Recently, I have heard the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra twice under visiting conductors: on Feb. 7, with the young David Afkham conducting Beethoven and Wagner, and on March 1, with the aging Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos conducting the Verdi Requiem with the May Festival Chorus. I sat in the gallery, a great place to listen, but a little far from the action. Nevertheless, even from there, I could see a stark difference in their styles.
David Afkham is young and limber. He conducts with a well trained, almost choreographed elegance. Under his direction, the orchestra played gracefully, but with caution. The Beethoven fourth symphony was nice, but lacked the immediacy that you hope for from a live performance. The Beethoven third piano concerto begins with a long orchestral exposition ending with a full cadence. When we got to the end of it, I thought the piece didn’t have any energy left, and the soloist hadn’t even started. The soloist was Radu Lupu, a Romanian renowned for his interpretation of the great German masters. He played well, but it was not the scintillating performance that built this reputation. The orchestra played with nuance, but it was simply too polite. A friend, having read the glowing review in the local paper (How could the local paper ever give such a wonderful orchestra a bad review?) and, wondering whether he had been to the same concert, asked me the following week, “Where was the passion?” The grace and elegance of the conducting simply seem did not inspire the orchestra.
The eighty year old Rafael Fruhbeck do Burgos moves with less elegance. He walked to the podium stiffly. However, from the opening pianissimo (one elderly patron behind me loudly commented “I can’t hear a thing!”), I knew I was in for a treat. No holding back here. This man has led this orchestra many times before, and he knows what they are capable of.
I enjoyed watching him conduct. At one point, it was quite evident that he wanted the pizzicato attack from the double basses to be prominent: he gave them a huge, clearly defined beat, and even from my vantage point in the rafters, I could tell where his attention was directed. Other times, he would point to a section to get them to play louder, or, in anther case, to pipe down and listen to the melody over there. There were moments when he seemed to do nothing at all, at least nothing that I could see, leaving the well rehearsed chorus largely on their own. In the fugue, he clearly marked each entry of the subject, making sure it dominated the texture. After the first large movement, he paused, allowing time for latecomers to get settled; then he raised his baton, and, with almost no preparation, quickly launched into an absolutely frightening Dies Irae. Never did his motions seem choreographed; he was always attuned to what was happening at the moment. The orchestra, chorus, and soloists responded, giving a deeply moving performance, ranging from the hushed reverence of the Requiem Aeternam to the violent fury of the Dies Irae. review
Of course, It is not really fair to compare someone leading orchestra for the first time with someone whom the orchestra knows and loves. Even Paavo Järvi took years in front of the orchestra before they reached the extraordinary heights that characterized the end of his tenure as Music Director. So I should not be too disappointed with David Afkham; under his direction, the orchestra produced a lovely performance. However, under Rafael Fruhbeck do Burgos, this world class symphony orchestra, chorus, and soloits showed what they could really do.