Philharmonic tries out new conductor

The Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic auditioned its second music director “candidate” of the season Friday night at Carnegie Music Hall in a program that included Mozart’s overture to The Magic Flute, Sibelius’ “Violin Concerto in D minor, Opus 47,” and Shostakovich’s “Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Opus 47.” After his lukewarm and messy performance, though, David Loebel might as well move on — it’s unlikely he will be the next music director.

Loebel’s most obvious flaw is his bizarre presence on the podium. Apparently Loebel’s parents never taught him any manners, because when he cues players to come in, he points and jabs at them with his index finger. When he wants them to play louder, he just shakes his fist at them. He has some strange leaps in his repertoire as well that are difficult to recreate in words for those who missed the concert. But, to attempt, sometimes it looked like he was casting a fishing line as far as he could off the back of a boat.

It’s superficial, though, only to comment on the ugliness of Loebel’s conducting. Some conductors have an unconventional presence on the podium, but they can be forgiven in the name of musicality if those gestures motivate the musicians.

However, Loebel’s cues were ineffective and his cutoffs — when he didn’t leave a section hanging — were perfunctory and sometimes abrupt. The beginning of the Mozart overture was simply awkward and the balance was off, and the beginning of the Shostakovich symphony, which is extremely demonstrative with dotted rhythms and a jagged line made up of large leaps, was more tentative than disciplined.

Overall, Loebel was too passive and he didn’t communicate effectively through his baton. Numerous times he pointed at a section to start playing, but after that, his index finger remained protruded (if it didn’t prod more), but he didn’t communicate anything else.
Loebel was a far cry from the first music director candidate, Steven Smith, who conducted a program that included Mozart’s overture to Don Giovanni, Bartók’s “Concerto for Orchestra,” and Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto in September. While Smith had a few problems (see the review online, “Quest for a new conductor,” Sept. 22), he drew refined and elegant playing from the orchestra in the Mozart, drama and complex emotion in the Rachmaninoff, and virtuosity in the Bartók. By comparison, Loebel’s Mozart was clunky, and his Sibelius bland.

Loebel’s choice of tempi often didn’t help matters, and he insisted on keeping a steady tempo, even when the music began to surge and demanded a faster tempo, as in parts of the fourth movement of the Shostakovich. The music at times didn’t sit right in the tempo; the music was too large for the amount of time for it to be played. Loebel passed over an incredible number of details, and it wasn’t uncommon to see him simply tracing out a four pattern in the air with his baton, indicating only time and no expressive information.

The bright point of the concert was the Sibelius violin concerto, played by the immensely talented Emma Steele, a student of faculty member Cyrus Forough. Just a first-year, Steele is already concertmaster of the philharmonic.

At the beginning of the Sibelius concerto, when the violin has a long melody high in the instrument’s register, Steele’s playing was so excellent, her bowing so smooth, her intonation so perfect, that it was just beautiful, golden sound — there was no evidence of the violin’s synthetic metal strings, or of the coarse hair of the bow, and no evidence of human imperfection in those early moments. Her playing was of the utmost quality throughout the concerto, and she was clearly confident.

Rather than feeling out that high note after making a large leap to it as many violinists do, she trusted herself and knew the note would be in tune, and it was. Her intonation was always dead-on, and when she played in octaves, they sounded perfect. There were a handful of places where the ensemble between Steele and the orchestra went out of sync, but generally her playing was excellent.

While many young violinists have excellent technique but not much musicality, Steele had both. Her first movement was dark, and her third movement playful. In particular, she added kinetic energy and excitement to the bouncy opening theme of the third movement with her bowing.

Steele stole the show in the Sibelius. Any time she was silent, you would find yourself impatiently awaiting her return. The orchestra was ragged, and Loebel didn’t match Steele and, if anything, held her back with tepid accompaniment.

Loebel has had an impressive career, though, and he’s appeared with major American orchestras including the Chicago and San Francisco symphony orchestras, the Minnesota and Philadelphia orchestras, and many others.

So, Loebel might actually be a decent conductor, but Friday was not his day. Perhaps the orchestra was distracted by Halloween and would rather have been wearing wolverine and vampire costumes than wearing tuxedos and playing classical music. However, it’s the conductor’s task to bring his enthusiasm to a piece and inspire the orchestra.

Of the two candidates so far, Smith has shown he can drive the Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic to greater heights. He drew refined and professional playing from the same orchestra that sounded ragged under Loebel. Watch for more candidates to appear with the orchestra next semester.