This week marked the return of our former Ravinia music director. Comments about him often run something like, “he’s a wonderful musician, but…” with the aposiopesis standing in for any number of conductorly shortcomings.
Wednesday’s performance went surprisingly well, with the Maestro showing more restraint than I expected in the Bruckner 7th. The Mahler songs had some rough edges in the orchestra due to many of us not knowing when to play in a few passages, but Thomas Hampson carried the day, making for a successful performance in spite of what went on behind him.
On Friday, things took a turn for the worse – ‘just like old times!’ somebody remarked. I was mercifully spared having to play the inevitable Eschenbach/Barto concerto smack down. The rehearsal for the Ravel pieces flirted with becoming a full-fledged Eschen-bacchanal as time ran out and the ensemble still in serious disarray. There was genuine concern whether or not we were going to make it through these very familiar pieces or have a train wreck at the performance.
Topping that off, the scheduling left many musicians scratching their heads. The normal practice at Ravinia is to rehearse pieces together on the one or two rehearsals allotted for each concert. However, the Maestro had stuck the Strauss songs from Saturday’s concert at the end of the Friday rehearsal. A number of players who were off on Friday had to show up and sit through the entire rehearsal only to rush onstage at the very end to spend the last 10 minutes on the Strauss before heading home again. Now I realize we are paid a salary and all, but scheduling like that is a major inconvenience on the one hand, and on the other, it demonstrates a serious lack of foresight. Musicians tend not to respond well when they suspect their leaders aren’t really thinking about what they are doing, whether it is planning a concise and efficient rehearsal schedule or conducing the orchestra.
The concert went off more or less without incident. The orchestra has an amazing ‘autopilot’ function that takes over when things look dicey. The thing with an autopilot is that you have to keep your hands off for it to work. That wasn’t really the case with La Valse. There was one particularly interesting moment when the entire orchestra seemed to flinch at an indecipherable gesture – I’m still trying figure out what I was seeing – where only the crashing entrance of the bass drum saved us.