Although the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam has been in business since 1888, the celebrated orchestra has enjoyed the services of only five permanent conductors.
Bernard Haitink, who has occupied the podium since 1961, relinquishes it at the end of the 1987 season. Then Riccardo Chailly--a choice surprising to those who recall his undistinguished performances with the San Francisco Opera and Los Angeles Philharmonic--becomes No. 6.
Wednesday night, Haitink and the Concertgebouw inaugurated the season at Ambassador Auditorium and began what may be their final visit, together, to Southern California.
To the obvious delight of an audience that paid up to $50 per ticket, they played Haydn's Symphony No. 88 as an obligatory warm-up exercise and, after a premature intermission, surveyed the indulgent agony, the ethereal lyricism, the piquant charm, the wrenching grotesquerie, the tragic pathos, the heavenly bombast and the abiding longueur of the Mahler Fifth.
It turned out to be a frustrating evening. No one at this late date can question the power, the flexibility and the potential virtuosity of the Concertgebouw. No one doubts Haitink's authority, his intelligence and communicative flair. Nevertheless, something was wrong.
One heard a lot of strident, untidy playing. For all the careful shaping of phrases and manicuring of accents, one sometimes harbored the nasty suspicion that the maestro had shifted into automatic pilot.
Part of the problem, no doubt, was acoustical. The Ambassador hall tends to distort big tones in a relatively small space. Chamber music works nicely here. Recitals are marvelous. Grandiose orchestral statements, however, lose all sense--well, most sense--of dynamic definition and proportion.
What should be soft emerges loud. What should be loud becomes cataclysmic. What should be smooth tends to be rough. What should be rough crosses the pain threshold.
A conductor and orchestra familiar with the auditorium and its sonic quirks may learn, with time, to adjust, to hold back, to compensate, to cope. A conductor and orchestra just whizzing through town have no time for such niceties.
Under the circumstances, the flying Dutchmen made poor Papa Haydn seem ponderous and matter-of-fact. In the mighty Mahler, they seemed to confuse exertion with energy and, worse, prose with poetry.
The opening fanfares assaulted the ears as mechanical blasts. When the initial shocks subsided, it became apparent that Haitink intended to avoid bathos at all costs. He wanted to stress clarity rather than theatricality. He wanted to illuminate details rather than bleed and sigh and weep. One had to admire his taste. Inspiration, unfortunately, remained elusive.
The funeral march was purged of sorrow. The scherzo refused to smile. The sublime adagietto sounded ordinary. Numerous effects along the way were cleverly calculated, but the 78-minute marathon lumbered to its final extended cadence without much inner tension, without much sustaining propulsion, without much expressive urgency.
It was one of those nights.