One of today's most interesting German conductors is actually an American double agent: Iowa-born George Hanson, music director of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra.
Since 1998, Hanson has commuted between Tucson and Germany as general music director of the Wuppertal Symphony Orchestra. The few Americans who have ever heard of Wuppertal, a small city in western Germany, near Düsseldorf and Cologne, probably know it as the home base of modern-dance choreographer Pina Bausch. It is not the center of the classical-music universe. Yet it lies at one of music's focal points, the German-speaking lands of Western Europe, birthplace of Mozart and Mahler, Beethoven and Brahms, Schoenberg and everybody named Strauss. The area has a distinctive performing tradition quite unlike those of Russia, France and America.
And over the past four years, that tradition has saturated the musical personality of George Hanson. As the conductor admits, "I perceive it as being a rather dramatic change."
You can hear it in his Tucson Symphony performances. At the most superficial level, it's evident in his tempos. Hanson has a much more relaxed approach to slow movements than before, and even in moderate-to-fast movements he is more likely to ease off the speed to highlight a contrasting theme, as he did to arresting effect last October in the first movement of Dvorák's "New World" Symphony.
There's more to Hanson's Teutonicization than can be measured with a stopwatch. In certain German and Austrian music, Hanson is working hard to help the Tucson Symphony emulate the sound quality, articulation and phrasing that come naturally to the Wuppertal orchestra in this repertory.
"For Beethoven, the (German) woodwinds have a rich, dark, full sound," Hanson says. "In the string section, I would say that they're playing more 'into' the string; there's a bit more depth to the sound. And the orchestra has sort of an instantaneous understanding of how long a note ought to be. For a staccato quarter note on the downbeat in a Beethoven allegro, there's a certain length of articulation that just sounds right, and with American orchestras you have to work a little bit to find it, and make everybody comfortable with it."
Hanson hastens to add that the Tucson Symphony has certain strengths of its own not found in Wuppertal or Germany in general. German musicians emerge from a rich but limited educational and performance tradition, giving them the inside track on the classics that were composed in their neighborhood, but leaving them at a loss when it comes to Russian or French or American music. Americans, on the other hand, are trained for all-purpose facility.
One drawback of the American orchestral business actually turns to the musicians' advantage. Because Americans have fewer rehearsals than Europeans (Tucson gets four per concert to Wuppertal's six), they arrive better prepared, with the notes already in their fingers. "So we're able to dive right in and work on interpretation and style," Hanson says.
"I did a concert in Wuppertal a few months ago where the first half was all Beethoven and the second half was Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5," he says. "My German orchestra struggled with some aspects of the Prokofiev, which my American orchestra would not struggle with. On the other hand, in the Beethoven, the sound the orchestra produced was so idiomatic and so precisely the way one would envision an ideal sense of style for Beethoven, that really there was almost no rehearsing involved, just a few adjustments here and there.
"The next month I came back and did a Beethoven piano concerto here, which the Tucson Symphony could easily sight-read once and perform respectably in concert. What I did, however, was I devoted an enormous amount of time to the concerto here, trying to get the sense of sound and style that I heard in Germany.
"I remember spending a year in Vienna as a student, and coming home and hearing a major American orchestra play a Strauss waltz, and the impression was like the impression you'd get after spending several months in Germany drinking local beers, and then getting on your flight home and having a can of Miller Lite."
HANSON'S ADOPTION OF German style in certain music does not mean he's become as bland and uninflected as the truly German and Austrian conductors working in America during the past 10 or 15 years, from Wolfgang Sawallisch in Philadelphia and Kurt Masur in New York to Hermann Michael in Phoenix. Like any performer, Hanson has his routine nights, but more often he's willing to shape a phrase or highlight an inner voice in some unusual and illuminating way.
Hanson attracted the attention of the German audiophile label MDG. So did the Wuppertal Symphony Orchestra's home, the Stadthalle, which Hanson says has "virtually ideal acoustics." The sound MDG has captured on the four CDs it has made so far with Hanson and the Wuppertal Symphony is full and resonant, neither as dry as the typical American acoustic nor as distant and echoey as British producers prefer.
MDG has been recording the orchestra in the new DVD-audio format, which will probably become the dominant of the two currently competing surround-sound systems. "It's light years beyond the old quadraphonic business that fizzled in the 1970s," Hanson says. "It really does create the impression of being in the hall." So far, though, MDG has released the CDs in America only in conventional stereo format.
Two of the discs are devoted to music of the German composer Felix Draeseke (1835-1913), a rather obscure musician who tried to blend the progressive tendencies of Franz Liszt's New German School with the Romanticized classicism of Johannes Brahms. The results are uneven, but listenable.
Draeseke's least obscure work--this is its third recording in 50 years--is the "Symphonia Tragica." "Tragic" is an overstatement; it never achieves the intensity of, say, the Brahms Fourth, but it could fairly be called "dramatic." Coupled with the composer's overture to "Gudrun" and the symphonic prologue "Penthesilea," Draeseke's symphony receives a powerful performance from Hanson and his Wuppertal forces.
On an earlier CD, they make a similarly good case for two lesser Draeseke works, the Symphony No. 1 and Piano Concerto (with Claudius Tanski). Despite his moments of Lisztian breast-heaving, Draeseke never achieves the individuality of such other minor Brahms emulators as Charles Stanford and Hans Huber. Yet if you're curious about the byways of late-19th-century music, you'll find no better guide than Hanson.
Slightly more mainstream is a disc devoted to Max Bruch, remembered today only for two very popular violin concertos and a piece for cello. Bruch worked with more craftsmanship than inspiration--sample any of his symphonies, or the violin concertos that aren't popular. But he usually came through nicely in smaller forms, and Hanson has recorded Bruch's highly charming Serenade for Strings (based on Swedish folk melodies) and Swedish Dances, the latter collection enjoyable despite being neither as rollicking nor as schmaltzy as the folk dances of Dvorák and Brahms. Rounding out the disc is Bruch's short cantata Schön Ellen, a Scottish-flavored piece that Hanson also programmed here in April.
The fourth Hanson/Wuppertal collaboration on MDG presents neglected pieces by the enormously popular Ottorino Respighi. Metamorphoseon, a set of variations Hanson brought to Tucson in March, is colorful but not as lavish as Respighi's more famous Roman trilogy. Rossiniana, based on tunes by Rossini, is sheer fun, and here gets its most ebullient recording since Antonio Janigro's more than 30 years ago. The disc also contains a little Burlesca, and Respighi's imposing orchestration of Bach's Passacaglia in C minor.
Frankly, none of this music will ever make it onto the classical Top 40, but it all has at least modest appeal, and Hanson's recordings could hold their own against any conceivable competition.