Harding and Vogt disappoint with passionless renditions of classics

By Malkah Bressler

During this age—in which the production of and interest in new classical music is incomparable to that which occurred more than 100 years ago—the trend has evolved so that it is no more the sound of new notes that strike the audience’s ears, but rather, how old classics are rendered. Thus, the reason why we go to concerts: We want to see the new and the young and the already well-established geniuses interpret and render these timeless and beautiful masterpieces.

On Thursday, November 10, the CSO offered a double-header in terms of rising stars. Daniel Harding, an increasingly celebrated conductor, and Lars Vogt, a rising virtuosic pianist, gave a concert with the CSO. Harding conducted Berlioz’s The Corsair Overture, Op. 21 and Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40. Harding and Vogt collaborated on Grieg’s piano concerto, presented during the concert’s middle section.

The Berlioz opened the concert, and from the piercing perspective of hindsight, it boded what would follow. Harding conducts in a precise manner. His gestures, albeit sweeping at times, are simply crisp. Although he had an excellent connection with the players, with a full ability to draw the music out at the proper moment, his manner lacked fire. There was no visible sign of emotional up-welling, and nothing more than a love for well-measured beats was being expressed. All his motions were utterly precise and passionless.

The orchestra, however, was concerned with the technicality and with the piece’s spirit, as always. The violins moved with an unprecedented amount of grace and passion, and toward the end, the entire orchestra tried to overcome Harding’s defect. Perhaps his method is an effort to emphasize the orchestra over himself, but if so, his isolation from all emotive qualities does much to hinder its success.

I must admit that my heart was in the expectation of the Grieg, due to its variety of emotions and the music’s striking ability to encapsulate Norway’s landscape. As Vogt, a promisingly humble virtuoso, walked on stage and sat down, he lovingly placed his hands on the keyboard, ready for the first notes. This, I thought, was a good sign; he had no pretension, but was there to simply play.

Unfortunately, Vogt’s demeanor spoke volumes of his performance. He was a meek player of this wild and diverse masterpiece. One of the greatest difficulties in this concerto is the artist’s ability to render dramatically varying emotions. Unfortunately, Vogt forgot the piece’s emotive variety, and played the entire thing with gentle calm and near lethargy; I wondered if he realized what he was playing. He did not respond at all to the orchestra as they tried to cue him in on how he should perform. This was only exacerbated by the fact that he continually slowed the tempo to a lethargic lull.

Thankfully, this manner of rendering Grieg fit well with the portions of the piece that boast calm and pastorally scenic imagery. These were the most enjoyable parts. At these points, the orchestra, the conductor, and the pianist were in perfect accord; the conductor drew the music out of both sections like a shining spider’s thread.

Additionally, this style Vogt used to play Grieg, albeit ill chosen, did allow some aspects of the piece—usually those that are ignored—to emerge. There are portions, that gently fall forth when permitted, proving how well they are situated within the piece. Moreover, his style allowed various solos within the orchestra to shine with brilliance that was impossible to capture. The famous cello solo was haunting, and the flute’s and trumpet’s solos echoed with glorious isolation.

Unfortunately, these benefits were minor when compared with the utter lethargy and lack of emotion, and they were exacerbated by Vogt’s memory lapses, wrong notes, and badly timed rhythms. The piece faded away too quickly and with no lasting effect.

The concert closed with Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40, a piece written to himself. In it, Strauss seeks to portray himself as a hero. He also includes the figure of his wife as illustrated by the concertmaster, who has a near-solo part. Strauss appropriates various other members of the orchestra to the prominent people in his life. The piece is a biographical sketch of his life, calling in themes from his earlier works as well as sound expressions of his feelings for those that surrounded him.

Although elements of this performance were memorable and interesting, the concertmaster, Robert Chen, did especially well in portraying the shrewish wife. Although the horns brought the themes of Don Juan with unmatched exuberance, the piece lacked energy and emotion. Like the concert-commencing Berlioz, the concert-concluding Strauss portrayed the conductor as emotionally absent but technically present. Unfortunately, with this piece—unlike the Berlioz, the orchestra simply seemed tired of having to add the extra energy to make the concert anything more than a precise rendition of great masters’s works.

The Thursday night CSO concert, which promised so much, ended in a well of disappointment. The music was rendered with varying amounts of technical skill, at times impressive and at times startlingly absent, and combined with a total lack of understanding for the pieces played, it was no wonder that the audience, after the requisite standing ovation, left. No one left impressed with what they had seen, no one smiled with the remembered joy of having music lift their souls, and most importantly, no one left inspired by a new rendition to a classical text.