Unanswered Question | Are Orchestras Better than Ever?

Are orchestras better than ever?  Riccardo Muti thinks so. Recently, dedicating a bust of Fritz Reiner at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, he said: “The level of the orchestras in the world – especially in the seventies and eighties — has gone up everywhere.”

What is Muti talking about? I suppose he’s applying the criterion of perfection. Perfect intonation, perfect ensemble. What kind of criterion is that?

Thanks to the exceptional WWFM The Classical Network, I’ve been able to respond to this parochial claim at three hours length, in colloquy with Bill McGlaughlin. You can hear the resulting rant here and here. Bill and I auditioned fabulous concert and studio recordings by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony, Dmitri Mitropoulos and the Minneapolis Symphony, Arturo Toscanini and the New York Philharmonic, Artur Bodanzky and the  Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and Evgeny Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic.

Three things bear mentioning about these historic pairings. The first is that – to a degree unknown today – the conductors stayed put. There were no airplanes. The music director was the music director.

The second thing that leaps to mind – and to the attentive ear – is that each of these conductors honed a distinctive sonic imprint. No one could possibly mistake a Stokowski orchestra for a Mitropoulos orchestra.

Thirdly, each of these conductors pursued a distinctive mission allied with repertoire. Except in the cases of Bodanzky and Toscanini, the espoused repertoire was fresh.

Take Koussevitzky in Boston (a 25-year tenure). He gave the American premiere of Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. He gave the world premiere of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. What is more, he commissioned both these famous compositions. His Boston broadcasts capture the most galvanizing readings of both pieces I have ever heard. Bill and I listened to them together. You can hear Koussevitzky’s indescribably hot Mussorgsky/Ravel at 51:40 here – after which I exclaimed “Give me a break! You can’t possibly tell me orchestras are better than ever!”

Then there is Mitropoulos in Minneapolis – an extremist, the Dr. Caligari of the podium. This was an orchestra whose concertmaster, Louis Krasner, had premiered the Berg and Schoenberg concertos. Its stylistic base was Mahler and the Second Viennese School. In 1940 Mitropoulos made the first and best recording of Mahler’s First Symphony. Check it out at 10:16 here. If Mitropoulos (as I argue, citing evidence) conducts Mahler a la Mahler, his Schumann Second Symphony a la Mahler is an acquired taste. Bill (at 32:38) was bewildered: “It makes me really jittery. I can’t understand this Schumann. I know that Schumann was meshugana. It’s almost like an Expressionist Schuman . . . this is so crazy-making for me. Help me out!”

The larger premise of this three-hour harangue is that nothing like the bristling sense of occasion once registered by Koussevitzky and Mitropoulos – or by Bodanzky’s powderkeg of a pit orchestra, so much more distinctive than the generic Met Opera orchestra of today – can any longer be assured. The concert experience needs to be refreshed and rethought. That’s the premise of PostClassical Ensemble, the DC-based chamber orchestra I co-founded with Angel Gil-Ordonez 14 years ago.

In April, WWFM inaugurates “PostClassical,” a series of two-hour thematic specials culling live and recorded PCE performances. We begin by celebrating the Lou Harrison Centenary on April 28. In June, we argue that Bernard Herrmann was the most underrated American composer of the 20th century. Others shows in the series will include “Schubert Uncorked” (with bass trombonist David Taylor), “Stravinsky and Shostakovich Reconsidered (with pianist Alexander Toradze), “Dvorak and Hiawatha,” and “Silvestre Revueltas: Better than Copland.”

Stay tuned.