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Orchestras today: the era of the all-purpose sound

Erich Leinsdorf has returned to the Boston Symphony Orchestra. On the face of it, that is hardly startling news, but it is the first time since 1971 that he has been invited back.

Leinsdorf's tenure as music director of what RCA Records (then the exclusive recorder at the orchestra) once dubbed "The Aristocrat of Orchestras," was marked by rancor, strife, and unpleasantness. In his book, "Cadenza," Leinsdorf is quite candid about the problems, even though some said he was perhaps not always the easiest person in the world to work with. But Leinsdorf represented, and still represents, an esteemed older school of music director.

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The changes the music world has undergone since Leinsdorf stepped down (or, was tacitly forced out) have not boded well for music in general or for a new wave of music conducor who might cultivate, educate, and sustain standards. Since Leinsdorf left, William Steinberg had a brief tenure, and now Seiji Ozawa sits in the director's seat.

Where has the general well-trained ear gone? Ozawa is hardly alone in lacking this. Most of today's younger conductors offer the same bland approach, (as Philadelphians will be finding out soon enough with Riccardo Muti, just to name one prime example. Music directors give barely half a season to their orchestras now (the major exception I know of is Zubin Mehta, who devotes some two-thirds of the New York Philharmonic's season to his players.

In the old days, a Leinsdorf got his training in a small middle-European opera house. Sometimes the student would work with a Mahler, or a Klemperer, or some other nascent or established master. In the case of Carlo Maria Giulini, he played under many greats.

Ozawa studied in Japan, then came and spent time at Tanglewood. Ozawa cites Munch as his major influence, but Munch treated the music school there with, at very best, benign neglect. So one cannot point to a steady, solid school of training for an Ozawa, nor can one point to an influence in his actual work, so diffuse is the approach. Muti is said to carry on the grand tradition set by the great Victor de Sabata, and Toscanini, plus Giulini. But his work on records and the in the concert hall show theater, too, is from the new school of fuzzy sound.

In fact, so many of today's budding "stars" -- and the term has to be used so loosely these days -- are really only as good as their orchestras. They can get a great ensemble to play brilliantly, and that seems to be the end-all. Any sense of the tensions, passions, spiritual searches that animated that specific composer are overlooked. It's a kind of food-processor approach to music, where the general mush that emerges has a certain visceral appeal. And as the Leinsdorfs become more and more infrequent, audiences will begin to forgest just how things were.

We may have the marvel of the phonograph on which to hear the old master conductors, but most people prefer grand stereo over tinny mono, and most of the instructively great performances are available only in scratchy mono.So people but the best-sounding new Beethover Ninth, and it may be the most boring performance around, but the soundm . . . . !" And then they bring ears detuned to that level to the concert hall, and if the music there is played with a grand sheen to the sound and lots of imposing noise in the climaxes, chances are it is mor exciting than that record. There is no subtitute (and I doubt there ever will be) to the live firsthand experience.

But then a Leinsdorf comes along, and suddenly it's exciting, and it also has a very special impact, as well as a very individual approach. Even in something like Debussy, which one does not associate with Leinsdorf especially, emerges with a bold vigorous individuality. This ability to differentiate can no longer be taken for granted except from the very exceptional conductor like JAmes Levine or Claudio Abbado. When slickness is the ultimate goal, the vitality of the music is lost.

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One can also point to Leinsdorf's model programming -- a rare gift in any age , which Leinsdorf has always proved especially astute. Mozart, Schonberg, Debussy made up one substantial, challenging program. How lovely to hear the two Viennese composers explore the expressive possibilities of the orchestras of their times. How remarkable to justapose it against Debussy, who was also a supreme orchestrator. There are similarities and constrasts that only this sort of juxtaposition can highlight -- how subtle both Schonberg and Debussy could be with a huge orchestra, be it the former's "Variation" Op. 31, or the latter's "LaMer."

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