BSO director search is a guessing game

Friday July 27, 2012

LENOX -- Random thoughts at midseason:

Handicapping the Boston Symphony Orchestra's music director search is like handicapping Mitt Romney's choice for vice president. Everybody has an opinion but nobody really knows.

New York and Boston critics are touting Andris Nelsons, the Latvian who made his Tanglewood debut at the anniversary gala and in a Stravinsky-Brahms program the next night. Maybe he'll be the one. But, purely on the basis of performance, Israeli-born Asher Fisch, whose BSO debut took place Saturday in an all-Wagner program, seemed the more promising candidate.

But that's the problem with the guessing game: How can you tell?

Nelsons had the more complex task: three pieces -- one with chorus -- in different styles. Fisch, a veteran opera conductor, was in his

element with Wagner. So who's better?

How the concert sounds is only one test of a conductor. How conductor and orchestra get along behind closed doors is another, which is whyall rehearsals except the final run-through are closed to the public. Like an engaged couple, these people have to see if they can live with one another.

Other requirements: How good is the candidate at programming? How broad is his or her repertoire? How willing to get involved with the Tanglewood Music Center? How good at meet-and-greet stuff with trustees, big-time donors, the public, the press? And -- very important, of course -- how old is the person and how is his health? Remember James Levine.

Meanwhile, managing director Mark Volpe has said the search will go on with conductors who appear before the BSO during its 2012-13 subscription season. That should settle the matter for a while, but probably won't.


What is the mystique about watching a pianist's hands? A man came up to me during the Mutter-Orkis violin-piano re cital and asked why Tangle wood didn't provide screens in Ozawa Hall to show the pianist's finger work. They do it in the Shed, he said.

I said I couldn't speak for Tanglewood but generally speaking, people go to chamber concerts to hear the music, not watch a show. He went away in a grump.

What's the big deal? If you go to a piano recital where there are empty seats, you'll find the audience tilted to the left. People want to see the pianist's hands.

If you need something to watch, wouldn't it make more sense to sit on the right and watch the pianist's face? The expressions there have more to do with how the music sounds than gymnastics over the keys.

At the opposite pole, there were the audiences at Ger hard Oppitz' Brahms piano recitals. They sat anywhere, absorbed in the music.


The gent had a point, though. Screens and signs - many bearing commercial messages -- seem to proliferate in and around the Shed. It's not entirely a one-way proposition. There are those who gawk and those who, like Tanglewood, hawk. The visual element takes over.

There also seem to be more refreshment stands every year.

Some recent improvements on the grounds really do improve things: the directional signs and the new lighting between the Shed and Ozawa Hall, for example. But where does music stop and carnival begin?

Somehow, the trend seems related to the standing ovation, which now amounts to a standing joke. When one performance gets the same response as another, all are equally good or bad. It's fine that people are enthusiastic, but as with screens, music at some point comes in second best.


Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra concerts used to be one of the hottest tickets around. As recently as a few years ago, people would come early to get in and the place was sold out. Now, Ozawa Hall is half full. Even stars shared with the BSO no longer fill the place.

What happened?

A look at ticket prices suggests one answer. Since 2002, the cost of a seat inside the hall has risen from a flat $20 to a range of $34 to $53. Lawn prices have risen only modestly, from $10 to $11.

Perhaps as significantly, Friends of Tanglewood who gave at a level of $125 or more used to get into orchestral concerts free. Now, for a donation of $75, you get a single freebie to a chamber or contemporary concert.

This seems self-defeating. The student orchestra is de prived of the large audiences it deserves, and many listeners are deprived of an incentive to get in on the excitement. Ticket prices are going up everywhere, of course, and bills have to be paid. But wouldn't it help to set aside an indoor section or sections at a low price like the $21 sections in the Shed?


The secret is out. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus was required to sit in silence onstage for nearly all of the 145-minute anniversary gala to satisfy the television cameras. They didn't want an empty backdrop for even one minute.

And so, on a hot night, 130 singers waited on risers in the uppermost, hottest part of the stage until they could burst into song in the last few moments of the concert in Beethoven's Choral Fantasia.

Maybe it'll look good on TV.


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