There are two types of conductors today: Those for whom subtlety is an art form and those who only can see the obvious.
Keith Lockhart falls into the latter category.
That perception of him was reinforced again last weekend with Beethoven's Ninth Symphony at the Utah Symphony's opening-night concert.
For some unexplained reason, Lockhart, who steps down as the symphony's music director next May after 11 seasons here, feels that opening night is an excuse for dumbing down the classics.
There's no other explanation for it. A few years ago, at another opening-night performance, Lockhart even managed to massacre Dvorak's unassuming and straightforward "New World" Symphony and turn it into a noisy and jarring jumble of sound.
And it hasn't gotten any better over the years. Beethoven's epic Ninth received the same treatment last weekend as did Dvorak's symphony. Beethoven's work was reduced to a gibberish of bleating brass and pounding percussion that would have made a 10-year-old cringe.
There was nothing redeeming about the performance. As I wrote in my review, it was "overdone and overplayed" and "reduced to its simplest component noise."
But, of course, that's what most people in the audience want and Lockhart knows it. Give them something loud and brassy and you're assured a standing ovation (although standing ovations are a norm at concerts in Utah and aren't indicative of the quality of a given performance).
Don't worry about the quality or the artistic merit of a performance in all the noise, no one will ever notice that Beethoven's Ninth was mishandled and treated as background music for a circus.
Nor do many people, including Lockhart, realize that there is quite a bit in the Ninth that is subtle. The opening of the first movement, as I noted in my review, uncannily foreshadows the atmospheric opening passages of Bruckner's symphonies. And the slow movement is one of Beethoven's profoundest and most moving.
If anyone doubts that the Ninth is anything more than an exercise in noise, there are many recordings available that will dispel that impression. There are wonderful recorded performances by Herbert von Karajan, Karl Bohm, Fritz Reiner, Bernard Haitink and Georg Solti whose account of the work is beautifully expressive despite his penchant for a big sound. Even the live recording made by Leonard Bernstein in Berlin shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and which was turned into a media event, is commendable. Not always known for his subtlety, Bernstein nevertheless captures it in the Ninth.
But that concept still eludes Lockhart. And despite what he believes the goal of a conductor is, it's not to get a standing ovation. The end certainly doesn't justify the means in this situation.
In collaboration with the orchestra, the goal of a conductor is to bring the highest standards of artistry to a performance. A conductor should never settle for anything crass or tasteless. Instead, he must strive for the sublime.And that, ultimately, is the mark of a conductor who knows his craft.