It was certainly nice to see Neeme Järvi back on the podium after many years away. True to form, he brought some interesting music to town – Taneyev, Symphony No. 4 in C Minor, not a bad piece really, and much more enjoyable than playing the same three Tchaikovsky symphonies over and over again. The first rehearsals began in somewhat muddled fashion and I wondered if my fond memories of Järvi were all wrong. But at the Saturday evening concert he seemed to be having a good time, doing one of his trademark overlong grand pauses while giving a little smile to the orchestra, bowing to the audience member who clapped enthusiastically between movements. A little wavelet of nostalgia overtook me – something I felt horribly self-conscious about until it struck me that my chosen profession is based almost entirely on obsessive infatuation with an idealized, unrecoverable past.
Anyhow, Järvi was a frequent guest here when I joined the orchestra and I always looked forward to the weeks he conducted, which more often than not included something new or unfamiliar. Large of frame and somewhat stiff in his mannerisms, a sly sort of playfulness always seemed to be bubbling away just below the surface of his stolid countenance, which made his playful antics all the more enjoyable. Unafraid of trying different things in performance, he could often get the orchestra to do more with a wink or a shrug than a lot of other conductors could achieve after hours of lecturing from the podium. Rumor has it (and I’m only too happy to spread it) he became unwelcome here after siding with musicians in a labor dispute somewhere (Philadelphia?). Our loss, really.
Järvi made recordings with us for (I think) Chandos. London Decca and the mighty Deutsche Grammophone always brought in loads of equipment, but Chandos seemed to be a smaller operation. Most notable to me as a newcomer were the red lights and telephones set before the podium during recording sessions – the phone for the maestro to confer with the recording engineers offstage and the red light to indicate when the tapes(!) were rolling. DG in particular had an expensive looking phone and mounted their red light on a burnished wooden box – stuff you might expect to see in commissioner Gordon’s office as he lunged for the Bat Phone. On the other hand, Chandos used what appeared to be an ordinary 100-watt light bulb with red cellophane taped around it. In the old green room, a lone engineer huddled over a DAT recorder about the size of a toaster.
I wonder if any of those outfits are still in business? Now, there are a few things to really get nostalgic about: recording sessions, records, CDs.
The orchestra used to assemble during the daytime and perform for the microphones, often repeating passages until things were just so. The recordings were imprinted on discs, things you could actually hold in your hand, which were sold in bright, cheery shops dedicated to the sale of music.
Well, the shops were mostly bright and cheery, that is until one ventured back to the classical section.
You could almost hear the vacuum seal of the airlock, the giant sucking sound as the glass door swung closed behind you. Here in the funeral parlor, music no more than a whisper. Mahler, Montiverdi, neither louder than acolytes, distant in their underground catacombs, chanting some grievous loss. A cymbal crash, barely audible – Wagner is dead. The lonely clerk looks over the top of half-rimmed glasses, eyes following you warily from behind a back issue of Audiophile Magazine. The CD cases rattle like bones as you flip them one by one – the moribund, the dead, the forgotten dead.