No Primadonna, von Dohnanyi surpasses the Britney of classical conducting

By David Bashwiner

Today’s conductors are superstars. They are the Britney Spearses of the classical music world. They work hard—at least as hard as their pop counterparts—and so they earn a lot of money.

Britney Spears earned $39.2 million in 2002, according to Forbes. Daniel Barenboim, head conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, earned $2.16 million for his duties with the CSO in the fiscal year ending in June 2002, according to the Chicago Tribune. He earns about one 20th of what Britney earns, and twenty times as much as an orchestral violinist. So he may be no Britney Spears, but he is certainly a superstar in the classical music world.

Barenboim is as talented a classical conductor as Britney is a pop star. He performs all over the world as a conductor and a pianist and is very well respected internationally. Screaming fans meet him at the airport in every city, and it’s nearly impossible to get a backstage pass to get him to sign your butt.

Britney’s job is to show up and look good. And she’s good at it: she churns out an album every year or so, shows up for concerts, keeps her body in shape, and makes a lot of appearances in public so her name stays in the news.

Barenboim’s also paid to rehearse, and not only his own moves. Both he and Britney bear this cross. No, he’s also got to rehearse the orchestra. This is problematic for Mr. Barenboim given that he doesn’t live in Chicago. He flies in from his home in Berlin (where he holds his other full-time post with the Berlin Staatsoper) and sojourns in Chicago for 10 to 12 weeks of the year. He conducts his whole season of concerts all at once, just to get it out of the way. But there’s no time to rehearse on this schedule! So it can hardly be expected that the orchestra sounds good. Shouldn’t it be enough that they sound at all, and under a superstar conductor, no less?

The deal Barenboim has finagled could be great for everyone involved if the orchestra sounded good. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. I’ve seen two concerts by the CSO in the past month, one conducted by Kent Nagano, and one this past Saturday conducted by Christoph von Dohnányi. Dohnányi’s concert was far better than Nagano’s, but what struck me was how poor the orchestra sounded in both concerts, especially in quiet passages. After the Nagano concert, I blamed Nagano. I thought to myself, “If he can’t make the Chicago Symphony Orchestra sound like a professional ensemble, he’s doing something wrong!”

But then Dohnányi got the same results. At first, I was shocked. And then I came to conclude that there must be something wrong with the orchestra. Dohnányi was doing everything right. His conducting was the epitome of readable; his beats were clear, and he left nothing to the imagination. He was impassioned at times, calm at others, and, if not profound, at least inspiring.

Soft passages in the winds, however (like the introduction to the first movement of the Mahler), were unpleasant. Attacks were rarely together at such moments, and the winds frequently agreed to disagree when it came to intonation. There was, in general, an aura of insensitivity among the musicians. They seemed to be doing their jobs with minimal effort—a behavior no doubt modeled upon their musical director. They were only able to play as an orchestra once dynamic levels reached forte and everyone started sawing, blowing, and pounding away in unison. Difficult sections left much to be desired.

Pärt’s Fratres, it must be said, was exquisite. It is a fantastic piece, and it received a top performance from soloist Yuan-Qing Yu. Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony is a silly piece. It points out the obvious fact that sometimes composers write in a modern style because they don’t know the first thing about composing in the classical style. The only thing classical about this symphony is that it tends toward the boring. Good thing it’s short. Dohnányi and the orchestra performed it just fine. The Mahler work, after its rocky start, did come off nicely. Dohnányi’s conducting was impassioned, and he knew how to work the musicians into a sweat when the music allowed. However, the quieter passages sounded extremely unprofessional.

Barenboim wasn’t there on Saturday, so one might argue that, if the performance was somewhat lacking, it couldn’t have been his fault. But Barenboim is never there. He has been a bad parent, and his children are misbehaving. Even when they are on their best behavior—as they were this weekend for Christoph von Dohnányi—their roughness around the edges is apparent and disturbing. When Barenboim is replaced in 2006, the CSO needs a conductor who not only has talent, but one who cares about his musicians enough to live in the same country as they do, and who is committed to making a full-time investment in the musical community of Chicago.