Follow up: On Frankenstein’s lab, German orchestras, and how Dvorak is a different person than Brahms

Guy Braunstein and Jeffrey Tate

On our free time away from the lab, we like to play the classics!

I am a complete asshole. I know this. I accept this reality and try to embrace it as much as can be expected. I’ve been identified at concerts by patrons around me as “the reviewer” and peppered with questions about this or that, and while I almost assuredly sound like an idiot to them, I’ve generally kept my innermost thoughts to myself and placed them in the holding tank that is my consciousness. But what better place for all the ungainly bullshit that I can’t help but notice at the concerts I’m reviewing than a blog that has a sterling track record of cussing, Kardashian references, and inappropriate sexual comments? The truth is, I’m trying to do a better job of making my actual reviews seem like they’re the work of something resembling a professional (even though I’m not one), and there’s no place for this stuff there. Which is why I’m just going to put them here and call them “Follow up” and do them whenever something can’t be printed in a space with any dignity or self-respect whatsoever.

What better way to start than by making fun of ugly people and the handicapped? As I said earlier, I’m an asshole for thinking it, and a bigger one for typing it, but I can’t help it. Last week I reviewed a performance featuring Jeffrey Tate conducting his Hamburg Symphony Orchestra with soloist Guy Braunstein in a ballsy and exciting program (Wasps Overture, Brahms VC, Dvorak 7) that ultimately lacked much in the way of balls and excitement. The review of the  actual performance will be online tomorrow, I believe, but there are much more important things to discuss right at the moment, and those things are how this particular pairing of conductor and soloist were moonlighting away from their normal jobs as Frankenstein’s monster and Igor.

First of all, let the record show that I am completely envious of Braunstein’s coiffure. As someone whose hairline is receding, it stings a bit to see someone whose hairline cedes or, I dare say, procedes. Nevertheless, up close (we were in about the fifth row) Braunstein is something to behold – the incredibly stylish gentleman to my left remarked that he had a “severe visage,” which is the classiest putdown I’ve ever heard and left me wishing I had a monocle. There’s a very good chance that Braunstein is a hell of a guy, and as the youngest-ever concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic there is a 100% chance that he is talented to a degree that I cannot comprehend, but ultimately he makes me feel better about my physical appearance. I wish I had taken away that he had dominated the Brahms Concerto (IMO it was good but not revelatory), but mostly I took away that I’m not as hideous as I tend to think I am.

In a different but related way, Maestro Jeffrey Tate was incredibly difficult to watch. I had never seen him in concert before, and while I knew of his battle with spina bifida, I was not prepared for what it meant to his conducting. The massive curvature on his right side gave more than one cue throughout the night, and the awkwardness with which he moved was incredibly distracting. I can say in all honesty that it makes me feel a little bit queasy that I think this, but something about this particular pairing seems garish on some level. I am fully aware that I have as little class as this T-shirt (here’s a secret: I think that shirt is kinda funny, too), but I’m glad I got the Frankenstein thing off my chest.


Now then, something I touched on in my actual review was a bit about the staggering quality of German orchestras. For a country of 81 million people to have that many world-class bands is a bit ridiculous. The Hamburg Symphony is likely not even one of the ten best orchestras in Germany (Berlin, Bavarian Radio, Munich, Staatskapelles Dresden & Berlin, Gewandhaus, MDR, NDR, WDR, RSO’s Berlin and Stuttgart, Bamberg, I mean Jesus H. Christ), but they sounded like an absolute force. So here’s a fun exercise: take the populations of America’s three largest states (California, Texas, New York), whose combined population is something around 81 million. Now name their best 10 orchestras (NYPO, LA Phil, SFSO, Dallas, Houston, San Diego, Buffalo, San Antonio, uh…). Wouldn’t you take Hamburg over any of those orchestras outside of the top 4? And isn’t it insane that the Hamburg Symphony might not even be the best orchestra in Hamburg?

This is in no way meant to denigrate American orchestras; they don’t have the longstanding tradition and governmental support of their German counterparts. It just struck me during the concert how absurd it is that this orchestra could be so bloody refined and gifted and be just one of quite literally dozens of groups of equal or superior refinement and gifts. Whenever anyone asks me about where I’d like to travel internationally, I always have the same answers: Israel/Lebanon, Thailand, Finland, and the opening of the Prague Spring Festival to hear Ma Vlast (each and every one of these excursions will require criminal amounts of sedatives, by the way). But why in the world wouldn’t I want to take $20,000 that I don’t have and blow it on an orgy of symphonic music as I mill about every major city and provincial town in Germany and hear and endless siege of quality music-making? Add that to my “when they invent teleporting or holograms or some shit” travel bucket list, because it makes so much sense.


The second half of the concert was devoted to Dvorak’s ultra-gangster 7th Symphony, but it seemed like Jeffrey Tate was either still in Brahms mode or just pretended that Brahms rode through Prague on a unicorn made of his majestic beard and wrote the symphony under a pseudonym. As I noted in the review that doesn’t actually exist yet, the 7th is probably Dvorak’s most Brahmsian effort (especially if you like to think that Brahms 3 is his most Dvorakian effort), but that in no way should imply that it should sound like Brahms. If Brahms is a perfect glass sculpture made by the finest craftsman in all of Europe, Dvorak is a similarly-shaped sculpture of broken glass and knives made by a guy on Day 3 of an opium bender. This is not to say that Dvorak doesn’t have craft (or that Brahms doesn’t have energy), but Dvorak should be rough around the edges and just a little unhinged.

Tate’s interpretation took all that away in favor of the smoothed, rounded shapes we associate with Brahms, and the results were, predictably, kind of boring. The tempi were a disaster: too slow in I., too fast in III., all over God’s green Earth in IV., but it was the distinct lack of edginess that sealed the fate of the performance. Part of the blame for this lies with Helzberg Hall, which has more wood in it than Bambi, This Old House, and Throbbin’ Hood – Prince of Beaves combined, but the sound concept was all wrong no matter where it was played.

Take, for example, the climax to the first movement, which builds on top of itself for 30 solid seconds before exploding in a thunderstorm of sheening brass and timpani. Or at least that’s what it does when it’s awesome. In this performance it was less a thunderstorm and more a thunderstorm float in an aristocracy parade, the difference between standing at the base of Mount St. Helens circa 1980 versus reading about it on Wikipedia in 2009 and thinking “Shit, that sounds like it was probably hot and maybe smoky.” Or consider the finale, in which Tate made a thousand choices that weren’t necessarily indicated in the score, and then didn’t choose the one totally fucking awesome one that brings the piece home in a blaze of fury that Satan himself thinks is “a bit much.”

To get the taste out of our theoretical mouths (can’t you taste how unappealing it was just through my incredible prose?), here’s a performance that gets it a little more, featuring my beloved Pittsburgh Symphony and Marek Janowski. This take is a vast improvement, letting Dvorak go off the reservation when he needs to, especially in the last movement. And they sure don’t miss the opportunity to rip your fucking face off at the end, either. The fact that I’m here typing this interminable screed with the full use of my face indicates that last week’s concert was not as successful.

DVORAK Symphony no. 7
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Marek Janowski, conductor
5-7 November 2009
Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh, PA

A single FLAC file containing the performance in pretty decent sound taken from KUAT-FM’s web stream: GET IT!!!!!



One thought on “Follow up: On Frankenstein’s lab, German orchestras, and how Dvorak is a different person than Brahms

  1. Your Brahms v. Dvorak metaphoric comparison is perfect. And absolutely articulates why I listen to Dvorak a lot more than the other guy. Dvorak 6 is also pretty badass IMO. One of my favorite symphonies ever; Istvan Kertesz makes it jump pretty nicely.

    Your point about the US orchestras is spot-on, but I’d add Rochester’s orchestra to the list, a band who is very underrated. And the Eastman Philharmonia is better than most regional orchestras in the US.

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