La Scena Musicale

Monday, 9 August 2010

Nagano/OSM Week at Orford Festival 2010

by Paul E. Robinson
The Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal (OSM) is an orchestra without a home – at least in the summertime. For some years now, it has been trying to cobble together a summer work schedule that would satisfy its commitments to players, its financial responsibilities, and the larger Quebec area’s classical music-loving public.
OSM’s latest experiment took place this past week at Festival Orford, both at Orford itself and in the nearby town of Magog, one of Quebec’s prime destinations for summer vacationers. Is this the answer for the perpetually itinerant OSM? Maybe yes, and maybe no; it is a complicated matter and there are no simple answers.
The recent summer history of the OSM has the band playing at the Lanaudière Festival in Joliette for several seasons, and for the past two years at the Knowlton Festival in L’Estrie (Eastern Townships).
The OSM could give more concerts at Lanaudière, but music director Kent Nagano is busy in Munich during July and unavailable for Lanaudière engagements. Personally, I don’t understand why that should be an issue. Whereas Nagano’s unavailability continues to be offered up as a reason why the OSM cannot do more at Lanaudière, many of the major orchestras on the global stage either use guest conductors in the summer or appoint summer festival music directors.
And Knowlton? This festival got off to an impressive start using a bel canto theme, then suddenly ground to a halt. Knowlton Festival organizers put out a statement that provided no explanation at all, and gave no indication of total abdication, but one suspects that this festival has no future. Although original and inspired, the bel canto concept was a somewhat esoteric choice for a place like Knowlton, and it is not surprising that audiences for most of the programmed concerts were sparse. The theme was modified in the second season, but costs continued to escalate and many concerts failed to attract large audiences even in an 800-seat facility. The whole project made neither artistic nor economic sense.
Goodbye Knowlton – Hello Magog: OSM and Orford Courting!
Enter Orford. The Orford Arts Centre (OAC) has been one of Canada’s leading summer music schools for many decades. In recent years, however, it has lost some of its momentum and prestige and financial problems have forced the OAC to rethink its mission.
Last year, conductor and Nagano protegé Jean-Francois Rivest was appointed OAC artistic director, and with the OSM once again searching for a summer home, an OAC-OSM collaboration - a one week festival tacked on to Orford’s usual summer season, featuring Nagano and the OSM – quite naturally materialized.
Since the hall in the OAC itself has too few seats to support concerts by a fully professional orchestra, it was decided that the OSM would play in nearby Magog, at Église Saint-Patrice (Saint Patrick’s Church). In addition to the OSM, which was scheduled for three concerts, other performers would include pianists Till Fellner, Peter Serkin and Mari Kodama (Mrs. Kent Nagano), violinist Christian Tetzlaff, clarinetist-composer Jörg Widmann, soprano Adrianne Pieczonka, and Tafelmusik – a pretty impressive lineup at any festival.
Sold Out Concerts Signal a Potentially Profitable Union
On the face of it, this hastily-conceived festival was a huge success. The church seats about 1,000 people and the two concerts I attended appeared to be all but sold out.
Some of the performances I heard were outstanding, including an impassioned reading of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto by Tetzlaff and Nagano, and a wonderfully poetic and well-played Brahms Serenade No. 1 by Nagano and the OSM. The last concert – a solid sell-out – featured Till Fellner playing Schumann with Nagano and the OSM.
Undoubtedly, this new OSM week at Orford is much cheaper to operate than the Knowlton Festival. In Knowlton, land had to be purchased, an elaborate tent facility rented, a complex school bus shuttle system set up, and an audience had to be found in a town of only a few thousand souls even in the tourist season. In Magog, on the other hand, festival organizers could construct a concert platform inside the church and draw on a much larger and more vibrant community for support. Smaller concerts could be held in the already existing Gilles Lefebre Concert Hall in the Orford Arts Centre. Another positive factor: the provincial and federal arts councils already support the Orford Festival and the OSM and would likely see this new collaboration as “win-win” for both organizations.
Standards of Excellence: What Does This Festival Want to Be?
Before all involved in mounting this festival rush to self-congratulatory mode, they should pause to review what went wrong as well as what went right with this opening season in Magog. For example, the first concert I attended was given by the newly-created Orford Academy Orchestra (OAO) conducted by Nagano. Orford has once again gone in the direction of having a training orchestra as part of its activities. All well and good. This kind of orchestra has been used as the cost-effective basis for music festivals all over the world: Aspen, Verbier, and Schleswig-Holstein, for example – all three with outstanding training orchestras by any standard. Quite frankly, at least on its initial showing, the Orford Academy Orchestra, though it could be, was not in the same class.
On paper, this concert provided excellent stylistic challenges for young musicians. It began with a recent work called Armonia by German composer Jörg Widmann. This piece featured the glass harmonica, a most unusual instrument dating back to Mozart’s time. Then Widmann appeared as soloist in Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. The concert ended with Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 (“Rhenish”). With this programming and Nagano on the podium, it appeared that the OAO would be probing three different musical idioms in one concert, and gaining tremendously from the experience.
The evening got off to an excellent start with a performance of Armonia that appeared to meet all the considerable demands of the score. Then, with the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, the concert really ran off the rails.
Nagano and Widmann at Odds in Mozart
Widmann and Nagano appeared to be playing in two different styles. Widmann is an excellent musician, but his approach could be characterized as aggressively modern. His technique is superb, but his sound is penetrating and hard, and he studiously avoided adding period embellishments of any kind. Nagano, on the other hand, seemed to be after some sort of re-creation of period style.
If Widmann was masculine in his approach, Nagano was feminine, stressing delicacy and lightness. He had obviously told his players to avoid the first beat of the bar accents and to play ‘across the bar lines’; as a result, the music lacked a rhythmic spine and the playing often sounded confused. For example, the main theme of the last movement was played totally differently by orchestra members and soloist. Widmann played his notes short but the violins played them long. The less said about the quality of the horn playing, the better.
Tricky St. Patrick’s Acoustics Contribute to Shaky Schumann
The Schumann had good and bad moments. The first movement was taken so fast, that it was reduced to musical gibberish. The acoustics were partly to blame. Churches are notoriously reverberant and the young musicians obviously had trouble hearing each other. If Nagano did take the acoustics into account, his adjustments clearly did not work. The second movement was similarly troubled as the musicians tried to keep their contrapuntal lines together. The final three movements fared better, with some fine, sensitive playing in the ‘Cologne Cathedral’ movement and a touch of exuberance in the finale. But again, the quality of the playing was uneven, and a quality that one takes for granted in youth orchestras – enthusiasm – was only rarely evident. One of the front-desk string players rarely moved his bow more than about six inches no matter what the volume of the music.
Kent Nagano has had a very busy week. In addition to his three concerts in Magog, he conducted two concerts at Lanaudière. If you factor in all the rehearsals for the five concerts he conducted – all completely different programmes, by the way - and the driving back and forth required, one wonders whether he really spent enough time working with the Orford Academy Orchestra. I don’t know what preceded it, but I do know that the last rehearsal before the concert was led not by Nagano, but by Rivest. Was Nagano really being fair to the young musicians by spreading himself so thin? One also has to wonder whether Nagano has any affinity for training student orchestras; perhaps his skills lie elsewhere.
Looking Forward to Next Summer
At the very least, festival organizers ought to reconsider a number of issues relating to the student orchestra programme. Is it a sound idea to present concerts in the same hall, under the same conductor, on successive nights by a dodgy student orchestra (OAO) and the internationally-recognized OSM? If the student orchestra is an integral part of the festival, and the festival aspires to be world class, can organizers be satisfied with a student orchestra that does not meet the standards of similar major festivals around the world? If not, what can be done to raise the standard? A more rigorous audition process? More rehearsal? More involved conductors?
St. Patrick’s Church is a venerable institution dating back to 1894. It is a landmark in the Magog area and many festivals are regularly giving concerts in much worse places. It is always a problem to fit an orchestra around choir stalls, altars and pulpits in such places, and the lack of air conditioning can make old churches exceedingly uncomfortable. Given the physical constraints at St. Patrick’s, it is simply not possible to get more than about sixty players on the stage. This means that Mahler, Richard Strauss, Tchaikovsky, etc are out of the question in this venue; nevertheless, everything considered, it is a useful facility and I suspect that those who attended this year’s concerts would happily return for more.
Has the OSM Finally Found the Perfect Partner?
Magog has never, I believe, been known as a ‘classical’ cultural mecca. Most people come here to enjoy swimming and boating on beautiful Lake Memphremagog, listening to rock, or country and western on the waterfront, or a beer and a burger in one of the many restaurants and bars in the downtown area.
But Magog has something to satisfy other tastes as well. There is the excellent Owl’s Bread Bakery and Restaurant for great coffee and bistro fare, and there are upscale restaurants such as Cavallini’s, both within a few blocks of St. Patrick’s.
Judging from the sold-out performances this opening season, there is obviously also an audience for classical music in Magog and as the festival grows, it could work with the community to create a true festival ambiance beyond the confines of St. Patrick’s.
Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music, both available at Amazon.com. NEW for friends! The Art of the Conductor podcast.

Photo by Marita: Christian Tetzlaff and Kent Nagano

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