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Why it makes a difference whose baton leads an orchestra

What is it about the interaction of a conductor with an orchestra? Why can the same group sound radically different under different maestros? Two recent concerts might help us explore the reasons for this. The Berlin Philharmonic came to the Metropolitan Opera on a recent Sunday afternoon without Herbert von Karajan, its permanent conductor and artistic director. The last-minute replacement honor went to James Levine. Meanwhile, over at Avery Fisher Hall, guest conductor Klaus Tennstedt offered two programs with the New York Philharmonic, featuring works by Bruckner and Mahler.

In both instances, the visiting conductor had a definite impact on the way the players made music. The New Yorkers sat up and took notice of Tennstedt, playing with the single-mindedness and intense concentration usually reserved for Leonard Bernstein.

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But the edge-of-the-seat posture we have come to expect from the Berlin Philharmonic was not as sharp under Levine.

One can never overestimate how much orchestras can misbehave when provoked or when they do not respect the person on the podium. I remember a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert with Sarah Caldwell conducting Stravinsky's ``Petrouchka,'' a tricky piece, but one that the orchestra knows well. Miss Caldwell had given an especially flabby downbeat, and the ensemble fell apart. The BSO simply had not been paying attention and collectively seemed not to care about saving Caldwell.

I have seen the New York Philharmonic show a similar indifference to a conductor who was regarded as not knowing what he or she was doing. But when someone like Tennstedt comes along -- one who sparks the players' interest and asks them to play like an ensemble of individual musicians rather than an anonymous band -- they respond.

That sense of kinetic response was missing with Levine and the Berliners. It seemed as though the orchestra did not know or understand him very well, though he conducted them last season and has made several records with them. As a result, the dramatic tensions were blunted. Levine did not engage their deep interest the way he does his own Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

Perhaps it was because he was trying to impose his sound on them. The Berlin Philharmonic has been honed into a huge, Germanic musicmaking machine, and Levine's tastes tend toward something leaner, less plummy in sound. That sound is closer to a blend of what his mentor, George Szell, accomplished with the Cleveland Orchestra, and to what Arturo Toscanini, a conductor Levine deeply admires, strove to achieve with the NBC Symphony. It is the timbre he has so successfully, and memorably, ingrained in the Met orchestra.

Not surprisingly, the performance of Strauss's ``Four Last Songs'' with Anna Tomowa-Sintow, the soprano soloist, came the closest to sustaining the Berlin sound. Why? Because Levine let them play music they had recently recorded with Karajan, and the warmth and glow were unmistakable. Miss Tomowa-Sintow was glorious and gave an object lesson in Strauss interpretation and vocalism. But neither the Wagner ``Siegfried Idyll'' nor the Beethoven Seventh found this great orchestra meshing with this gifted maestro.

Meshing is the word for what happened at the Philharmonic, particularly in Mahler's Sixth Symphony. Tennstedt found a variety of moods and emotions in a work that usually sounds unrelievedly gloomy. The battle between optimism and pessimism added an entire new level of drama to the work. The colors he elicited from the orchestra were unusually varied. The brass played thrillingly -- now with smooth tone, now with a gleaming edge, and even with a harsh nasality when needed. The winds and the strings were at their very best all night long.

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The Bruckner Seventh on the earlier program was preparation for the Mahler. Again, Tennstedt took a less ethereal, more tortuous route through the work, and it gained immeasurably in drama and final victory. The night I attended, the brass was always too loud, but the strings and winds were already playing with the warmth and often melting tone that Tennstedt went on to exploit so effectively in the Mahler.

At the end of that Mahler, incidentally, the orchestra accorded the maestro a warm, moving ovation of its own -- a rare tribute, particularly from an orchestra that rarely wears its heart on its sleeve.

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