Why have I-and so many of my musical friends-stopped going regularly to symphony concerts, preferring opera, chamber music, or recitals to what used to be the most commanding of classical attractions? One explanation was offered a number of years ago by Leonard Bernstein, who remarked that the symphony had ceased to dominate orchestral writing because we live in an age that no longer values the form’s guiding idea of “nobility.” Another reason has to do with the symphony’s grand-scale earnestness. These days, irony and confession have become our preferred modes of discourse-modes better exploited by small ensembles, solo instrumentalists and the human voice. After Haydn, wit largely vanished from symphonic writing. (Although humor has made a comeback, of sorts, in works by the century’s two most popular symphonists-mordant Mahler and sardonic Shostakovich.) A third and perhaps most telling reason for the symphony’s decline may be that it demands a belief in community-humanity with a capital H-to which we no longer aspire. As the pressures of globalization grow more acute, so does our need to cultivate smaller enclosures, to seek out intimacy.
And yet when I hear, as I recently did at Avery Fisher Hall, an organization like the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra led by a conductor like Sir Simon Rattle, I am reminded that there are few experiences, in or out of the concert hall, more powerful than a great performance of a great symphony. The saga of how, beginning in 1980, this angelic-looking, mop-haired maestro turned a deeply provincial English orchestra into one of the world’s most admired ensembles is, of course, the orchestra-construction story of our time-Britain’s answer to what George Szell achieved in a similar setting with the Cleveland Orchestra a generation earlier. Making their New York debut, the Birmingham players and their leader (who, this fall, is stepping down after 18 years) revealed that the vibrancy heard on their many compact disks for EMI was only a taste of what they are like in person.
There have been conductors who’ve gone for the sound (Herbert von Karajan); conductors who’ve gone for the emotion (Bernstein); conductors who’ve gone for the score (Szell); conductors who’ve gone for the soul (Wilhelm Furtwängler). Mr. Rattle goes for the sheer excitement of communication. He does not seem to me a big-picture conductor, unveiling the work as if it were some pre-envisioned grand design. Nor is he overly fastidious about detail. (His violins lacked sheen at times, and there was some rough playing in the horns.) He is a conductor concerned with getting the most out of every moment. And, by means of what must be the most goading, gleeful and graceful body language of any conductor on today’s podiums, he makes the business of playing music sound like the best conversation in the world.
His programming was at once familiar, daring and calculated to show the Birmingham in all its colors. Sunday afternoon consisted of three works composed, astonishingly enough, roughly 20 years apart: a dance suite from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s tragédie lyrique , “Les Boréades,” in which the courtly groundwork for the great age of 18th-century classicism was, as it were, laid immaculately bare; Haydn’s Symphony No. 86 in D major, the apotheosis of the composer’s unrivaled skill at juggling high seriousness with high spirits; and Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony, the great bridge between the elegance of the Enlightenment and the heroic fervor of Romanticism. As with all truly satisfying concerts, one was grateful as much for the passing beauties-the translucent Beethoven, in particular, seemed literally to be dancing straight out of the composer’s imagination-as for one’s accumulating sense of illumination. Here was a lesson in classical varieties and verities that would have profited and delighted any schoolchild whose only previous musical tutors were Ice Cube and Snoop Doggy Dogg.
The following night, Mr. Rattle began with the Third Symphony by the contemporary British composer Oliver Knussen, an exuberant exercise in orchestral coloration, which splattered vividly, if not terribly meaningfully, in the air. (It was received rather grimly-which prompted Mr. Rattle to remark unruefully during the intermission, “Well, that one received what we call a crouching ovation.”)
The second half was devoted to what has become obligatory for orchestras visiting New York-a Mahler symphony, in this case the not-often-played Seventh. Resistant as I am to Mahler-mania, I love this odd-man-out in the Mahler canon for its wonderful obliquities (which arrive from some other world, without a shred of Mahlerian schmaltz), its spectral serenades, its concluding crazy revelry. Mr. Rattle’s hyper-expressive body and face (such as I could see it, from my seat in a side balcony) seemed possessed by this marvelously nutty stuff, and his forces were ablaze with responsiveness. This was Mahler in-your-face, and if some of it was flung rather rudely, one welcomed every bit of it. After one nakedly smudged horn entrance, I studied Mr. Rattle’s face for the slightest frown, the slightest wince. If anything, his expression became even more rapturous, in full confidence of his Pied Piper’s ability to take us wherever he wanted us to go, knowing that we would follow, no matter how stony the path.
The Birmingham’s triumph was all the more vivid to me when, a few nights later, I found myself in the same hall, mired in the Seventh Symphony of Shostakovich, the so-called “Leningrad” Symphony, as played by the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Kurt Masur. I have always felt that there was something slightly cheesy about this politically charged work, whose wartime premiere put Shostakovich on the cover of Time . Scholars still aren’t sure whether its strident ferocities were meant to be anti-Hitler, anti-Stalin, or both, but played with the right swagger and edgy wistfulness, it can hold its grip for the nearly 80 minutes it lasts. In Mr. Masur’s hands, it didn’t grip.
We are up against a conundrum: Why-when the orchestra played the notes as brilliantly as this one, when the balance was impeccable, the rhythms crisp, the climaxes mighty and the pianissimos ravishing-did I find (as I often do at the Philharmonic) my mind wandering, waiting for the end? Is it too much control on Mr. Masur’s part? Too much the sense that all we’re hearing is the unfolding of the music without enough of the mystery behind the music? Or is it that what’s missing is a degree of passion in the engagement between the conductor and his musicians, some spirit absent from the chemistry? Whatever the problem was, I can only say that at Mr. Masur’s and the Philharmonic’s Shostakovich, I felt superb competence at work; at Mr. Rattle’s and the Birmingham’s Mahler, it was palpable joy.