Gatti's immense talent dampened by acoustics

November 04, 1997|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

In a music review in yesterday's editions of The Sun, an incorrect name was given for the person responsible for the acoustic redesign of the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall. The redesign was done by Christopher Jaffee.

The Sun regrets the error.

Daniele Gatti's concert with the Royal Philharmonic at the Kennedy Center Sunday afternoon was the first chance I have had to hear the acoustics of the center's renovated Concert Hall. About the hall (which was renovated at a cost of $14 million and was closed for nine months), I had a mixed response. About Gatti, the recently appointed music director of the London orchestra, I have an undivided opinion.

This young musician -- Gatti is not yet 36 -- is the biggest conducting talent of his generation. I can't remember being so impressed by a young conductor since I heard the young Claudio Abbado more than 30 years ago. In just two years, Gatti has clearly had a salutary effect upon this orchestra. The winds and brass have a bigger, more rounded sound than one remembers from the orchestra's appearances before Gatti's tenure, and the string playing was richer and more accurate.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

The program was a demanding one: Mahler's gargantuan Fifth Symphony and Schumann's Piano Concerto (with Alicia de Larrocha). The performance of the Mahler was extraordinary. Gatti has the gift -- one rarely accorded to conductors but essential in Mahler -- of making everything sound spontaneous. Climaxes exploded out of nothing but always seemed natural. Tempos were often extreme -- I have never heard the second or third movements taken faster -- but while the music threatened to overwhelm its bounds, Gatti never lost control of his forces.

Everything was carefully shaped without seeming contrived or fussy. There were details in the phantasmagoric second movement that must have been new to many listeners, but the music surged with nervous energy. The subsequent scherzo had a genial lilt, its wonderful pizzicato episodes pointed delicately. Gatti's big-hearted romantic temperament was perfectly suited to the famously dreamy Adagietto. And he made the finale erupt with all its cataclysmic energy, almost miraculously keeping enough in reserve for the symphony's majestic close.

Pianist de Larrocha once observed that most conductors capable of giving superb performances of the fire-eating (and conductor-devouring) dragons of the repertory do not make the best accompanists. Gatti is clearly an exception to that rule. While the 75-year-old pianist is still a great artist, she is not as sure-handed as she was a few years back. Except for an almost comically flat opening solo by the oboe, Gatti and his orchestra accommodated themselves graciously to the pianist's slowish interpretation.

I wish I could be as complimentary about the renovated Concert Hall's sound, which cost $1 million, all of it privately raised. The acoustical re-design was done by Lawrence Kierkegaard, the same acoustician responsible for the continuing acoustical changes in Meyerhoff.

There are always two aspects -- each of them equally important -- to acoustical changes: what the players hear and what the audience hears. Before the Concert Hall's renovation, the musicians on the stage could not hear each other, and what the audience heard was muddied.

The accurate ensemble of the Royal Philharmonic musicians indicates that Kierkegaard has solved the first of these problems with the installation of an acoustical canopy over the formerly high-ceilinged stage.

As far as I and my two companions -- both of them musicians -- are concerned, however, what one hears in the seats (at least those on the orchestra's keyboard side) is as bad as ever. The only change is that it's bad in a different way. The sound may no longer be muddied, but it is as lifeless as if it were pickled in formaldehyde. The upper strings sounded unnaturally amplified, and the hall's mid-range -- particularly notable in what one heard from the cellos in Mahler's Adagietto -- seemed denuded of warmth.

Acoustically speaking, the Kennedy Center's concert hall is still a dog; only the breed has changed.

Pub Date: 11/04/97

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