A great orchestra performance can be distinguished in many different ways. The most accessible kind of music making draws attention to the mechanics of the playing, perhaps by means of wide dynamics (whispery soft tones contrasted with thunderous fortissimos) or overtly virtuosic passagework.
It takes a high level of baton technique to bring this off well. Riccardo Muti, during his Philadelphia tenure (1980-92), exemplified this species of conductors.
Another path to orchestral greatness is the "feel it as you go" approach, legendarily championed by the mid-century German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, who continues to inspire each subsequent generation of musicians of all kinds. Daniel Barenboim is probably the best-known follower of Furtwängler's brand of spontaneity.
But there's also a decidedly less flashy route to inspired music making, characterized by no-nonsense attention to craft coupled with efficient and disciplined rehearsal practices. Honest and self-effacing conductors will tell you that their most important job is to beat out the time. But of course this task isn't as simple as it seems.
Philadelphians are fortunate to have just such a conductor active in Philadelphia— namely, the Philadelphia Orchestra's interim music director, Charles Dutoit.
Nothing stood out, but….
His concert with the Orchestra last week was a wonderful case in point. Nothing about the performance of Edward Elgar's masterpiece, the "Enigma" Variations, stood out in any particular way— as Dutoit intended. The Orchestra sounded as lush and precise as ever, and the music flowed with a natural sense of grace.
The key to the success of this concert can be summed up in one word; pacing. It's an elusive term but a crucial musical tool.
Paradoxically, pacing works best when the audience notices it least. Dutoit's beat created a pace that was akin to breathing, as opposed to the unvarying tick-tock of a metronome.
The dramatic shape of the score was allowed to lead the pace: quickening as the tension picked up, and easing in the tender moments. The performance included countless fine gradations of tempo, but these were no more noticeable to the audience than would be a slight quickening of a heartbeat.
Yannick's tough act
Sure pacing is also appreciated by an orchestra's musicians. It gives them a sense of confidence in the conductor's leadership that eliminates distractions and affords them the luxury to concentrate on the expressiveness of their playing. At the risk of sounding corny, it allows them to play as if they are one giant instrument.
The relationship between Dutoit and the Philadelphia Orchestra that has been displayed in recent concerts is the result of a long nurturing process. It's the key to true greatness in performance. We can only hope that a similar relationship will develop between the Orchestra and its incoming music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin. But one thing is certain; Yannick has a tough act to follow.