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September 2005
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Andrew Patner on Arts and Culture

Critical Thinking, Critical Thinking on Tour: CSO Lucerne Tour 2005 – Day 3

With the search process underway for a new CSO music director there has been much discussion about the changing nature of and needs for this position in the current cultural environment. But changes are taking place from the perspective of conductors as well. In talking the other day with German acoustician Eckhard Kahle, we both observed that a number of major conductors have been finding ways both to do serious work and to make a serious impact while moving away from working as traditional big orchestra music directors. Even a casual observer can see that Daniel Barenboim’s great focus and passion for the near future is in his work with younger musicians, be they the members of his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, the members of the Staatskapelle Berlin, or such solo players as Lang Lang, Nikolaj Znaider, and Maxim Vengerov. Similarly with his social views both on political cooperation (the West-Eastern Divan) and music education as a key not only to developing future players and audiences but also to building democratic values (his primary schools in Ramallah and a kindergarten in Berlin) — he gets both greater satisfaction and more tangible results in these areas by working with young people than he does from any large orchestral operation or opera house. Pierre Boulez, too, has been turning more of his time towards educational projects, spending a full month each year on his Lucerne Festival Academy here. Claudia Abbado, although initially sidelined from work with big houses and orchestras by reasons of health, has relished his development of project orchestras drawn from both younger players from major ensembles and those on the cusp of professional careers. One of the great attractions for James Levine in taking charge of the Boston Symphony Orchestra was and is ist extensive training program at its summer home in Tanglewood. So it would appear that it is not only the institutional side that is driving these changes in “job description.”

Last night I took a break from the Lucerne Festival proper and walked a couple of blocks down the road to the intimate Luzerner Theater to hear and see their new production of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. The conductor was the American John Axelrod who has done some pop-ish programs with the CSO and at Ravinia and has not exactly been a favorite of CSO players. Actually, his work in the pit proved fine in the spiky neo-classical score from 1951. And, from what I could see, the production was no more over-the-top than the intentionally over-the-top concept of librettists W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman in dramatizing William Hogarth’s picture cycle of the same name. The troubles were a) the audience could hardly see anything as German director Alexander Schulin and his production team had barely lit the stage , and b) it’s hard enough for many British and American singers to sing clearly in English — the members of this mostly European and one South Korean cast were nearly unintelligible in their arias and ensembles. When one has to resort to German “übertiteln” to figure out what is being said in Auden’s poetry, it’s time to go and that’s what I did at the interval.

I woke up very early this morning and had a chance to stroll around as Lucerne was still waking up. Most coffee places weren’t even open yet (save those that serve their brew in paper cups or were inside or in basements — and nix to them!). Eventually I did find an open spot with outdoor seating in the center of town opposite the train station. As I sat outside watching the human parade of people on their way to work and Asian tourists on their own time schedule I noticed that the fellow at the table next to me was also taking in the scene and was enjoying himself so much that he was actually whistling. “It’s like a movie” I said in German as a pair of older Japanese tourists spent several minutes taking each other’s pictures in front of the self-service cafe, perhaps the one non-scenic spot in all of Lucerne! “Exactly” my neighbor responded. We started talking and I learned that, like a number of my friends around the world, he was a painter who worked a number of additional jobs to support himself and his family. Fortunately, some of his jobs, mural painting, working with his father on stained-glass windows, and teaching at the local gymnasium (academic high school), are at least related to his work as an artist. “It’s not easy to find time for one’s own work,” he said with a refreshing smile, “but that’s life! I do the best I can and try to keep myself entertained in the meanwhile.” Working in teh very exacting medium of egg tempera painting means that time is even more precious and Lukas Hirschi and his wife have two young children, including a three-week-old baby and “fortunately we have a place outside of Lucerne where there is room both for children and to paint.” I hope to have the chance to visit a couple of the museums here with him. There is nothing like seeing pictures with an artist, I say. And he adds that it is great for him “to find someone in Lucerne who is actually interested in art!”

Funding for these reports is provided by a generous grant from Alphawood Foundation, with additional important support from the Joyce Foundation, Richard and Barbara Franke, Richard and Mary Gray, and Scott and Judy McCue and the Black Dog Fund.