"Moderns" Performers Get Scrutinized

by Barry Drogin

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I've been reviewing Brooklyn Philharmonic concerts for several years, yet I recently noticed that, except for soloists, I have hardly ever discussed the performers; since almost all of the music is new to my ears (over half are New York or world premieres), I usually criticize the composition more than the performance. This year's"Meet the Moderns" theme of "Composer as Performer" suggests to me that concentrating a little more on the performers might be appropriate for once.

The musicians are a mixed bunch. One the one hand, it's obvious that most spend a lot of time on their own learning the music, probably more time than conductor Lukas Foss does, and this is both commendable and appreciated, because it creates the impression of the orchestra as a collection of talented soloists. One the other hand, some appear to be unconcerned about the actual sound they are producing, including such unwanted extra-musical activities as snapping page turns, clattering mutes, and, though I find it hard to believe, even talking on stage. The woodwinds seem to be the worst at this, with the brass a close second, the strings a more staid and serious third, and the percussion varying, depending on the piece and the person. The brass have the most serious intonation and blending problems, and since they often do well, it can't always be the composers' fault. The lower woodwinds have also sounded weak at times.

The strings have more of a personality problem: sometimes they look bored, or sound lifeless. If the percussionists seem to be coming out ahead in this analysis, it's probably because the principal percussionist is Joe Passaro, a serious new music performer who gets absorbed in the performance and is often exciting to watch, and the new music percussion parts tend to be more challenging and interesting than the pre-contemporary literature, so the players probably spend more time working on the "Meet the Moderns" music than on anything else.

Lukas Foss, the conductor and music director, has a charismatic personality that excites the audience whenever he is on stage, and his beat appears to be clear and appropriate for each piece. It is Foss, however, who must take responsibility for the selection and ordering of the music, and it's exceedingly clear that he is aware, come performance time, of which pieces are strong and which are weak. At every "Meet the Moderns" concert at least a third of the pieces are not worth suffering through. Foss obviously knows these pieces are bad because he puts them at the beginning of the program and, if he needs to fill, in the middle of the second half. This way he manages to keep people in the audience until intermission by ending the first half well, keep them from leaving during intermission by scheduling heavyweights in the second half, and, if he can, keep them from leaving during the second half by ending with a bang. Is the repertoire so sparse that he must perform obvious bombs? I'm certainly not against Foss risking time on an obscure composer or two, but doesn't he look at the pieces before scheduling them? Are the more famous contemporary composers given enough New York performances of their larger works?

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Last Updated: August 4, 2007