Tag Archives: esa Peka Salonen

The Great Orchestral Conductors I Have Heard

I have cohabitated with one of the best symphonic orchestras in the country, San Francisco, for decades. They have made it possible for me to hear many of the best conductors, either visiting ones or music directors (two of my top nine).

Herbert Blomstedt (1927-) was underappreciated here [San Francisco, 1985-95] and criticized for not programming enough new American music, though he premiered work by John Adams and Charles Wuorenin and programed music by Roger Sessions. Brahms and Bruckner are particular Blomstedt strengths. The most transcendent experience I recall of his ten-year tenure was a concert performance of “Fidelio.” (B kept trying to inflict work by Reger on SF audiences.)


Blomstedt in Dresden, 2005, photo by Alexander Böhm)

Pierre Boulez was an amazing conductor of Bartók and Mahler et al. I heard him lead the Cleveland Orchestra in “Rite of Spring”, the first time I heard it live. New York underappreciated him (though I don’t think that Cleveland did). I think Zubin Mehta and Alan Gilbert have been apt punishments of New York Philharmonic philistines.

Charles Dutoit, when allowed to conduct, was especially great with Berlioz, Debussy, Fauré, Franck, Ravel,and Stravinsky—indeed most French and Russian music. (The last concert of his I heard, in LA, included a ravishing Enigma Variations.) That he was a womanizer was known to most (as were James Levine’s diddlings of black boys).

Erich Leinsdorf was underappreciated in Boston (three hundred years of Seiji Ozawa there seems fitting karmic penalty!). I remember a mesmerizing performance of the “Brahms 5th (Schoenberg’s transcription) here and a more than compelling Brahms 3rd symphony in Prague. I love his Prokofiev symphonies and Cosi fan Tutti with Leontyne Price.

James Levine is familiar from many Met telecasts. He brought its orchestra here with the great Welsh soprano Margaret Price (whose remark that Mozart feels good in the throat I’ll always remember). In addition to her rendition of the 4 Last Songs, the program included Strauss’s “Don Quixote.”

I don’t recall what I heard Ricardo Muti perform here with the Philadelphia Orchestra, though I was impressed, as I am by many of his recordings, especially of Verdi. I am also impressed at the commitment he made to the Chicago Symphony, the best orchestra in this hemisphere.

(photo by Andreas Praefcke, Muti in Salzburg, 2008)

Eugene Ormandy left warm feelings in Minneapolis before his long tenure in Philadelphia. His recording of Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” was what Logan Zahn, the conductor of my high school orchestra aspired to. Ormandy premiered astringent Shostakovich. His recording of the Berlioz Requiem opened romantic music to me. I heard him conduct the SFS in a program of the Brahms symphony 2, Prelude to the afternoon of a faun, and La mer.

Esa Peka Salonen, the incoming music director here, is all but condemned to conduct Finnish music. I don’t remember which Sibelius works I’ve heard him lead, along with his own.

Georg Solti’s biggest accomplishment was his recording of the Ring. I think that the recording he made of the Verdi Requiem with the VIenna Philharmonic, Joan Sutherland, Marilyn Horne, Luciano Pavarroti, and Martti Tavela is the greatest recording ever. I also love his recordings of “The Damnation of Faust” and of fellow-Hungarians Bartók and Kodalay. (Did he record any Szymanowski?) I think he played the Shostakovich 5th and Mendelsohn 4th (Italian) when he guest-conducted the SFS not long before his death. Joshua Kosman called Solti “the last of old-school [Promethean autocrat] maestros.” Calling attention to “the marked by ferocious intensity, slashing attacks and powerful, larger-than-life sonic outbursts

And some very good ones

I thought Leonard Bernstein performances (the only time I heard him live was rehearsing Marilyn Horne’s Carmen at the Met) were too much about him, a penchant shared to a lesser extent by Michael Tilson Thomas. When MTT is on, he’s on. I especially remember a thrilling performance of Janacek’s “Glaglolgtic Mass” from before he was music director. I like his Copland but resent his foisting “Suntreader” on SF audiences multiple time and not programming Lou Harrison since his death (or Virgil Thompson or Karol Szymanowski or Francis Poulenc or Darius Milhaud ever that I remember!)

I think Gustavo Dudamel, another Bernstein admirer without the personal history MTT has, overrated, though I liked an all-Argentine program (highlighted by Angel Romero doing a concerto by Lalo Schiffrin) at the Hollywood Bowl and his support for Christine Brewer’s rendition of the Four Last Songs in Disney Hall (my first visit there, before GD was LA music director). I don’t remember what he performed here before becoming LA music director….

I’ve heard (Sir) Simon Rattle conduct Birmingham, and Berlin, orchestras (he was music director of both ensembles). His performances of his specialties, Britten and Mahler, underwhelm me. I liked the Berg 3 Pieces an Schoneberg 5 in his performance, though.

Daniel Barenboim was a great pianist and is a near-great conductor (way better than Ashkenazy, Domingo, or Rostropovish on the podium). He introduced me to Bruckner with the Chicago Orchestra’s performance of the Bruckner 9th.

Berkeley-born Kent Nagano’s reputation seems in some eclipse. I remember Messiaen coming to Davies to hear him conduct the Berkeley Symphone (Illuminations of the Beyond, I think) and Elliot Carter to hear him and John Browning’s Barber? (I”Interventions for Piano and Orchestra?) And a rare performance of the insane Busoni piano concerto. He is music director in Hamburg and Montréal.

Neither SFS guest conductors James Conlon (music director of the LA Opera) nor Krystof Urbanski (born in 1982, music director of the Indianapolis Symphony, principal guest conductor of the Tokyo Symphony) has ever disappointed me. Nor has James Gaffigan, who was associate conductor here from 2003 to 2006 and is chief conductor in Lucerne).

I got to chat with long-time and much-recorded Baltimore Symphony (1985-98) and Zurich’s Tonhalle (1995-2014) David Zinman after the première of George Perle’s (still unrecorded?) second piano concerto. His recording of the Górecki 3rd symphony with soprano Dawn Upshaw must be the best-selling recording of 20th-century concert music!

I only heard Witold Lutoslawski conduct Lutoslawski, though I had dinner with him (and many other people). I found him genial, though a greater composer than a conductor.

I don’t recall hearing Kurt Masur (music director of the New York Philharmonic, 1991-2002) conduct live. He was quite probably among the great ones, as Carlo Maria Giulini (music director ot the LA Philharmonic, 1978-84, of La Scala 1953-58), and Claudio Abbado certainly were.

The conductor I most revere on disc (especially his Beethoven), but am too young to have heard live, is Otto Klemperer. I’d liked to have heard Dmitri Mitropoulos, Fritz Reiner, George Szell, Bruno Walter… and Mahler conduct, too! Mahler led the NY Phil from 1909 to 1911, so I missed him by a long stretch!

[Gary Bukovnik, who has a phenomenal memory of concert programs, helped me remember specifics of what we heard, including in Prague.]

©2019, Stephen O. Murray