I couldn’t have been more eager to hear Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra on their return visit to Boston, part of an American tour celebrating the 25th anniversary of the “Peaceful Revolution” that began in Leipzig in October 1989 and a month later led to the fall of the Berlin wall. Chailly continues to be one of most significant and enriching conductors of our time, and it was profoundly frustrating that, in January of 2012, heart problems prevented him from making his long overdue BSO debut (conducting, among other things, Stravinsky’s Sacre du printemps). This cancellation also put him out of the running as a possible replacement for James Levine as BSO music director. There was no way the BSO would risk hiring another music director with health problems. And yet, apparently recovered, here he was in Boston.
Rocky road. Rebuilding an orchestra is one of the most complex tasks imaginable, requiring delicate negotiations as well as sometimes abrupt firings, a soothing hand with the musicians' pride but also a new broom to sweep out the old dust. Riccardo Chailly, who at 69 is an eminence on the podium, set out to renew the venerable Leipzig Gewandhaus, historically the orchestra of Mendelssohn. Languishing behind the Iron Curtain after World War II did them no good, however, and where the Dresden Staatskapelle managed miraculously to keep up world-class standards, the Leipzigers weren't so lucky. I didn't hear them during their long dark period, but the recordings that came West were nothing special, except in Mendelssohn.
A couple of years ago the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and conductor Riccardo Chailly visited Boston and gave a wonderful Symphony Hall concert of Richard Strauss tone poems. The orchestra, with a lot of young members, played splendidly, with great group spirit. And Chailly gave extraordinary purpose and meaning to the music. He and the orchestra under his leadership showed care and commitment with every bar, every note, and fashioned each piece into a compelling organic whole. Wow! one felt. Friends of mine in New York heard the same program a week later there and had much the same reaction.
The visit of the Leipzig Gewandhaus brings to a close the series of concerts by the great central European orchestras in Carnegie Hall. (Only the Dresdener Staatskapelle was lacking, and they are scheduled to appear next season.) It is a unique pleasure to hear a comprehensive series of these great ensembles in one hall, which also happens to possess one of the finest acoustics in the world. It is also a familiar one to me, since I have been attending concerts at Carnegie since childhood, when the New York Philharmonic still played there. The restoration has impaired its full glory somewhat, but I've grown used to the sound as it is—a bit too bright, but capable of embracing the grandest orchestral tutti and projecting the finest detail of a solo instrument up to the rafters. As an environment for comparison, only Symphony Hall in Boston can rival it, but the program of visiting orchestras in Boston has sadly diminished over the years. Only the Berlin Philharmonic and the Leipzig Gewandhaus have played in Boston this season. (I was only recently reminiscing with a friend about how we used to hear Cleveland and other great American orchestras, as well as Vienna and Berlin in Symphony Hall more or less annually.)
Riccardo Chailly, not only one of the great conductors of our time, but one of an even smaller group who have exercised a truly formative influence on contemporary musical life through his championship of twentieth and twenty-first century music—through his many recordings, most of them for Decca, which he has produced since the beginnings of his career in the late 1970s, and through his long tenure as chief conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam (1988-2004), and now, since 2005, as Kapellmeister of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. If you survey the most prominent music publications, you will find many accolades, "artist of the year," "best recording," etc., and you will find many of his recordings recommended as the best available or the "recommended choice." His fresh, individual interpretations, always based on a close study of the score, as well as his close relationship with a single recording company over many years, have resulted in recordings in which his ideas and the sound of his orchestras and their halls are communicated with exceptional vividness and presence.