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When summer comes, the Mostly Mozart Festival isn’t the only game in town, but it’s the biggest. (I am speaking of music here; I have no desire to slight the New York Yankees.) Mostly Mozart is a festival of about four weeks, offering a variety of performances, taking place at a variety of Lincoln Center venues. Administration knows what it’s doing. And staffers go about their work with notable good cheer. A happy feeling pervades this festival, or so it seems to me.
Definitely happy—or happy-appearing—is the music director, Louis Langrée. He seems grateful to be a musician. He may be an awful gloomy Gus behind the scenes—I know nothing about him, personally—but, onstage, he is consistently sunny. He doesn’t so much walk onto the stage as bound onto it, eager and delighted to do business. He conducted the opening concert of 2010, and the orchestra was his, and the festival’s, own: the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra. The first item of business was, naturally, Mozart: the Overture to La clemenza di Tito. This is a perfect piece, the overture is, written by a man who wrote much perfect music. The opera that follows isn’t so bad either.
Langrée conducted the overture with shapeliness, bounce, and verve. Above all, he conducted it with taste. I might mention that he knows how to observe rests, letting them be an integral part of the music. And he has an excellent sense of balance: musical balance. Of course, Mozart has this too. It is one of his foremost qualities.
You will understand what I mean when I say that Langrée is a better conductor than the Festival Orchestra is an orchestra, and that the orchestra plays up to him and his standards nevertheless. There is some weak playing “within” Langrée’s conducting: poor sound, poor intonation, poor articulation. But the overall effect can be quite convincing; the musicians, with whatever ability they have, respond to their music director’s conducting. And here we might pose a question for debate: Would you rather hear a good conductor with a subpar orchestra, or a subpar conductor with a good orchestra? The answer, of course, is, “It depends.” Given my choice, I would rather hear Mengelberg conduct the Dubuque Sinfonietta than Joe Blow conduct the Vienna Philharmonic. Yet, now and then, you want the vpo’s sheer sound and virtuosity.
Music adores an anniversary, and, this year, musicians have been playing a lot of Chopin and Schumann. But don’t they always play a lot of Chopin and Schumann, those composers being canonical? Yes, but now when they play them, they say, “It’s an anniversary, you know”: Both composers were born in 1810. Following the Tito overture on the Festival Orchestra program was Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor. Most people will tell you that Chopin doesn’t give the orchestra or conductor much to do here. And he was unquestionably a piano man (as his cello pieces and songs—subpar Chopin—will attest). Whatever the case, Langrée made the most of his part, and the orchestra’s. He wrung every last drop out of Chopin’s (considerable) emotions.
The pianist was Emanuel Ax, one of the most ubiquitous and popular players on the scene. Chopin writes an arresting opening for the piano; Ax did not particularly arrest. As soon as he hit the top note, it died. That is, the note pinged and died, rather than lingering. And that happened a lot during the concerto: Ax would hit a top note—a cresting or climactic note—and it would die upon impact. There should be at least the illusion of sustaining. But Ax did some fine playing, including some lovely phrasing. The second movement was the best of the three. Ax sang nicely, and showed us pianistic laciness, too.
The main problem, especially in the outer movements, was a certain wispiness—a lack of allure. Chopin has a swashbuckling quality, and that did not really come through. Ax’s approach was more one for the drawing-room. I don’t ask for barrelhouse Chopin, heaven knows; tasteful restraint is very attractive. But electricity, frisson, gallantry—those are ingredients that can lift a performance. Chopin’s closing rondo has a speck of jazz: jazz avant la lettre, if you will. You might think an American pianist would exploit that, or certainly suggest that. But enough criticism: The audience loved Ax, on its feet and bravo-ing hard. That, in fact, is the consensus on this pianist.
And let me record that the horn executed his part in the rondo without flubbing—which could get him kicked out of the Hornists Guild.
After intermission came a second soloist—a singer, Stephanie Blythe, the famed mezzo. When I have gone for a while without hearing her—and it had been several months—I forget just how big her sound is: how beautifully enormous. As soon as she opens her mouth, I remember, and am shocked all over again. On the Festival Orchestra program were two arias: “Aure, deh, per pietà,” from Handel’s Giulio Cesare, and “Che farò,” from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. These arias call for a small fraction of the voice Blythe has—and they were still huge. She barely whispered—and you were pinned to the back of your seat. She bleached her voice some. By that I mean that she took some of the vibrato, juice, and lushness out of it. I wish she hadn’t done that. I would have liked the voice just as Nature made it. Stephanie Blythe has no need of becoming Emma Kirkby. She has no need of going “period.” In any event, she sang well, demonstrating, among other virtues, clear diction.
Her two arias did not give her much of a chance to show off: to strut her stuff technically or operatically. She sang another aria for an encore—and it was another stately Baroque aria. There was not much variety in what Blythe did; but no one said, I acknowledge, that variety was the aim. That third aria was the beloved, evergreen “Ombra mai fu,” from Handel’s Serse. (I’m not trying to be cutesy or punny with “evergreen”: This aria is a tribute to foliage.) Blythe did a little flatting, and some of her top notes went dead, not unlike Ax’s—but this is a pro, in music of many sorts.
Maestro Langrée closed out the evening with more Mozart, the Symphony No. 35 in D, which has a nickname: the “Haffner.” I could praise his account in great detail; he has a remarkable affinity for Mozart, which is nice in the music director of the Mostly Mozart Festival. But I will confine myself to one detail—a largish one, concerning tempo: In the closing Presto, he was not a speed demon. He was not rushed, mechanical, or manic. He was fast but sane—and very musical. That might get him kicked out of the Period Guild.
The next program of the Festival Orchestra included the Barber Violin Concerto. And Barber is another anniversary boy, born in 1910. He may not have achieved the heights of Chopin or Schumann: but he is still good enough not to need anniversary attention; he receives regular, ongoing attention. Langrée deserves much praise for his conducting in the Violin Concerto: He was true to the drama of the piece—bringing out its swellings—and was truly alert to rhythm. Given that he is known for Baroque and Classical music, it was good to hear him in Chopin and Barber. A real conductor has no specialty, although he may distinguish himself in particular composers; he is simply a musician.
Our violinist was James Ehnes, the young Canadian. At the beginning of the concerto, the violin should melt—and Ehnes was not exactly melting. But he played competently, and he treated the concerto with respect. He did not let Barber’s sweetness turn into syrup; and he did not confuse tender affection with sentimentalism. He had some intonation problems, along with a few other technical problems. I mention these only because this fellow can be immaculate. In the last movement, Barber wants his soloist to be a happy demon: This is a perpetual-motion movement. And Ehnes complied, playing the part of happy demon. Incidentally, the composer puts a hint of a hoedown in this movement—at least as I hear it. Barber was not exactly a westerner, from Greater Philadelphia, but he was an American all the same. (And Copland, who is said to have created our “western” sound, was from Brooklyn.)
Know this, too: As in the Chopin concerto, so in the Barber: The horn did not flub. This guy is obviously suspect as a hornist.
Ehnes played an encore, first telling the audience, “Louis [Langrée] said there weren’t enough notes in that last one.” Then he tucked into the Caprice No. 16 by that demon of demons, Paganini. He brought it off with decent precision and adequate flair—
The two Festival Orchestra concerts I have discussed took place in Avery Fisher Hall. A different orchestra, the German Chamber Orchestra of Bremen, came into a different and smaller hall: Alice Tully. (This orchestra, in its homeland, is known as the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen.) The Bremeners were led by their music director, Paavo Järvi—son of the venerable conductor Neeme Järvi, who fathered yet another conductor, Kristjan. Five years ago, Paavo and the Bremeners performed an all-Beethoven evening in Alice Tully. A colleague of mine wrote that they’d given a “hot” concert. So it was; and so was this one, in 2010.
It began and ended with Schumann: first, the Manfred Overture, and last, the Symphony No. 1 in B flat, called the “Spring.” As the lights dimmed, I had a worry: You know how little dogs seem to bark extra-loud, as if making up for their smallness? I was concerned that this chamber orchestra would do that. The Schumann pieces are not normally played by chamber orchestras; they are played by orchestra orchestras. Would the Bremeners be too loud and aggressive, to make up for their size? Would they turn the Schumann works into zippy period jobs? They did not—at least, there was no suggestion of this in the overture. The orchestra sounded plenty . . . orchestral. Full. The relatively modest size of the hall was a help, I believe.
Quite possibly, you have never heard a Manfred Overture like this one. Järvi made it incredibly tense, stormy, and throttling. Smoke practically rose from the orchestra. They were playing as though their lives depended on it. And this performance reminded me of how music can thrill. (One can forget, in the routine of concertgoing.) Järvi provided a superb example of what you might call “Classical Romanticism”: a Romanticism that is disciplined, indeed bristling. The only complaint I have is that the brass, when exposed, were quite ugly, and needlessly so.
Between the two Schumann pieces came a Mozart piano concerto: No. 17 in G (a masterpiece, it almost goes without saying). The soloist was Piotr Anderszewski, the renowned Pole. He did some eccentric playing in this concerto—also some downright bad playing. He thumped and pounded; he jabbed and poked; he was detached when legato was more appropriate. Bear in mind that Anderszewski is an excellent colorist, one of the best in the world: He proves this in music of his countryman Szymanowski. Why he thought Mozart could do without color, I don’t know. The Andante was okay, although some of Anderszewski’s pauses sounded contrived—sincerely meant, I’m sure, but contrived-sounding. In the last movement, Anderszewski refused to rush, giving himself time to play with the music: not just play it, but play with it. That was admirable. Less admirable was his overaggressiveness. Still, this movement had character—genuine character—even if it was a character you could not endorse.
Speaking of character, Anderszewski’s encore was positively brimming with it. And this encore was a three-fer: Bartók’s Three Hungarian Folksongs from Csík, which is to say, the district of Csík, currently in Romania. (Just wait a generation or two.) Anderszewski’s playing came right from the soil, refined by a classical sensibility. This was his best playing of the evening by far—it was a model, really. And I might mention that the folksongs make for rather a long encore. But that’s all right: Encores don’t have to be minute waltzes. A few seasons ago, in Avery Fisher Hall, Leif Ove Andsnes played L’Isle joyeuse.
In the “Spring” Symphony, Järvi and the Bremeners were somewhat little-dog-like: somewhat yappy, hyper, strident, and abrasive. (Let me apologize to those who love their Yorkies, as I would.) Schumann’s music could have used more warmth, breadth, and majesty—some Klemperer, to go with the period-like peppiness and scrappiness. The music was so relentlessly brisk and energetic, the climaxes did not seem quite climaxes. And yet Järvi did many commendable things—I hold him to a very high standard now. And what a brilliant, lovable, Spirit-imbued symphony the “Spring” is! We are always told—we have forever been told—that the Schumann symphonies are flawed. May we all be so flawed.
The audience wanted encores—screamed for them—and got them: two. First came a symphony, speaking of long encores. Actually, it was the last dash of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1. And it was exhilarating: stylish and exhilarating. Who was having more fun, the people onstage or the people in the audience? It was hard to tell. The second encore was Sibelius’s Valse triste—in which Järvi did very peculiar things with rhythm and tempo. Convincing things, too. This was a strange and enchanting Valse triste (and it is a strange and enchanting piece anyway). In one stretch, Järvi had his orchestra play as softly as I have ever heard an orchestra play. You could have heard a pin drop, amid the strings. Fortunately, no cell phone went off—it would have sounded like an atomic bomb.
The next night, the Festival Orchestra reclaimed the spotlight, playing another concert in Avery Fisher Hall. Standing in front of them was a conductor new on the scene. I will quote the first words of his bio: “At the age of 32, Spanish-born conductor Pablo Heras-Casado already enjoys a multi-faceted career . . .” How long will it be before they take the age out of his bio? When he’s thirty-five? Then his age won’t reappear, perhaps, until he’s eighty. Of late, we have had a rash of young conductors. (I am tempted to say a diaper rash.) The Frenchman Lionel Bringuier is only twenty-three (and he, too, appeared at this year’s Mostly Mozart Festival). The granddaddy of them all, so to speak, is Gustavo Dudamel, the Venezuelan who’s leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic, no less, at twenty-nine.
Consider for a moment the fact of Heras-Casado’s nationality. How many Spanish conductors can you name, off the top of your head? I’ll give you my quick list: Ataúlfo Argenta (who died young in 1958—he was in his mid-forties); Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos (born 1933); and Jesús López-Cobos (born 1940). Heras-Casado is a winsome guy with a mass of curly, unruly hair. He conducts without a baton, à la Masur, Gergiev, and a few others. In some instances—we saw this at Avery Fisher—he conducts without a podium. And without a score. That’s a lot of “withouts.” His gestures are neither economical nor extravagant; they are somewhere in between. He handles himself with confident, quasi-athletic grace.
The Mostly Mozart concert opened with Stravinsky’s chamber concerto, “Dumbarton Oaks”: that sparkling, quirky, exacting piece. It calls for just fifteen players; Heras-Casado opted against a podium. And how did the concerto go? Badly, very badly. The music had no sparkle, no bite, no crispness, no elegance, no jauntiness—no anything that belongs to “Dumbarton Oaks.” The performance was almost fascinatingly dull. After a mere five minutes, the concert seemed very, very long. The time might have been ten o’clock. I’ve spent whole Wagner evenings that felt shorter than this concert did halfway through “Dumbarton Oaks”—which is a short piece. The auditorium seemed morgue-like.
The soloist in this program was Gil Shaham, the Israeli-American violinist—and his piece was Mozart’s Concerto No. 5 in A. This concerto is relaxed, sunny, and serene. So is Shaham. In fact, I think he has difficulty bringing off pieces that involve struggle. In Mozart’s first movement, the violinist was sweet and strong. He did nothing special, but he did nothing especially bad either. The second movement, Adagio, featured easygoing meanderings. And the finale, the Rondo? It has a “Turkish” section—an ethnic riot out of nowhere—and Shaham was enjoyable here. He was emphatic and fun; so were Heras-Casado and the orchestra. I think this woke up the crowd.
Let me now address something awkward: the matter of facial expressions. Shaham likes to smile—likes to beam—particularly at conductors, during tuttis. This is an odd habit, but music, like other professions, is filled with them. A violinist friend of mine suggested that Shaham smiles in order to relieve tension (his own). During the Mozart concerto, especially the first movement, Shaham put other expressions on his face, too: expressions that reacted to the music in various ways. Again, this was while the orchestra, and not he, was playing. The expressions were distracting, to the point of causing titters in the audience: and titters, you don’t want. This is, as I said, an awkward problem, or phenomenon. Then again, no fair lookin’—no fair looking at musicians while they play, and allowing yourself to be influenced by the visual. Music is an aural art. Piotr Anderszewski can be difficult to look at: He has a repertoire of tortured-artist expressions.
After the Mozart, Shaham played an encore—and he played it with the orchestra, which was interesting and welcome. Seldom does a concerto soloist play an encore, when he plays an encore, with the orchestra. A violinist, for example, will play a slow movement from a Bach partita or sonata; or he will play a Paganini caprice, like Ehnes. But Shaham made use of the orchestra and conductor onstage, and they played what Shaham, in an announcement to the audience, called “real Turkish music,” not the Mozartean kind. They played something folkloric, flavorful, and, frankly, klezmer-like. Shaham looked (!) and sounded like he was having a ball. And he played with wonderful panache.
The audience was fully awake now. And they must have gotten even more awake when Heras-Casado—now on a podium, for the first time of the evening—conducted a Beethoven symphony: the Symphony No. 2. As with Langrée, the conducting was better than the playing; as with Langrée, the orchestra responded to the conductor. The symphony had definition, sensitivity, punch, and joy. You know that chuckling, chortling finale? It was as chuckling and chortling as ever, ending in its happy D-major frenzy. With “Dumbarton Oaks,” the night seemed dead and buried; after the Beethoven, the night felt young. So, of course, is Pablo Heras-Casado: and it should be a pleasure to watch him progress.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 29 September 2010, on page 47
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