatingly color-drenched music began, I wondered whether the audience really hadn’t wanted to know about Berio (whose music happened to have been played earlier that week by the San Francisco Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic to a thunderous response). Within seconds (seconds!), people around me started to loudly complain. One couple walked out, noisily rattling their shopping bags so that everyone would know of their disapproval. It was as though adamant coughers needed Berio in order to broadcast their ailments.

Sensing seething anger all around me, I began to worry that something worse than the flu was going around Philly. But I fear that even if the crowd had given Berio the benefit of the doubt, it would not have been easily won over. Written for baritone, chorus and orchestra, “Stanze” needs a soloist who really is an animateur. Andreas Schmidt (who was also the Amfortas in the “Parsifal” act) sounded strained and did nothing to bring the philosophical texts by Paul Celan and others to life.

The “Parsifal” act proceeded without flair. Fat, ugly video screens were used for supertitles. The singers (John Keyes, Parsifal; Matthias Hoelle, Gurnemanz) did little to convey any drama. No effort was made to turn this concert into an exciting occasion like last month’s Los Angeles Philharmonic “Tristan Project,” which also concluded with new music juxtaposed against the final act of a Wagner opera.

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Something clearly is wrong in Philly, and it is not the orchestra (whose sonorities are as smooth as ever), the conductor (Eschenbach, who became music director last season, is an excellent musician with a fascinating cosmopolitan bent) or even the hall (which, after a long period of adjustment, works well).

What’s left? Glancing around the boxes during the tepid applause for “Stanze,” I noticed the orchestra’s president, looking distracted and not clapping. This is an orchestra known for having an unpleasant relationship with its management; the two sides only recently concluded the second bitter contract dispute in a row.

After the concert was over, five orchestra members played Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, and played it with great finesse, for anyone who cared to stay late. Many cared. It was an eccentric thing to do and a pleasure to hear.

To an outsider at least, Philadelphia feels as though it is an orchestra champing at the bit to make an impact but being held back by management every step of the way. How about an army of animateurs?

BOSTON

The next night in Beantown, all was, once more, right with the symphonic world. Boston’s got the Red Sox and it’s got the Boston Symphony, which after a quarter of a century under the baton of Seiji Ozawa was the Red Sox. This season, though, the town has embraced new music director James Levine the way an orchestra and a town should embrace a music director -- with interested, open ears.

The program I heard was a Sibelius sandwich -- the Fourth and Fifth symphonies surrounded the premiere of a newly commissioned work from Milton Babbitt. Babbitt is now 88, and he has the reputation of being the most impenetrable composer in America. The Boston Symphony had never before performed his music. Some years ago, the Philadelphia Orchestra commissioned a piece from Babbitt, “Transfigured Notes,” and then refused to play it, calling the music too difficult to master (a student orchestra in Boston later gave the premiere).

Well, the Boston Symphony mastered “Concerti for Orchestra” exceptionally well, and so did the audience, which gave the composer a warm, enthusiastic standing ovation and then mobbed him after the concert. The score is plenty complex and a sheer delight, full of gossamer chamber-music-like textures, flowing lines, delicate colors. Say the word “complexity” and American symphony audiences supposedly run the other way. But the human body is complex, and who doesn’t love to caress a beautiful body? And Levine didn’t just perform this music, he caressed its intricate contours and shared the results.

Ozawa did not leave the Boston Symphony as good an orchestra as he found it. By the end of the Sibelius Fifth Symphony, the horns were clearly tired. But for the most part, Levine coaxed playing of gripping vigor and strength made all the more satisfying by the ingratiating acoustics of Symphony Hall.

Everything, moreover, clicked. The Boston Symphony is a gracious host to its audiences. Program notes are more detailed and useful than in New York or Philadelphia. Coffee in the lobby is good and not overpriced. The preconcert event, which was very well attended and which offered great conversation -- Babbitt happens to be hilariously funny -- was too short at an hour.

Boston is still enjoying its honeymoon with Levine. Naysayers insist that his penchant for programming difficult music could alienate core crowds. Then again, if he continues to do it as well as he did with the glorious Babbitt premiere, he may win more, not fewer, fans.

Issues of Levine’s health are ever mentioned. If he’s suffering from something worse than the mysterious Parkinson-like symptoms this famously private conductor insists are under control, he’s not saying. He now conducts seated. But no one without the full capacity to communicate the most subtle nuances to an orchestra could have achieved the results he did at this concert.

The Boston Symphony, quite simply, shows that what is happening on the West Coast is not a fluke. Under Ozawa the orchestra had become irrelevant. Now it’s not.

By taking the approach that music matters -- that a concert is not preschool, not a bitter pill, not a duty, not an escape, not a course in self-improvement, not social frippery -- Levine means his programs to engage audiences on a meaningful level. I doubt that the Boston audiences are smarter or more sophisticated than those in New York or Philadelphia. They are simply taken more seriously.

Orchestras are not the problem. They’re fine. It’s how they are run that makes the difference.

Mark Swed is The Times’ music critic. He can be contacted at Calendar.letters@latimes.com.


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