Quest for a new conductor

The Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic gave its first concert of the 2008 season with a program of Mozart, Bartók, and Rachmaninoff last Wednesday at Carnegie Hall.

Steven Smith, music director of the Sante Fe Symphony Orchestra & Chorus and a former assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, was the guest conductor. He is the first guest conductor in an entire season of guest conductors in the running for the permanent position of music director. The School of Music is conducting a year-long search to replace Juan Pablo Izquierdo, who was the orchestra’s leader for 17 years before his retirement last season.

Smith did lots of talking to the School of Music throughout his week here putting the concert together, but probably the most important is how he communicated musically, with his baton.

Smith and the other guest conductors must conduct a piece by Mozart, a piece for a soloist and orchestra, and a 20th-century work. Smith selected the dramatic overture to Don Giovanni and Bartók’s virtuosic “Concerto for Orchestra” as his 20th century work. He was given Rachmaninoff’s dark “Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30,” with soloist Samuel Oram, a 2008 School of Music graduate and winner of the school’s annual concerto competition.

Smith’s Don Giovanni overture, which began the concert, was enthralling. It took only seconds and a few notes for Smith to transport the audience to the world of the opera and establish its emotional landscape. The orchestra’s playing was very detailed and precise but also elegant and flowing. Smith shaped the lines and melodies beautifully.

Several conductors have famously confessed that, for them, Mozart is the most difficult composer to conduct. Mozart used the same notes and same materials as other composers of the day, but he was able to create much more drama and emotion than those others. So it is the challenge of the conductor to take Mozart’s simple materials and create a universe of meaning, something that Smith did wonderfully.

Mozart was followed by Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto, made popularly famous by the film Shine, in which the piece pushes the film’s character, David Helfgott, over the edge and into a mental breakdown. The School of Music’s own Samuel Oram was clearly the master of this piece. While his playing was a bit heavy-handed, it was the price Oram paid for always keeping the line intact, a virtue in itself, prized among musicians. Oram kept the melody clear and the architecture of the music was always apparent.

Despite the later complexity, the opening of Rachmaninoff’s concerto is a simple melody reminiscent of a Russian chant. The melody is monophonic, meaning there is no counterpoint, just some quiet orchestral accompaniment. As in Mozart, the interpretation of this melody comes in the minuscule details and must be absolutely refined. Oram here wasn’t particularly interesting, and was shown up by Smith, who imbued that melody with dark passion when the orchestra played it.

The concert ended with Bartók’s challenging “Concerto for Orchestra,” in which the Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic reached a high level of achievement.

The piece is challenging technically and in terms of ensemble; it is difficult for multiple players to stay together in the whirlwind of notes that is the perpetually moving fifth movement. But it is hard for the conductor, too. Programming such a demanding piece when you are auditioning for a job is risky. If you pull it off well, you are brilliant. If not, you look mediocre.

Smith came off somewhere in between — he had his brilliant moments, particularly in the third movement, but he had his confused moments as well.

Bartók’s piece, especially the first movement, is a bit disjointed and has a lot of awkward phrasing that definitely showed in Wednesday night’s performance.

In all of the difficulty of putting the piece together and holding it together during the concert, Smith and the orchestra seemed to forget to enjoy it. Plus, this is later Bartók, the Bartók of the mellow third piano concerto and gypsy-sounding second violin concerto. The “Concerto for Orchestra” is full of folk melodies from Eastern Europe. The melody that opens the whole piece did not have as much earthiness and had none of the feelings that must have engulfed Bartók, who had been driven by his conscience to leave his status as a national icon in a Nazi-dominated Hungary and come to the United States, where he fell into obscurity and financial destitution. The second movement, which opens with kind of a jaunty melody played in the bassoons, did not have the kind of swagger needed.

Smith’s fifth movement was a little wide of the mark as well. In the movement, the strings take off flying with fast notes, on which Smith focused. However, it is the rhythmic timpani line underneath and the off-beat exclamations from the winds that are important.

Overall, Smith drew some fine playing out of the Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic, and he set a high standard for the would-be Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic music directors. The level of conducting talent the orchestra is attracting in its conductor search is a testament of how good this orchestra really is, and hopefully they will find a conductor to match.