In any contest for the world's finest symphony orchestra, the Royal Concertgebouw from Amsterdam would get plenty of votes, maybe as many as, or even more than, the celebrated ensembles from Berlin and Vienna.
Certainly the Dutch band, making its first appearance in Walt Disney Concert Hall on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, sounded splendid under its current chief conductor, Mariss Jansons. Glowing warmth, precision, finesse and creamy smoothness are among its hallmarks. With playing on this rarefied level, the issue becomes not what the orchestra can do but what a conductor can do with it.
Jansons, who is Latvian, is only the sixth music director of the Concertgebouw and only the second non-Dutch principal conductor in its 120-year history. Formed to play in the venue from which it takes its name -- Concertgebouw means "concert hall" in Dutch -- the orchestra has had the same wonderful home for 120 years. The hall itself could have a crack at winning a contest for the world's best.
Clearly tradition matters. And tradition, even if it isn't a native tradition, is what Jansons brings to the Dutch table. He is a conductor with a small repertory of important classics, which he has so internalized that he appears to be inseparable from the music. After slowly making his name as music director of the Olso Symphony in Norway and the Pittsburgh Symphony, he is now one of Europe's biggest names (he is also music director of the Bavarian Radio Orchestra) and a cult figure in Japan.
Tuesday night, Jansons began with a token lightweight Dutch work, Otto Ketting's "The Arrival," but after those first 15 minutes, he kept to standards: Debussy's "La Mer" and Brahms' Second Symphony for the initial program, Strauss' "Don Juan" and Mahler's Fifth Symphony on Wednesday. Curiously, he included no Russian repertory, which is his specialty. (He has a home in St. Petersburg, and famed Russian conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky was his mentor.)
Jansons knows how to use the Concertgebouw sound to cast a spell, and he did so within seconds in every piece he conducted. Ketting's work, made up of interlocking repeated rhythmic figures, pays tribute to Stravinsky and Steve Reich and is colorfully orchestrated. Debussy's musical poem describing the sea is a feast of color, and Brahms' Second is his most mellow, lyrical symphony.
All of that made Tuesday night a festival of instrumental lushness. The cellos in particular brought an enveloping lyrical intensity to the Brahms. But every section in this remarkable orchestra knows how to create sonic magic. The flexibility of the winds in the Debussy was breathtaking. Balances verged on the magical.
Wednesday's Strauss and Mahler concert was spectacular. The burnished brass in "Don Juan" could probably be called upon to produce religious conversions, so ingratiating was its sound.
The Concertgebouw is a Mahler orchestra through and through -- Willem Mengelberg, who led it from 1895 to 1945, was a friend and early champion of the composer -- and the playing of the challenging 75-minute Fifth Symphony had the quality of superhuman effortlessness.
Jansons made all he conducted sound important. But to these ears at least, he made everything sound more or less alike.
Debussy, for instance, invented a fresh, new kind of music, but under Jansons those delicate, disconnected rhythms congealed; I doubt that he treats Tchaikovsky much differently.
Brahms' textures clot more readily, but here Jansons brought out a captivating burnished radiance. A conductor flexible with tempos, he proved a romanticizer who loves to slow down and drain a lyric melody of every last drop of delicious expression. Conversely, he likes an exciting dash to the finish as well. That he could maintain a flow that made neither extreme jarring was his greatest strength at these concerts. That quality was useful in his all-consuming Brahms and made for a magnificent Mahler performance.
Still, I remained more impressed than convinced by the Fifth. To hear Jansons control (dote on, really) the Concertgebouw sound is, in itself, a terrific show. The low brass, the contrabassoon and the basses don't so much give the orchestra a foundation as create their own particular wonderland of sound, especially in the responsive Disney acoustic.
But Jansons also went in for power punches better designed for his more forgiving hall in Amsterdam. In the end, the Fifth received a commanding, incomparably polished performance. It did not lack depth. But it also brought nothing new to the vast score, as, say, Gustavo Dudamel had when he performed it with his Venezuelan youth orchestra here in November.
Even so, great playing is great playing. The Mahler set a full house cheering nearly as loudly as the orchestra could play and no doubt won the Concertgebouw more supporters in the best-orchestra contest.