A Good Reason to Go to Amsterdam

Carnegie Hall is nothing if not a classical music lover's dream come true. It's heaven on earth -- as if the beautiful architecture with its peerless acoustics were not enough, the hall brings us performers of such a caliber that every time you think, "wow, this is the best concert this season."

For probably the third or fourth time this season, I went to a concert that I consider hard to top. This time it was the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra visiting from Amsterdam. On the podium stands its chief conductor, Latvian Mariss Jansons. The RCO is arguably one of the best orchestras in the world -- probably somewhere up there in the top five, if not three -- and it's known for selecting only the best of the best to stand at their helm. Over the past 125 years, they have only had six chief conductors -- Jansons has held the top job since 2004.

Some of his predecessors are well-known for their recordings of Mahler with the orchestras, and I count Bernard Haitink and Riccardo Chailly amongst my favorites, so this Mahlerian was not a little excited to see Mahler's First Symphony on the program. For the first half, there was Hungarian composer Béla Bartók's Violin Concerto No.2 starring Leonidas Kavakos as soloist.

I'd heard the Greek violinist a few weeks ago with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Yannick Nézet-Séguin, (oh yes and they are coming back in a few days) and had not been exactly blown away -- I have heard Kavakos many times but he always struck me as an impeccable virtuoso who lacked the emotional connection to capture my fancy. In short, I found him technically flawless but a bit impassive. His performance of Bartók was much more appealing -- his playing was versatile with a limitless palette of tones at his fingertips. As full of variety as Kavakos was, he was almost overshadowed by the range of textures and colors from the orchestra. In this concerto, where the orchestra is not just a background for the solo but interacts actively with the soloist, it was wonderful to have a conductor like Jansons who can let each instrument speak freely while fitting in the wider picture. Perhaps Kavakos lacked a bit of nuttiness in the last movement, but Jansons and the RCO made up for that amply.

For an encore, Kavakos gave us Eugène Ysaÿe's Allemanda from Sonata in E Minor, Op. 27, No. 4 "Fritz Kreisler" -- dark and intense, he held the audience in thrall and the encore was almost better than the concerto -- maybe because there was no orchestra and conductor to distract us with their wonderfulness.

And now, Mahler. The First Symphony is probably one of the most often performed works of Mahler (since it doesn't take two hours or involve 1000 musicians) and the music is fairly straightforward and it's not that hard to play it well. But Mariss Jansons and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. There are two words I always say about them: "Oh wow."

Jansons' conducting is surprisingly gentle and relaxed. There is nothing harsh in his movements, and likewise, the music flows easily with great warmth. And when I say he brought the score alive, I mean it almost literally. I heard woodwinds and violas and contrabasses I had never before recognized separately. As I listened, I could almost see the score writing itself in the air in front of me. I might also mention that Jansons did have the score in front of him -- not that he did more than occasionally glance at it. I was curious, because while it has long been accepted for conductors to conduct with the score, nowadays I suspect conductors make a point of conducting from memory. Not only standard repertoire, but even some of the most complicated Shostakovich symphonies and sometimes even operas. While having such a great memory is an admirable thing, I have a sneaking suspicion that a lot of conductors do it just because they think it makes them look cool. I think I'm going to start going around asking random conductors why they really conduct without a score.

What I found most remarkable about Jansons was that he lets each instrument and section express themselves freely. The music is very ample and expressive -- and it also means that strictly speaking, there ends up being a lot of mezzoforte and forte -- medium to medium large volumes. I've always maintained that contrast is everything -- generally speaking, you have to have very low lows, very high highs, and avoid staying in the mid-range continuously. That's what they teach us in schools, and generally, playing too much in the mezzoforte/forte range is ineffectual.

Then why was Jansons so different? When I studied orchestration under the French composer Fabien Lévy, one of the most important things he drummed into us was that as composers we should not be writing dynamic indications like crescendo and diminuendo and forte for all the instruments equally. We shouldn't be asking the whole orchestra to play louder or quieter; we should be orchestrating these differences by adding, removing or giving prominence to certain instruments, depending on their properties and characteristics. And that was what Jansons was doing better than most other conductors I have ever heard. He let each instrument speak freely, yet it never became overwhelming or flat, because he so subtly knew whose turn it was to speak up. With so many different voices coming to the foreground, the texture, the tone and color is constantly changing, and you get all the contrast you need without changing the overall volume of the whole orchestra. So often you see conductors make that suppressing movement -- the left hand with the palm down, lowered and tense -- but I did not see that once with Jansons. He merely brought forward each instrument in its turn, and the players responded joyously with unsuppressed expressiveness.

Jansons' Mahler First was also extremely so joyful and spontaneous. It was wholesome, but without the blandness that the word implies. The music was youthful and hopeful, without the hint of Viennese fin de siècle decadence -- and unmistakable smell of decay -- apparent in his later works. It did not strive to impress with tightly reined-in power and passion, even though that is a big attraction in megalomaniac Mahler.

I don't know how well Jansons' approach would translate on recordings. Recorded music has its own specifics and favors certain traits such as clarity, tight control and strong contrast in overall volume. Subtlety is often lost, and under normal conditions, you won't hear the trumpets coming from off stage or the different instruments coming from different areas of the stage since the sound comes from your speakers or headphones. Yes, I know the concert is over and Jansons and the RCO won't be coming back here for at least another year. But at least, I'm giving you a good excuse to travel to Amsterdam!