As one of our occasional forays over to the BSO these days, the partner unit and I caught Beethoven's Missa Solemnis on Saturday night, because we're big fans of Christine Brewer, one of the soloists.
And what can I say but - hoo, boy. This was a disaster for the history books; we were there on a night that will no doubt live in artistic infamy. There's a looong debate going on over at the Musical Intelligencer right now over just precisely how bad it really was, but there's no denying it was way bad. The sopranos in the chorus got shrieky (under the admittedly constant strain of the piece) and hit a few wrong notes here and there (although again, to be fair, the rest of the chorus stayed pretty focused), the soloists - a star line-up - seemed to be on different stylistic planets (and, standing at the back of the stage, struggled to achieve clear vocal profiles), and the orchestral playing hadn't really been shaped or interpreted at all. And I mean not at all. Missa Solemnis has a tendency toward mystical drift, but this one didn't even drift; it just sank. There was one good violin solo from the concertmaster. That was it. I almost fell asleep, while my partner fumed.
So how did this Missa miss the mark so badly? Well, as you may have heard, conductor Kurt Masur (who is 84) backed out of the assignment, citing health issues, at the last minute - indeed, just after rehearsals had begun. Caught in a bind, BSO management gave the concert over to John Oliver, their long-time chorus master (who had already prepped the chorale). Oliver has my sympathy, but I can't pretend he pulled the concert together - or even tried to. Indeed, on Saturday night he did little more than keep time; he offered few, if any, cues to his performers. Everybody was on their own. Including the audience.
I don't really blame him, however. This was a disaster waiting to happen. Masur is only the latest in a line of major talents who have pulled out of BSO engagements (before Masur, maestros Andris Nelsons and Riccardo Chailly canceled, who were of course being considered as replacements for James Levine, who canceled out of everything last spring). Not all of these no-shows have been aging, over-the-hill maestros, it's true (youngsters can get sick, or have babies) - but given the BSO's predilection for elder statesmen like Masur, it's now beyond obvious that they should always have a back-up plan whenever they hire one.
For John Oliver, God bless him, is just not an orchestral conductor; that much was obvious. Indeed, it's hard for me to believe that with any real artistic director in place, this could have been allowed to happen. And to put it bluntly, the BSO does owe its patrons, in the inevitable case of cancellation, something like a best-faith attempt at a fair trade; they at least owe their audience a real orchestral conductor.
What made the evening vaguely alarming was the incipient sense that it represented the BSO in free fall. I predicted from the beginning that the Levine regime would end badly - but I never guessed it would end this badly, with conductors canceling left and right and the orchestra basically in disarray. The only hope I have is that this Missa represents rock bottom for the symphony. Honestly, there's no where to go but up.