By Scott MacClelland
WHAT KNOCKED ME BACK was not so much the performance, which hit lots of high marks, but rather the ‘Letter from Max’ in the program booklet. Music director Max Bragado wrote the opinion that the Symphony No. 5 by Sibelius “is the greatest masterpiece of the season.” I must be naïve. I thought his job was to make every piece in the season the ‘greatest masterpiece’ in its moment.
His comments also praised the “Music Committee” for “working with me to bring you the best music possible.”
Who’s in charge here? Does Bragado have license from the ‘committee’ to infuse personal expressive passion into the Sibelius symphony or to disengage it as he did with Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony on the last program?
The conductor can only express his strongest artistic credentials with a symphony orchestra in the absence of a soloist who will inevitably grab primary attention. Therein lies the measure of the conductor as an artist. Not every conductor can be a showman like Bernstein or a visionary like Abbado. But the opportunity asks any of them—all of them—to make their mark, to take interpretive risks. And by that they should be measured.
Saturday night, the fairly large Sunset Center audience cheered soloist Judith Ingolfsson’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. But after intermission, ahead of the Sibelius, the audience was markedly reduced. Has symphonic music from the past lost its allure? More important, is there a stranding between generations as the gulf of time widens? The question comes up when every symphony orchestra in the land begins to lose audience.
The concert began with the short overture to Weber’s comic opera, Abu Hassan, that included the cymbals and triangle of the Turkish Janissary bands. (It was a novelty that only entered Western Classical music by way of Haydn’s “Military” Symphony and Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio.)
Ingolfsson dazzled in the Tchaikovsky, though she gave the performance its expressive high point with her deep personal phrasing in the muted slow movement. The concerto gives the orchestra some grand symphonic moments and Bragado gave his players every encouragement.
He also drew a personally committed interpretation of the Sibelius, highly charged and emphatic. It deserved more acclaim than the audience gave back. It is, as Bragado described, a great masterpiece and, for want only of more orchestral transparency in the din of full tutti, was an exciting performance that should be long remembered. By the way, Happy 150th Maestro Sibelius.
Photo by Glenn Ross