Kent Nagano took to the stage tonight, microphone in hand, slowly becoming encircled by a forest of empty music stands, 50 in all. It is only natural to provide a word of explanation for a concert which contained Ligeti’s Fluxus piece Poème symphonique, scored for 100 metronomes, and Reich’s Clapping Music, amidst more standard works. In his usual melange of sincere French and his more comfortable English, he delivered a speech which was, if not long-winded, exhaustive in its description of the plan behind tonight’s concert and the works within. It was to be an evening with a theme of time.

Kent Nagano © Ben Ealovega
Kent Nagano
© Ben Ealovega

After he was finally surrounded by all the necessary stands, he called in 100 performers who were not musicians of the OSM, but most likely members of the community dressed in formal attire. All 100 performers squeezed onto the front of the stage, though not easily, and each one carrying an analog metronome, each of which had been previously wound and set to a unique tempo. Nagano stepped onto the podium. After a long pause, he began the work with a blatant downbeat, and the cacophony began.

100 different tempi swarmed around one another, at first eliciting feelings of dizziness or even vertigo. After a minute had passed, members of the audience began to cast each other curious glances and couples whispered jokes to one another. However, as everyone realized that this was the sonic world in which they would be living for the next 5 to 7 minutes, they were able to open their ears and simply listen. The sound was reminiscent of rain falling on a tin roof. As each metronome died out individually, it was as if a gentle storm was receding. After what seemed hours of Nagano standing steadfastly on his podium with eyes of academic steel, there were only two metronomes left. The audience was enraptured, as if meditating. When finally one metronome remained, it went on for a much longer time that Nagano or the audience had expected. After two minutes of one single metronome, people were restless. One man in the balcony shouted at the top of his lungs “It’s the Energizer Bunny there!” and was quickly shushed. Now Nagano had an interesting decision – ignore the heckler, meet him with his icy gaze, or make a jest of his own. He chose to make jokes, and said in fact Red Bull must be responsible. At this moment, the entire performance became a joke, and lost all credibility. If Nagano wishes to challenge the audience with works which require new ways of listening, he must not use half-measures, but insist on the validity of the work until its completion. This was a shame.

Before this rare work, the concert had opened with Steve Reich’s Clapping Music, a precarious piece performed by two tuxedoed percussionists facing each other in the center of the stage. After the phase was complete and the rhythms rejoined each other, the audience was delighted.

Haydn’s Symphony no. 101, “The Clock” was next, and continued the theme of time. The orchestra sounded like an organ for the slow and ponderous introduction. Nagano was at his best in this music, conducting minimally and inspiring only good phrasing and articulation. Haydn’s jests, formal invention and odd phrase lengths surely inspired Beethoven, and the second movement of this Haydn symphony was clearly on Beethoven’s mind when he wrote the second movement of his own Symphony no. 8, a tribute to the newest musical invention: the metronome. This was very well executed by the OSM. Near the end of the work, Nagano’s baton slipped out of his hand and nearly tumbled into an eager audience who hoped to score a souvenir. They weren’t so lucky.

Pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet performed Bartók’s Piano Concerto no. 3 with zeal and fervor, and a kind of metronomic precision that fitted the evening well. The OSM perhaps did not bring out all of the imagination which exists in the score, and sadly due to the novel nature of the rest of the works on the program, this would be the least memorable piece this evening.

The concert ended with Smetana’s wonderful tone poem Moldau, a rather unapologetic depiction of a journey down that famous Czech river. It is a marvelously crafted piece. Often program music can become weighed down in its necessity to depict objects and events literally in the music, but Smetana’s score is both vivid and sincere. A tightly formed work, we are swept downstream and witness a peasant’s dance, which the OSM played without any rubato as is often the custom, and then to great castles, through a nymph-filled night in the depths of which one might expect to encounter Dvořák’s Rusalka, through dangerous rapids, past the glorious walls of Prague and then gently we follow the Moldau’s course back into nature. The OSM’s performance, after such an curious procession of works before, brought the audience back to a place of comfort and understanding.

It was an unusual evening, though a laudable experiment. I simply wish Mr Nagano had more resolve to defend the legitimacy of his musical choices.

***11