My Musical Career – Part Fifty-Two

The Year 1996 – Continued

An omission

I was reminded by a former colleague of mine who perused the last blog post that I had omitted mention of the concerts that the orchestra performed during the Spring of 1996 under the direction of Marek Janowski. Normally, I am very good with remembering these things, and I really had no excuse as I did mention them in my journal for that period. It was omission on my part, and one which I will do my best to correct.
The concerts took place on the 15th and 16th of February, and Marek Janowski programmed music of two composers: Alban Berg, and Franz Schubert. Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra and the Suite from “Wozzeck” opened the program, and both concluded with Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C major, the “Great.” How I could have forgotten such a program is a little surprising, as all of these works are among my favorites. Marek Janowski has made some fine recordings over the years and is a conductor or international renown. I remember him as being extremely business-like, and the results he achieved with the orchestra were gratifying.
He was not a “showy” conductor, but one who got results by knowledge of the score and a good rehearsal technique. All of the works received first-rate performances. The Schubert in particular was well done. That was the only occasion that I worked with him, but I understand from my ex-colleagues that he has been back on several occasions after my departure from the orchestra and has even recorded with them. In any case, I atone for that omission.

Corigliano and Mozart

Just a few weeks later, Jesus Lopez-Cobos, who was conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra at this time, conducted a pair of concerts devoted to two works. Each work was larger-than-life, and the first half was devoted to John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1; the second half was devoted to Mozart’s Mass in C minor, The Great“. The Corigliano is scored for a very large orchestra, and if I am not mistaken, the timpani part called for two players and both Trygve and I were kept busy. It is an interesting work, and the performances of it were excellent, as were the performances of the Mozart; overall, another interesting and rewarding week. Lopez-Cobos was a fine conductor, much in the manner of Janowski – businesslike in his approach and thoroughly knowledgeable in the music.
The concerts during the period were a good build-up to Mariss Jansons’ next appearances – which were to be the first of1996 – in April. These were a pair of concert performances of Puccini’s La Boheme. During the week leading up to the performances, the orchestra and Jansons were scheduled to go and perform a test-recording session in a venue other than the Konserthus. This was a way of looking for an alternative to recording in that acoustically challenged venue. Both were eagerly-awaited opportunities; neither panned out quite the way we expected.

A New Recording Venue?

It was no secret that the Oslo Konserthus was not the best venue for recording, due mainly to the less than stellar acoustics. It has been said by architect Louis Sullivan, “Form follows function.” Well, in the case of the Konserthus, this is not the case. Many people believe that the he best shape for a concert hall is that of a shoe-box, and such halls as Boston’s Symphony Hall, Vienna’s Musikkverien, and St. Peters burg’s hall bear this out. Each hall has acoustics that are superb, and having played in Boston and Vienna, I can confirm that the acoustics in these halls are superb. It is very easy to hear each other on the stages, and the balance of the orchestra in the hall is superior, from bass to treble. Not so in Oslo. As I have noted in earlier blog posts, the shape of the hall is that of a prism, and there is no proscenium. There is a large choral area behind the orchestra (which is used for public seating when there is no chorus). The sound goes up and not out, and the treble and mid-range frequencies are favored to the detriment of the bass.
Since I left in 1998, there have been efforts to improve the acoustics with the use of reflectors and other media, and while these have helped to a point, the situation remains largely unchanged. This was a problem for Mariss and the recording teams and in the end was a source of frustration. It was decided to try to record the orchestra in a venue other than the Konserthus, and a church not far from Oslo, Lommedalen kirke (church), was selected. I can to this day still see the church and its interior in my mind, and I was hoping that the experiment would be successful. (Incidentally, some months later, I returned to Lommedalen church with the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra to record music of Lutoslawski under the direction of Daniel Harding.)
In any case, we traveled up to the church and set up for a single three-hour session on a day just after Mariss returned from his sabbatical. The repertoire selected for the session was a series of short orchestral pieces that would eventually be released under the title World Encores by EMI. Our producer, John Fraser, was on hand and he and his engineer handled the recording aspects. Mariss worked hard as was his wont, and we played through and recorded all of the encores. The session proceeded smoothly, and from what I heard, I thought the sound was excellent. However, this was a one-off session, and the results apparently were not deemed good enough to repeat the experiment or proceed further. Oslo Konserthus remained our recording venue for the rest of my tenure, and as it continues to this day.

A Great Masterclass and….A Huge Shock

Just after this experiment, we all proceeded with our normal activities. For me, in addition to taking part for the next concert series in our spring season- the long-anticipated concert performances of Puccini’s La Boheme– I was involved in arrangements for hosting Sal Rabbio, at the time timpanist of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and who was coming to give a three-day master class at the Norwegian State Music Academy in Oslo. Sal and I had corresponded over the years and he had attended our concerts in Detroit in 1987 and visited me in Ann Arbor when I took delivery of my cable timpani. I had long admired his playing and with the help of Professor Kjell Sampkopf, invited him to give a masterclass much like the one that Cloyd Duff had given in Oslo back in 1992. Sal gave an extremely interesting class, which took place over a period of three days during this period. At the end of it, he had the opportunity to attend the dress rehearsal of La Boheme, which he enjoyed immensely. At the end of it, he came up and said to me “Andy, this was great. But I am a bit worried about your conductor. He looks like he is working too hard. I’m afraid he’ll have a heart attack.” As things turned out, Sal’s comment proved prophetic.
The first performance took place the day just after Sal left down, and things were going swimmingly. Mariss had rehearsed everything to a fare-thee-well, as was his custom. Other than noticing that he looked a bit tired, I noticed nothing unusual. None of us in the orchestra did; Mariss always worked himself hard, so it did not seem out of the ordinary.
The performance, as I noted, proceeded without incident and all was well until about eight minutes before the end of Act IV. At that point, Mariss started to sag towards the floor, while still beating time. Our concertmaster and his assistant caught him before he hit the floor and got him off the stage. Needless to say, we stopped playing and there was consternation in the concert hall, both on stage and among the audience. fter a few minutes, it was announced the conductor had been taken ill and the performance would not be resuming. After being taken to Ulleval Sykehus, the news came that Mariss had had a very serious heart attack. Quick action on the part of his doctor, who happened to be in the audience, and other medical personnel at the hospital saved his life.
Needless to say we were all in shock. We really shouldn’t have been, as Mariss always gave 100 percent of himself whatever he undertook. In retrospect, I am surprised that this hadn’t happened earlier. Nonetheless, it was still a huge jolt to us in the orchestra. We were relieved to learn that he was alive and under treatment before we left the building, and the administration was very fortunate that conductor Klaus Weise was able to step in and conduct the second performance the next day. As a matter of fact, he flew into Oslo the day of the second concert and arrived at the hotel at five o’clock p.m.; he stopped at the hotel long enough to drop off his suitcase, and by six that evening he was in the Konserthus running through the second act of La Boheme with the assembled chorus, orchestra and soloists. The performance was a great success.
The remainder of the spring season and all other plans were temporarily thrown into limbo as we waited for further word on Mariss Janson’s condition. While he recuperated in Oslo – his own plans put on indefinite hold, the orchestra had to work hard to see that the rest of the spring season, and as it turned out, the beginning of the fall season – took place. The orchestra was scheduled to take a short tour to Brussels and Amsterdam in May, and of course there were the festival visits to the BBC Proms and Edinburgh in August. We were fortunate to have Sakari Oramo take over the concerts in Brussels and Amsterdam, and Manfred Honeck was available to handle the festival tour in August. There will be more on that in the next blog post.
Before closing this post, let me say we were lucky that Mariss recovered as quick as he did. He had a second, though much less serious episode a few weeks after leaving hospital, forcing him to lengthen his convalescence until later in the fall. I happened to be in the administration’s offices when he came in for a short visit. Am apartment had been secured for him during his recuperation, and he went for long walks and studied scorers during this period. He came in to see to some administrative business, and to chat. He chatted with me for a few minutes, and went back to discussing orchestra business. He started to perspire, and felt a little light-headed, and he was whisked back to the hospital for a check-up. Our staff was on the ball and he received immediate care. He had been out taking a walk, and apparently wasn’t 100 percent ready, and this set his heart to racing. After some days rest in Oslo, he then spent the summer building up his strength, while following our progress through reports from the administration and friends and he thankfully regained his health in time to rejoin the orchestra for our planned Far Easter tour in late fall of 1996.

Below is a link to one of the works on our final EMI release which we we played through on our experimental recording session in April 1996, and later recorded almost a year later. The album was released in 1998. Enjoy Bernstein’s Candide Overture!