La Scena Musicale

Monday, 19 January 2009

Gennady Rozhdestvensky Spins Magic

Last November there was a slightly-larger-than-a-teapot tempest in the music world when the esteemed Russian conductor, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, left Boston in a huff when he found himself listed as second fiddle to a cellist in the BSO brochure.
The 77-year-old living legend received a back-of-the-hand apology from Symphony management but Boston critic Jeremy Eichler took them to task for their McMarketing approach, a dumbed-down pitch too often found with American arts organizations.
A few days before the January 9 concert by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, a press release announced than conductor Mikko Franck, the young Finn, was ill - a not infrequent event for this fine talent. When their permanent conductor Myung-Whun Chung is not on the podium, the emphasis recently has been on hot emerging conductors and I was not the only one surprised to find Rozhdestvensky was flown in as the replacement.
Hearing this man conduct the orchestra at Salle Pleyel was a spiritual experience. His broad tempos and depth of understanding are combined with a magic - is there another word? - he has over musicians. Keeping the same program, the first half took on Wagner with a symphony created by the overture to Meistersinger, the prelude to Parsifal and the overture to Tannhauser with Cesar Franck's Symphony in D minor to finish off the evening.
Watching the musicians, members of an orchestra which gets little respect, in total awe and playing like they have never done before, was a lesson in the alchemy of great conductors. With a single-minded commitment, finding the right balance between raw passion and precise musicianship (not usually their forte) they were simply inspired. The leader's stretched-to-near-breaking phrasing and unpredictable retards seemed second nature to them, like he was their long-time music director instead of someone who appeared only a day or so before. This is both the blessing and curse of French orchestras. They love the challenge of intemperate music making but dislike the discipline of night-after-night perfection.

On those intemperate nights, however, miracles can happen.

- Frank Cadenhead

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