Sunday, June 10, 2012

let us now adjudicate great orchestras

One of the most charming features in the announcement of the San Francisco Symphony's centennial season was the comment that when you have a birthday, you invite your friends over to celebrate. So instead of disappearing off on a huge tour this year, SFS managed to acquire the other six leading U.S. orchestras as the principal guest ensembles giving concerts here this season, each under its current music director.

It's been traditional among music critics to identify a Big Five of U.S. orchestras, from east to west the Boston Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, and Chicago Symphony. This pantheon must date from after WW2, as Cleveland's rise to the highest status came with George Szell's appointment as music director in 1946. So the list is not set for all time, and it's occurred to me before now that in the last decade or two both the San Francisco Symphony and Los Angeles Philharmonic have earned equivalent places. So the concert list of the old Big Five plus the LA Phil only surprised me in so openly confirming that evaluation. (Is this fair to Baltimore, Atlanta, St. Louis and others that have also done remarkable work in the same period? No.)

Of the six visiting orchestras, I'd heard both LA and Chicago at home, but none of the others. (I barely missed an opportunity to nab a ticket in Philly once, by mistaking the time of the concert.) Those two have also both been here before when I've been in the hall to hear them, but I don't recall any of the others. (I've heard all of them on recordings, of course.)

Well, I heard Philadelphia last night, and that concludes the set. So now that I've sampled all six in short order, how would I rank their performance quality on the basis of these concerts? Tough choice, actually. There's little to choose between the top three in those terms; they were all excellent, and it's more a choice among styles. I'd rank them

  1. Chicago (Riccardo Muti)
  2. Cleveland (Franz Welser-Möst)
  3. Philadelphia (Charles Dutoit)
  4. New York (Alan Gilbert)
  5. Los Angeles (Gustavo Dudamel)
  6. Boston (Ludovic Morlot)

That Boston lost its music director between the original announcement and the concerts, and was led by a former assistant instead, may have had something to do with its placement, but not entirely, because I've never been satisfied with them on recordings either. New York gets downgraded only because it took their Tchaikovsky a while to get its act together. As for LA, the one of the six I know best, it was just not their best night. I'm sure Dudamel can put more fire in Prokofiev than that.

Each orchestra gave two concerts on successive nights, and I attended the first one of each. Each orchestra was also asked to bring along a recently commissioned new work, and all but Philadelphia gave that work on the first night (Chicago and Cleveland had two each, one for each night), so I heard five of them. As compositions, they get definitively firm comparative rankings from me, thus:

  1. Enrico Chapela, Magnetar (LA)
  2. Mason Bates, Alternative Energy (Chicago)
  3. Magnus Lindberg, Piano Concerto No. 2 (NY)
  4. Philadelphia, for not playing one
  5. Kaija Saariaho, Orion (Cleveland)
  6. Elliott Carter, Flute Concerto (Boston)
So it seems we still have a bit of a ways to go in matching the esteem of contemporary composers with the quality of their work.

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