In Surprise Victory Over Mahler, Virtuoso Tuba Wins the Race

United StatesUnited States  Daugherty and Mahler: Carol Jantsch (tuba), Philadelphia Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 28.3.2015 (BJ)

Daugherty: Reflections on the Mississippi, for tuba and orchestra
Mahler: Symphony No. 5


Much to my surprise, I found myself enjoying the first half of this concert more than the second. Mahler’s Fifth Symphony is a great work, but its performance left much to be desired. Michael Daugherty’s Reflections on the Mississippi is not a great work, but it is a pleasant one, and it received a performance of stellar quality headlined by the Philadelphia Orchestra’s brilliant young tuba player, for whom it was written, and who gave the world premiere with Luis Biava and the Temple University Symphony in March 2013.

 Now being performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra for the first time, the piece, essentially a concerto-style travelog, found Carol Jantsch in phenomenal mastery of all its virtuoso demands. She has the piece firmly in her fingers (which, incidentally, got an equally impressive work-out in her arrangement of Piazzolla’s Tango-Etude No. 3, played as an encore). The orchestral part, which was delivered with gusto, features a fair amount of lingua franca banging-about with shrill percussive effects, but the writing for the soloist is fluent, lyrical, and often charming.

 Guest conductor Gianandrea Noseda was altogether more convincing in this work than in the Mahler after intermission. The problems began with the symphony’s very first theme, entrusted by the composer—like much of the melodic leadership in the opening pair of movements—to a solo trumpet. David Bilger is a superb player. The notes he produced were consistently accurate and euphonious, but their relation to each other in the phrasing of the work’s eleventh measure was almost diametrically opposed to what Mahler asked for. The rising triplet figure here, says the score, should be “flüchtig,” which can be translated as “fleeting,” or “rapid”—yet, whether under the conductor’s instruction or of his own choice, Bilger played it more slowly than the surrounding phrases, and the effect was damagingly halting.

 If this had been my only complaint, it could certainly have been dismissed as a detail, regrettable but of minor consequence. Unfortunately, there was a great deal more that was wrong with the performance. Almost incredibly for one of the finest works of one of the world’s most skillful orchestrators, the textures from beginning to end were muddy and severely lacking in transparency and color. No less surprisingly, even the orchestra’s formidably talented horn section was not immune to moments of faulty intonation. And there were passages that simply seemed to go dead, with no progress toward a goal in sight or hearing.

 This was especially the case in the finale, where, moreover, a couple of accented brass and woodwind unisons that suddenly interrupt the melodic flow were so crudely played, without the marked damping down from ff to piano, as to sound comic rather than dramatic. Given the characteristically fine solo playing that many members of the orchestra—most notably principal oboe Richard Woodhams—were contributing to the whole, there is only one place where blame can be laid, and that is at the feet (or hands, or eyes and ears) of the conductor.

 It was strange that Noseda, who a week earlier had revealed a spectacular talent as a twirler of the baton, should have decided to conduct Mahler’s highly complex Fifth Symphony without one. His intention was presumably to have two hands available for molding expressive phrases. If that was the idea, it did not work. Noseda did far too much of the kind of conducting that Adrian Boult used to describe as “the Grecian vase effect,” one hand duplicating the movements of the other to no constructive purpose, varying the effect now and then with convincing impersonations of a windmill buffeted by a gale. Expressivity, and much else on which music’s effect depends, fell by the wayside. One of the most eminent guest conductors to have appeared with the orchestra this season, Noseda enjoys a flourishing career suggestive of major talent; I can only conclude, on the basis of this concert, that Mahler is not his strong suit.

Bernard Jacobson

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