Wednesday, March 04, 2009

The Mainstream Flows Into Alice Tully Hall and Is Hushed




In the first week of its Opening Nights Festival, Lincoln Center filled Alice Tully Hall with all kinds of music, from medieval works to chamber music and large-scale contemporary works. But surely one important measure of the hall’s new acoustics is how they treat music from the mainstream canon.

You won’t find works more mainstream than the Beethoven symphonies, and on Monday evening Paavo Jarvi and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen gave vigorous performances of four of them — the First, Third (“Eroica”), Seventh and Eighth — in back-to-back concerts that kept the hall rocking until midnight. Or, at least, the orchestra and the audience — a nearly full house at both concerts — rocked. The hall itself was shockingly impassive.

Here is the good and bad news about the new Alice Tully Hall: the good news is that in quiet music, you can hear every gesture with complete clarity. A pianissimo in the new Tully is as lovely as could be. But when the music is loud, and you expect the hall to add something of its own — reverberation, warmth, perhaps a rounding of overly bright edges — forget it.

The stately, propulsive 15-note phrase that opens the Eighth Symphony? The final note sounds, the violinists lift their bows off the strings, and, well, that’s all you get. The opening chordal blasts of the “Eroica”? Surely those produce a touch of reverberance? Sorry.

If you’ve been dreaming that the dryness of the old Tully Hall has been banished, and that the new hall, with its rich hues, will yield a lush, vibrant tone, it’s time to wake up.
There may be hope for anyone interested in grasping at straws. This time Lincoln Center used the intermediate stage extension. By all accounts the full extension, which juts farther into the audience and brings the ensemble more fully into the hall, yields the best sound. That arrangement did not produce much resonance last Thursday, when the Juilliard Orchestra performed Messiaen’s “Des Canyons aux Étoiles,” but that evening, 18 sound-absorbing panels were deployed.

That excuse now looks like wishful thinking. No panels were used this time. Maybe the trick is to use the full extension and no panels. I wouldn’t bet what’s left of a retirement account on it.
The performance offered considerable compensation, once the orchestra had settled in. A curtain-raiser, the “Consecration of the House” Overture, had its ragged moments, and at the first concert, a listener had a choice of forgiving, or not, an occasional lack of cohesion in the Eighth Symphony and in the “Eroica,” too.

But Mr. Jarvi, the orchestra’s director since 2004, clearly prizes highly charged music making, often at top speed, with thoughtful phrasing and sharply punched accents. And the use of valveless trumpets; woodwinds with a bright, astringent sound; and hard timpani mallets, combined with a reduced string section, yielded unusual balances that revealed each score’s inner workings, usually without unreasonably skewing the balance between theme and accompaniment.

When the orchestra plays at its best, these qualities yield refreshing, powerful performances. That was consistently the case in the late-night concert, when the orchestra played hardest, perhaps in the vain hope of coaxing some reverberation from the hall. In the Seventh Symphony, Mr. Jarvi’s full-throttle approach was not surprising; you expect an orchestra to play the Presto and the closing Allegro con brio with all the energy it can summon, and Mr. Jarvi’s account kept you on the edge of your seat.

The First Symphony is usually far more restrained: Beethoven is still using Haydn’s playbook, weaving threads of rustic playfulness into an overwhelmingly courtly fabric. But Mr. Jarvi and his players reconsidered that balance, making vehemence and drive absolute values and letting the courtly charm fend for itself. It was a risky approach, but it worked.

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