I finally made it to the Schermerhorn Hall last Saturday, to hear Anu Tali conduct the orchestra in Sibelius' Symphony #2, Mozart's Violin Concerto #5, and a Joan Tower piece ("Chamber Dance"). To get one blinding insight out of the way right off—the hall sounds very nice. You have the sensation of being in a small room with the group. The soft sounds were very impressive. Soovin Kim was able to tease out the notes in his cadenzas with what seemed like the slightest pressure on the bow and you were right with him.
I was interested in this program because of the Estonian conductor doing a Sibelius Symphony. I’ve never paid much attention to Sibelius, so I figured I would learn something. I mainly learned that there’s probably a reason for not knowing his work too well. It struck me as sappy stuff given over to grand gestures. Borodin came to mind.
The best music was the second movement, which started with a pizzicato bass line that was handed over to the cellos and provided the basis for a bassoon duet. All these delicious low sounds. Several sections featured a trio oboe, flute and clarinet with the clarinet in the low range, and the oboe in the lead voice but still low enough to be very reedy. The low sounds throughout the symphony were the best thing about the Sibelius. The orchestra sounded great making these sounds—enhanced by the hall, no doubt.
The Mozart was fine, Kim played loosely and languidly. Tower’s music does not excite me very much, but it is admirable in its balance. This piece, a dance-inspired work written recently for the conductor-less Orpheus chamber orchestra, has a rondo form that shifts between solo and duet passages and the ensemble. In many cases one instrument started as a solo and then was joined by another instrument—flute and then clarinet, oboe and then viola, 1st violin then second. The combinations had a sense of logic without being overly predictable. And the simple counterpoint in these passages was the nicest writing.
Now that the NSO is in the new hall, you have to ask how good they are and in what ways would they would want to improve. It’s unreasonable to think that another Chicago or Philadelphia has been hiding all these years under the TPAC acoustics, and unreasonable to think the group can just wake up and by will play at the highest international level. I heard and saw two things that made me think about the future, especially once a music director comes on full time (not sure how much of this orchestra-building Slatkin has signed on to do). The winds were generally very strong, although there seemed to be uncertainty in the horns in a few places. Also, while the hall sounds great soft, it never felt like we were hearing it played loud, and there were certainly passages in the Sibelius intended to have a heavy majesty. One possible way the sound got blunted looked to be in the violins, where the bows did not move with preternatural uniformity. You would see two players on the same stand with their hands moving in opposite directions at points—I suppose it’s possible I was looking at divisi sections, and I don’t know enough about string playing to know if it would be typical to divide the parts on each stand. There was also a visible delay in bow action from the front of the section to the back in places like the end of notes.