Karita Mattila Comes to the NSO

            Yes, the scheduled conductor cancelled, and yes, with the sky still shimmering with light at 9 p.m., it feels rather late in the season to be going to the orchestra. But it was a surprise and a bit of a disappointment to find the Kennedy Center Concert Hall so empty last night. Mikko Frank may have bailed on the National Symphony Orchestra, but soprano Karita Mattila showed up and she came with the ever popular Four Last Songs by Richard Strauss.

            Granted, the original program was more interesting.  Frank, a Finnish conductor with a reputation for being both brilliant and erratic, had programmed Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Manhattan Trilogy. And rather than the Four Last Songs, Mattila was supposed to sing Strauss’s much more rarely heard Three Hymns, Op. 71. Both would have been first-time performances for the NSO. But when Andreas Delfs replaced Frank on the podium, the orchestra retrenched, substituting over-exposed for obscure Strauss, and music of Delius for Rautavaara.

            No matter.  A good, evening-long wallow in late romanticism is never to be sneered at. But it wasn’t that sort of evening. There was a palpable lack of chemistry between all three musical forces—conductor, soloist and orchestra—that played out in performances that were often approximate and generally formless.

            Delius’s “The Walk to the Paradise Garden” is warmed-over Wagner served in aspic on Wedgwood china, a polite, sedate, rather silly piece that serves as an interlude in the 1907 opera A Village Romeo and Juliet. Wagner, constantly referenced is also thoroughly tamed in the opera, and the music sets a mood without saying anything precise or memorable (stage direction: “Sali takes Vrenchen in his arms and kisses her long and tenderly. They rise and continue their way. The curtain falls…”)  Move along, nothing to see. And the opera is pretty much the same.

            It was, however, the best played music of the evening. Delfs doesn’t bother with big ideas, or forging an interpretation that spans an entire piece, though he gives lots of extraneous information, which makes him temperamentally suited to Delius. He also had the good sense to stay out of the way of the woodwinds, which are given quiet, gentle and forgettable melodies that filter through the soundscape like little rays of late afternoon sun coming through a forest canopy. The oboe playing was especially lovely.

            The Strauss, which included a performance of Also Sprach Zarathustra, didn’t fare so well—and the freedom Delfs gave in the Delius was retracted in the Strauss (especially in the violin solos), with regrettable results.

            The accompaniments to the Four Last Songs didn’t do Mattila any favors and there were moments of substantial disagreement about the pacing of the music. The horn melody that is supposed to carry the second song off in the arms of Morpheus was too loud, too assertive, and anything but a lullaby. More destructive to the cycle’s collective impact was the chord that accompanies the singer’s final note of  “In Abendrot,” a deliciously foreign harmony set to the word “death.” It should be a whisper but the orchestra responded with something bigger and blunter, which meant that any mystery Mattila hoped to muster with the poem’s enigmatic last question—“Can this perhaps be death?—was lost.

            But Mattila wasn’t really finding much to communicate in the poetry. This was a singer’s performance, not a textually driven one. And it wasn’t particularly well sung either. Mattila sounded dry, even  hoarse in the opening of the first song, and the voice, once warmed up, wasn’t consistent throughout its range. Top notes were clean, precise and very white or blank, in their tone. Lower in her range, it’s a different voice, and a more charismatic one. In the middle, she was frequently covered by the orchestra, with the blame mostly Delfs’s.

            Worse, Mattila’s phrases were so undifferentiated and generic that Strauss’s individual notes were lost in long, loose approximations of the general line. Was that a half step? Or a whole step? Or a minor third? It would be nice to hear Strauss’s thoughts—and Hesse’s and Eichendorff’s poems—for once, and not the all-purpose, sumptuous, voice-as-instrument version that has come down to us since Jessye Norman recorded her aberrant but gorgeous dramatic soprano remix of the piece. Mattila, unfortunately, approached the piece with a more lyric instrument, but without the sweetness, precision or clarity of a smaller, lighter, more incisive voice.  It was, perhaps, an off night.

            It was definitely an off-night for the Also Sprach Zarathustra. Delfs gesticulated frantically and bounced on the podium, but to little effect. The reading was a straight-through, just-the-facts account that sounded under rehearsed and disengaged. Strauss’s humorous self-deflations, the vulgar references, the disjointed waltzes, the sudden climaxes that serve like a magician’s  distraction to hide the wild and unexpected turns of the musical path, none of these registered.

            For all that, the NSO is sounding better, section by section, than I’ve heard it in a long time. The woodwinds have new strengths, the horns, though aggressive to a fault, were more accurate than I’ve heard before, and the strings were warmer, more even and cohesive. But the problems with the NSO have never been at the level of individual players. It’s a question of rehearsal, discipline and the all important presence (or absence) of a conductor who can forge this group into a real ensemble. They didn’t have that last night, and the results were as usual.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Karita Mattila Comes to the NSO

  1. Edward Faggen

    Technically, I expect that you are correct on all counts, but I was there last night and I thoroughly enjoyed the concert. The NSO may have a way to go to join the ranks of the truly great orchestras for the reasons you state. But do not leave the impression, as I’m afraid you do, that the concerts are not worth attending, that they are failures, etc. That is not at all the case. The audience enjoyed this concert. The singing was beautiful. I was sitting up close; maybe that made a difference. The Zarathustra was also a big success with the audience. The substitute conductor was fine, and he was there when he was needed. There was a lot more positive to say about this perfomance than you acknowledge and I hope people are not discouraged from attending the remaining performances. If they attend they will be rewarded.

  2. William Kirchhoff

    Generally I find your criticisms so harsh that I end up getting annoyed. Not in this case as you actually sounded a little less negative. I do worry that your criticism could drive away audiences which would be a shame. I don’t think that’s your intent. Having said all that, I found myself closer to agreeing with you than not. I had the feeling that the members of the orchestra were tired and that the changes in program didn’t help. But in spite of this, I found I was more rapt in the four last songs than I have been in previous hearings. Go figure! It must be difficult being a critic. After all, you are actually being paid to be critical. I hope there are occasions when you can turn it off and sit back and just enjoy a performance, maybe even one that is far less than perfect but in which the performers convey the sense of joy that comes from making music.

    • philipkennicott

      When you buy a ticket, you want to have a good time. When there’s repertoire on the program you’re interested in or passionate about, you want to have a good time. Almost everyone goes to the concert hall to have a good time. Including critics, but they also go because they’re reporting on what happens. And that means writing reviews, such as the one above, even if it means disappointing others who didn’t hear the same way way, or who heard the problems, enjoyed themselves nonetheless, and prefer not to dwell on the negative. As for being able “to turn it off,” I think most critics absolutely have an “off” button. I love amateur music making, friends who play the piano after supper, or church choirs, or just listening through the window as an unknown musician practices. Some of the most powerful experiences of music I’ve ever had have been when I’m listening purely for pleasure to players who, by any objective standard, aren’t professional caliber. Just for the record, I try to hit the “off” button at least once during every piece when I’m reviewing. I look around the audience and find someone who looks fresh and rapt and eager, and I try to hear it through their ears, as if the piece is entirely new to me and I’ve never been to the orchestra before. I put the score down, during the Four Last Songs, and listened without thinking too much… and it was nice. But it wasn’t great. It wasn’t up to the standard that Mattila has set for herself, or to the standard that the NSO can reach when they’re in fine form.

      • William Kirchhoff

        I will confess that I didn’t see that much joy in the orchestra Thursday night either though they seemed to be a little more enthusiastic about Mattila than average for a soloist. Since I purchase season tickets, I am generally expecting to have a good time for all of the concerts but my experience has been the more I anticipate a particular performance, the more I am disappointed whereas the opposite is true. I have arrived without much enthusiasm for yet one more performance of Brahms’ first symphony and been startled to hear something exciting that I had never noticed before, or where the piece suddenly seems to be fresh and exciting. It leaves me with the thought that the entire effect might just be internal to me.

        We started subscribing to the NSO 36 years ago when we realized that if we were going to pick a concert to attend, we never seemed to get around to it, so we decided to let the NSO tell us when to show up. We started when Antal Dorati took over and it has been an interesting experience to see the improvement in the orchestra over the years. In fact we now expect more of them than we did when we first started.

        Still, I am glad that I am not a music critic. It must be a thankless job aside from being able to listen to music as part of your living.

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