John Chacona | Guest Reviewer
In a zesty piece in the most recent issue of The New Yorker, staff writer John McPhee riffed entertainingly on the different approaches of editors he has known in his long career. Robert Gottlieb, he observed, could read enormous amounts of text with superhuman speed and was quick to make decisions. The legendary William Shawn, by contrast, was deliberate, sometimes maddeningly so, poring over the details of manuscripts for months only to release them as the magazine was on its way to the printers.
When McPhee asked Shawn how he could sustain such deadline brinksmanship, the soft-spoken and somewhat detached editor answered, “It takes as long as it takes.”
Shawn’s patience seems to be mirrored in the offices of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, which is officially looking for a music director but has set no deadline for the appointment. Addressing the topic, Marty Merkley, Institution vice president and director of programming, has essentially said, “It takes as long as it takes.”
Timothy Myers, who led the CSO Thursday evening, may be under consideration for the position, but on the merits of his debut concert, he deserves a shot at it.
Artistic director and principal conductor of the North Carolina Opera, Myers seems to have an idea of what he wants to do, and he had the CSO sounding terrific on a very warm night; Myers has conducted the opera companies of Palm Beach and Anchorage, and the Amphitheater was clearly more reminiscent of the former.
Wearing all black with an open-necked shirt, Myers was baby-faced and smiling. He looked like he was on his way to an audition for a Broadway musical, and in his hands the Act III Prelude from Wagner’s opera Lohengrin was a creature of the stage, swift, purposeful and proclamatory.
Korngold’s “Violin Concerto” is theatrical as all get-out, but it is a creature of the screen, not the stage. It’s thick with melodies from several of the 1930s scores that have made Korngold the avatar of big, symphonic movie music.
It’s a showpiece, a big-budget, a Technicolor Hollywood extravaganza, and most violinists play it that way. But in the hands of Clara-Jumi Kang, winner of the 2010 Indianapolis International Violin Competition, Korngold’s score was indie film, interior and ruminative.
The opening pages of the work seem lifted from the world of Der Rosenkavalier, Richard Strauss’ sentimental valentine to the Vienna of Mozart’s day. Writing in the immediate aftermath of World War II, the Viennese-born Korngold might have been thinking of that lost city of his youth, and Kang sang his wistful chromatic melodies with Mozartean grace and a touch of melancholy.
Her restraint was unusual and affecting, a cool, silvery thing, and Myers accompanied her as he would an aria by Strauss’ Marschallin, letting Kang’s solo lines breathe and sigh.
Though the romping, razzle-dazzle finale wasn’t without bumps — this was a brutal night for a string player, to be fair — the big, dancing music achieved its intended effect, and the large audience came immediately to its feet.
Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 is a piece many of the CSO’s players can probably play in their sleep, and Thursday’s onstage conditions were narcoleptically torpid. But from the first bars, Myers had the CSO players on their toes, shaping phrases with care and attention to detail.
His beat was plastic, as it must be in Tchaikovsky, but he avoided the great heaves and tugs to which some conductors — some good ones, too — subject this music. Sure, the brass thundered and the climaxes were appropriately weighty — Myers understands that Russian music is built from the bass up and the low strings and brass got their due. But the effect was less Russian than Puccinian — and in the best possible way.
In other words, there was plenty of emotion — the Andante cantabile was slow, dreamy and almost surreal — but not of the brooding Slavic kind. Rather, Myers found an effulgent lyricism within a tightly controlled, precisely conceived performance. He paid great attention to releases, giving his phrases precision and shape, thus avoiding the sloppy phrasing that Tchaikovsky’s over-familiar works often receive. Once or twice, Myers approached the threshold of fussiness but never crossed it.
If the continuum of Tchaikovsky performance runs from hot — Mravinsky — to cold — Maazel or maybe Szell — Myers seemed to stand outside it, finding the best aspects of both approaches.
Music directors of festival orchestras must do two things well — of course, they must do hundreds of things well, but stay with me here — use limited rehearsal time wisely and give audiences something new and compelling in familiar repertoire.
Perhaps no one outside the Colonnade knows whether Timothy Myers is on the shortlist for the vacant music directorship of the CSO, but he should be, however long it takes.
John Chacona is a freelance writer for the Erie-Times News.