ASO: Michael Stern with Marc-André Hamelin

Michael Stern looked kind of off this evening. The opening of his waistcoat started below his waist, his tails were either in need of a professional pressing or were poorly mended, his French cuffs were slightly crushed, and his thick hair was only almost well groomed. While conducting, he seemed to cue a lot more with his baton in his right hand than with his left — indeed, there were times where he seemed to forget that he had a left hand. And, while his cues were generally good, I’m glad that I don’t have to try to keep count by watching him since he often seemed to forget that he was supposed to be beating the rhythm as well as giving cues. He also had to take a breather after the first movement of the symphony on the program, which seemed a bit odd for someone who does this for a living and wasn’t showing any signs of illness.

These are all subtle things that most audience members would probably miss but that made him look a bit like he was an outsider trying to blend in somewhere that he didn’t really belong. I think that the all Russian program was a good fit for him because he’s probably one of those Russian spies that are trying to undermine our government these days.1 Despite all of this, the end result of his conducting was a clear and solid performance of all three pieces on the program, if not quite how I would want them played.

The concert began with Shostakovich’s “Festive Overture,” which came across as about as big as it could without blowing out some eardrums. It felt a bit band-ish, really, but that’s not a particularly outlandish take on it.

This was followed by Medtner’s Piano Concerto no. 2, with Marc-André Hamelin soloing. This piece sounds kind of loungy: a lot like Rachmaninov, but much less cool. There’s a sort of blockiness to it, instead, which I don’t mean in a derisive way. Nor do I mean anything negative when I say that the more technically challenging bits for the pianist sound a bit like a kid saying “See what I can do!” There are a lot of really fun and interesting bits to the work and Hamelin gave a very good performance, taking the tricky bits with fluid ease without neglecting the more lyrical parts. I think that it’s possible that another conductor, however, might have brought out something a little more expressive from the work than what I heard out of Stern.

The finale of the evening was Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 4, with all the gloomy, fatalistic beauty that he did so well. Stern had the orchestra give a very clear and precise performance of the work, though I felt that it could have had a bit more feeling behind it. Stern’s conducting seemed better suited to the bits depicting festivities than to the gloomy parts, but nothing that he did prevented the genius of Tchaikovsky’s work from coming through. As I mentioned in the beginning, it was solid but not quite how I wanted it played.

1 – This is a complete fabrication. In truth, I have no idea who he is spying for. I do, however, suspect that he secretly would prefer to conduct wind orchestras. (back)

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