A Taste of Regime Change At The Bavarian State Opera

Munich, Herkulessaal; January 13, 2020—Regime change is coming to the Bavarian State Opera and its orchestra when artistic director (GMD) Kirill Petrenko and intendant Nikolaus Bachler will leave at the end of the season, to be replaced by the duo of Vladimir Jurowski (for the pit) and Serge Dorny (for the corner office overlooking Munich’s Marstall plaza). While Bachler’s parting might be met with some ambivalence among staff and patrons (although he certainly oversaw the opera house becoming internationally recognized as the arguably finest in the world), just about everyone in Munich and certainly the entire orchestra will be loath to see Petrenko go – him being as extraordinary a conductor as they come these days.

On the 12th, 13th, and 14th of January, meanwhile, audiences had the opportunity to get an orchestral taster of the incoming GMD in the third series of this year’s Bavarian State Orchestra’s Academy Concerts. On the program: local (and global) favorites Mozart and Bruckner. Judging by the crowd’s enthusiastic response, the amuse-gueule struck the crowd as delicious. The flies in the ointment, however, were at least as fascinating. First, in Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante, which hadn’t been played by the orchestra in 11 years when the concertmaster and first violist as soloists (both on regular duty on this occasion) made a sorry mess of things under Zubin Mehta. This time two bona-fide soloists and favorite musicians of mine promised betterment. Isabelle Faust and Antoine Tamestit are sensitive, distinctive artists that stand out from the crowd of slick, PR-honed and agency-pushed performing starlets. They’re the real thing, both in their own way.

But what they were not – at least on this occasion – was a good match. Faust’s slightly forward-pressing musical gesture and light tone, through which a slight electrical current seems to run at all times, never jibed with the darkly voluminous, rising-from-nowhere-on-every-entry tone of Tamestit, who appeared to have re-tuned his instrument (as, granted, the score indicates) to achieve – quite unnecessarily – more volume. The resulting push/pull and occasional tonal oddity made the work less light and less uplifting than it should have been, and led to a strange, high-quality disappointment.

If only Bruckner’s Third (1877 version) had been better. But Jurowski, for all his concern about how the work comes across to the audience, did not manage to convey a coherent vision or particularly strong interpretation. When the orchestra played well (which it generally did) and when it was together (which it wasn’t always), the music sounded excellent. The Scherzo, specifically, coming out of a slightly rushed (certainly not “feierlich”) Adagio and leading into a brisk Finale with plenty of weight and momentum, was incense-free, dynamic, and had plenty of zip.

What brought the performance down, however, were some very concerning ensemble issues where especially the first and second violins – antiphonally seated – were a devastating smidgen apart on a few occasions in the second and fourth movements, to the point where the symphony seemed to be coming apart entirely. Perhaps this is the kind of thing that happens, if players don’t bother to look at the conductor. Jurowski’s biggest failing might just be that he isn’t Petrenko. If that means that he has a hard time holding sway over the orchestra, it might explain the troubling undercurrent of this evening. One can only hope that it doesn’t spell out trouble ahead. The audience, in any case, lapped it up and didn’t let on if they thought anything was amiss. Perhaps Jurowski is right, after all, in that the surface and the audience is what matters, and not so much the music.