Sep 172012

512px-Alcatraz_Island_-_prison_cellsRecently in the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall I watched a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 with Andris Nelsons as the guest conductor. The way that Stefan Dohr, the Principal Horn, played the solo at the beginning of the second movement changed the way I think about Tchaikovsky.

The Digital Concert Hall ( is a fee-based subscription service for access to internet broadcasts of live events as well as an on-demand archive. The archive includes numerous broadcasts of the orchestra with Simon Rattle, the current conductor, various guest conductors and soloists, and also of Claudio Abbado, the previous conductor. At about $185 per year the cost is similar to a single evening out for two at Disney Hall and with a little bit of technology you can display the internet broadcasts on your big-screen TV.

It’s interesting to hear conductors other than Simon Rattle direct the Berlin Philharmonic. In the first movement of the Tchaikovsky I thought Nelsons was struggling to make sense of the score but then, in the horn solo after the introduction to the second movement by the strings, magic happened.

Stefan Dohr immediately brought the piece to life with his subdued statement of the main theme, which he drew out of the horn in the supplest way imaginable.  A virtuoso performance in the best sense of the word, maintained throughout the dialog between the horn and the clarinet, then the oboe, with the collaboration of Principal Clarinet Wenzel Fuchs and Principal Oboe Jonathan Kelley.

Now you may listen to this same performance and think it’s just another horn solo. But somewhere, sometime, with some piece, you’ll hear someone with a level of imagination for sound that just might cause you to reevaluate the piece, the composer, your own prejudices.

The Tchaikovsky 5th is the very definition of a “war horse” and without Dohr’s solo the piece would have faded again into the background. But what he gave us was both liberating and sobering: liberating because it made me wonder how many other moments in Tchaikovsky could be brought to life, and sobering because it was a reminder of our limitations.

Recently a friend mentioned that she’d been to a concert where a contemporary composer questioned why we continue to perform the same pieces by Beethoven over and over. Without thinking I responded: “because we can’t ever get them right” – but with a master like Stefan Dohr we sometimes get to hear what a piece can sound like when it is done “right”.

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