The last time that I heard Thomas Søndergård conduct the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, I wasn’t terribly pleased with his interpretations of the French Impressionist works on the program but thought that he might actually be pretty good with a program of German works. Well…I’m not quite ready to completely write him off, but between that concert and the one I attended last night, I’m thinking that he may have a pretty narrow range and some pretty bad ideas. The concert wasn’t a disaster by any means, but it also wasn’t very good and it’s largely due to his interpretations of the pieces on the program.
The problems began right away with Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. The first movement came out sounding like Søndergård had some scheme to get it featured on MTV’s Headbangers Ball. We often compliment an energetic piece of music by saying that “it rocks” even if it isn’t rock and roll music, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we want everything turned into a rock song. He backed off more on the remaining two movements and they came out much better, if unremarkable. The soloists were all great, though. That goes for the soloists from the chorus and also the featured soloist Countertenor Daniel Moody. His voice was sweet and clear and I absolutely loved his jacket, which was very sparkly, though I think that it deserved to be worn over a more interesting shirt. Perhaps some red in the button cover he used on the top button would have tied it in with his socks and drawn some attention away from the rest of the white-plastic buttons on the rather dull placket. If Søndergård had done a little better with this piece, I’d not have paid as much attention to Moody’s attire and had more to say about the music.
I was kind of looking forward to hearing Søndergård’s take on Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9 based on the previous concert. But then I started to think it wasn’t going to be what I wanted when I noticed how insanely fast the musicians were playing the little bits that they were practicing on the stage as intermission was coming to a close. Then I noticed the number of seats hadn’t really changed, meaning that this probably wouldn’t be the big Mahler arrangement that I’d become accustomed to (though I’ve honestly been thinking that I might actually prefer the original, smaller arrangement to Mahler’s). It seems that Søndergård got it in his head to try to get as close to the original published tempo markings as possible. Normally I really appreciate historically informed approaches to music but I don’t really think we can call this HIP. As far as I can tell, there aren’t that many who believe that Beethoven’s tempo markings were really what he was trying to get people to perform. I’m not a music scholar, but in all the articles that I’ve read discussing the markings or any of the performances of his music in his lifetime, I don’t recall ever hearing anyone point out that Beethoven was known for his exceptionally fast-paced music.
The first movement at Søndergård’s breakneck pace sounded manic and desperate but, interestingly, it came across as neither particularly rushed nor completely dry. The second movement mostly just sounded silly – I even had to suppress a giggle here and there – though there were some brief moments where the music managed to draw me in. That wasn’t at all the case in the third movement, though: the slow parts seemed plodding even though they were being played faster than I’m used to hearing because they were so dry and uninteresting. The one or two times that the music began to draw me in, something would sound completely off and I’d feel a bit repelled. The soloists and chorus mostly did an admirable job singing as though the pace wasn’t completely silly, though nothing of the feeling of Schiller’s poem came across unscathed by the increased tempo. I say mostly because I couldn’t really hear Stephanie Lauricella’s mezzo-soprano well enough to even decide if I liked her voice. Even though I was in the third row, I could only make out tiny wisps of her voice from behind the remarkably strong voices of soprano Jessica Rivera and tenor Thomas Cooley. I’d blame the acoustics or perhaps even suggest that maybe the soprano and tenor were upstaging everyone else as per the cliché but for the fact that Andrea Mastroni’s smooth bass was still audible for the most part.
I’ll concede that the Beethoven was interesting at this pace and even that Søndergård got the dynamics right to keep such a performance from being completely technical and dry, but it wasn’t really enjoyable. If I got anything from it, it was that the musicians of the ASO are pretty impressive for Søndergård to have gotten such a clean and clear sound from them. I kind of hate bringing this up, but I think it’s worth mentioning that the standing ovations that the performance of each piece received is completely in keeping with any program featuring the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus. They are so loved in this town that if they are involved in a program then it is pretty much guaranteed that the concert will sell out and get a standing ovation. The applause tonight was for the singers, the musicians, and the composers: not for the interpretations of the works that Søndergård gave us.
I think that, given the two concerts that I’ve attended, Søndergård might be one of those artists who really doesn’t understand what it’s like for an audience member in a concert. Although I certainly don’t shy away from being friends with artists, I’ve found over the years that they aren’t actually good company for consuming whatever form of art they produce. There is a huge difference to the joy and satisfaction that comes from producing art and the joy and satisfaction that comes from consuming it. And there seems to be something about producing it that, I think, keeps artists from being able to appreciate it purely from an audience’s perspective without trying to interpret it in terms of their own craft and technique. Some artists seem further removed from the experience of art appreciation than others; sometimes to the extent that it’s easy to imagine that they have never been to a performance or exhibition that they weren’t involved in without it being some form of social or business obligation. Søndergård seems to be one of these types: his approach to Beethoven this time and the impressionists last time makes me think that he only sees in a score what might make it interesting for him to perform it as a conductor rather than what’s there to be expressed for the audience. I’m not going to say that he’s a bad conductor, but I can’t think of any piece of music that I’d want to hear him conduct.