Hard to figure out how the Berlin Philharmonic charmed the ears off Londoners this week
London's classical music writers have had a wonderful week attending a series of concerts given by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and its music director, Simon Rattle.
In a rambling essay in today's Observer magazine in the Guardian, Fona Maddocks tries -- and fails -- to explain the secret behind the famed orchestra's glorious sound. But she raised one point that made me think about institutions versus traditions.
With so many thousands of words and hundreds of ecstatic adjectives applied to the Berlin Philharmonic this week, we still need to ask that basic question: what's its secret? Even Rattle admits finding it hard to say. Speaking on Radio 4's Today programme, he admitted "it's a mystery", adding that orchestras may change their clothes – the personnel – but the body remains the same.
That last sentence left me wondering about tradition in music -- how, in Persian or Chinese or Western or any other musical culture, master passes on a way of thinking and a way of doing. There is evolution and change, but it is gradual and barely noticeable until well after it has happened.
On the flip side, though, I think a lot of people begin to confuse working traditions with institutions after a while. And any symphony orchestra is, in a practical, everyday sense, no more than the sum of its current music director and members. Change music directors and you really can change the sound and feel and mood of an orchestra.
I catch about half of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra's programmes every season and continue to notice a wide disparity in sound, depending on the conductor.
So, the personnel are more than just clothes. But, if I want to keep that simile going, perhaps we should admit, too, that, in the case of orchestras, the clothes make the man.
The music clip I thought would go well with this is the all-string Metamorphosen by Richard Strauss. The strings are what need the most care and affection in a symphony orchestra -- and here are the gorgeous results from a 1978 RCA recording made at the Scottish Rite Cathedral by the Philadelphia Orchestra and conductor Eugene Ormandy: