Should tempos in the summertime be faster?

Last week I heard two performances of the Mussorgsky/Ravel “Pictures at an Exhibition,” the first at the Hollywood Bowl conducted by Gustavo Dudamel and the second at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater conducted by Carl St.Clair. I didn’t mind. I like the piece, and unlike some others, never seem to tire of it. Both were satisfactory readings, and sometimes even better.

But there were moments in both performances where I couldn’t help thinking to myself, “OK, get on with it already.”

Neither conductor took unduly slow tempos, though both resorted to a rather stately pace now and then.

I think those tempos (the stately ones) would have worked better indoors.

Outdoors, with the unfortunately necessary amplification in place, a listener does not feel the full effect of a slower tempo, as one does indoors. For one thing, the music just doesn’t sound as good on a purely sensual level; the color is sapped and the power falsely boosted by the amplification.

A listener is more focused on line outdoors, rather than things like the orchestration, color, atmosphere.

Secondly, outdoors, the repertoire tends to be thrice familiar. Transitional passages bore, partly because we already know where they are going and want to get there (though that would also hold for indoor performances, to a degree) and partly because they don’t always have the interest of the main line of the argument, to which I have already asserted the listener is more focused on in al fresco concerts. Also, whatever purely sonorous interest these transitional passages may have is, again, sapped.

(I once was chatting with Pierre Boulez about Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, which he said had some weak passages therein. We didn’t get into where they were, but I asked him what he did, as a conductor, during those passages. He said simply, “I go faster.” I thought he was being funny for a split second, but he was completely serious.)

I found the “Promenades,” or many of them, tedious, in both Dudamel’s and St.Clair’s accounts of “Pictures.” I wanted them to get on with it already. The “Promenades” are, at least in part, transitional passages, and though hardly weak in indoor performances, seemed to just be marking time (no pun intended) outdoors.

Now, any conductor worth his salt will take into consideration the acoustics of a hall in setting tempos for a piece.  Most conductors probably do it without even thinking about it. I doubt Dudamel or St.Clair could hear what the music sounded like out in the amphitheaters, however, so they may not have even thought about it, and just went ahead and laid on us their indoor interpretations of “Pictures”.