One of the joys with a visiting orchestra is to experience new sonorities—to be swept richly downward, perhaps, to unanticipated string depths—to hear brass playing grainier or more golden than you thought possible in the hall—or wind passages lighter and more personal than you might have dreamed. More importantly, you come to sense the ensemble's psychology, as individual in its way as the conductor's. Listen to an orchestra like the Mariinsky, and you experience shivers of delight. How Russian it seems!
My path to an enthusiastic appreciation of Daniel Barenboim’s music-making has, I confess, been a long one. In his early years, I found his willed seriousness, both as a pianist and as a conductor, off-putting. The effect was not only rather dour, but smacked of affectation as well. My conversion began with some of his more recent Liszt orchestral recordings and became definitive in the magnificent Tristan he conducted at the Met in autumn of 2008. This is not to say that I am any less aware of the wilfulness of his approach to music. When he performs he makes specific decisions about his overall interpretation as well as the execution of the smaller units, and the listener is always aware that she or he is hearing an interpretation. Even in seemingly spontaneous outbursts, there is an element of arbitrariness. The most totally convincing Barenboim performance I have heard in the past was that Tristan.
Here we are, a hundred years later, and so much of Claude Debussy's music still beguiles with its freshness! As Michael Tilson Thomas led the San Francisco Symphony through an accomplished performance of Jeux last Sunday, I was reminded how much the daily bread of sound in our own lives comes from Debussy's late style.