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A masterly morning of Mahler

by Jay Nordlinger

Posted: Aug 24, 2015 10:25 AM


Daniel Barenboim and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / © Salzburger Festspiele / Marco Borrelli

Some musicians are hit-or-miss, and some are steady on (for better or worse). There have been many hit-or-miss musicians, and I’ll name four of them—two conductors and two singers: Lorin Maazel and Valery Gergiev; Jessye Norman and Plácido Domingo.

Frankly, Horowitz was hit-or-miss too. People like to remember him as godlike, and he was—but not all the time. He could play like a dog. Today, only the godlikeness is remembered, which is right.

Daniel Barenboim is one of the great hit-or-missers. This is true whether he’s on the podium or at the piano. I could tell many stories, but will confine myself to just one. (New Criterion readers have heard all my stories anyway.)

Years ago—it was in 2005, Google tells me—Barenboim came to Carnegie Hall with his Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It was, in fact, his farewell tour with that orchestra. On three different nights, they played three major symphonies: the Bruckner Fifth, the Schubert Ninth (i.e., the “Great C-major”), and the Mahler Fifth. The Bruckner and the Mahler were okay—you know, good enough for government work. But the Schubert? It was surpassing. It was probably the most musical, most powerful, and most arresting performance of this symphony I’ve ever heard (and I’ve heard everybody conduct it, I believe).

What happened? I have no idea. I doubt Barenboim would either. Or the Chicagoans.

In any event, Barenboim conducted the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra here at the Salzburg Festival on Saturday morning. There was one work on the program: the Mahler Ninth. This is the composer’s last will and testament, so to speak, although he certainly didn’t want it to be: he tried to avoid the Curse of the Ninth, and he lived to finish a movement of a tenth, but . . .

Was Barenboim a hit or a miss? A hit, definitely, and so was Mahler.

At the outset, the work was orderly, warm, and singing. The conductor showed a sense of pace and architecture. These Mahler symphonies are long journeys, like Bruckner symphonies. A conductor has to bear in mind what has come before and what will come after.

Occasionally, the VPO was sloppy in the first movement, and Barenboim simply bulled his way through. He does that at the piano, too.

I thought of Paul Johnson, the great British historian. His advice to writers who feel themselves stuck is, Be like a rhino. Just put your head down and charge ahead. (See a 2006 column, “The Rhino Principle,” here.)

Rhino-like or not—bull-like or not—Barenboim has heft, gravitas. He can put his shoulders into music, and an orchestra responds.

The VPO is a lavishly praised orchestra—deservedly so—but it does not always play well. For one thing, you never know who’s going to be in the orchestra. (Neither does a conductor, believe me.) Hordes of players rotate in and out.

Do you know this old expression? “Once a man has established the reputation of an early riser, he can sleep till noon.” No matter how the VPO plays, they will be cheered and praised. But on Saturday morning they played very well indeed. This was true of the orchestra as a whole and of individual players. The principal horn, for example, was like butter. So was his section at large.

On the podium, Barenboim embraced Mahler’s oddness. He was willing for passages to be obnoxious and unpretty. He also brought out a streak of anxiety, which can be embedded (too much so). In addition, the strings applied just the right amount of portamento. This makes a big difference in a Mahler performance. Too much or too little is harmful.

The ending of the first movement was rather like its beginning: orderly.

The second movement was rightly sassy, puckish. It had a proper amount of dryness. Then it had gaiety, a whirling carnival atmosphere. The third movement—the Rondo-Burleske—was bristling, a demonstration of ordered madness.

Before the fourth and final movement, Barenboim allowed an unusually long pause. That was wise (and the fruit of experience, probably). The atmosphere of the Rondo-Burleske should be cleared out before this finale—this Abschied (farewell)—begins.

The Abschied should tear your heart out, and it pretty much did in the Great Festival Hall on Saturday morning. (Actually, it was past noon at this point, the concert, and the symphony, having begun at 11.) Barenboim had the VPO making a huge sound. Too big? Possibly, but Barenboim had a big, glorious instrument at his disposal, and he wanted to air it out. Plus, when he wanted, and needed, yet more sound, he got it.

The symphony ended with its peace. Or is it resignation? Is there a difference? Oh, yes, I think so. And, in this performance, the ending was ambiguous. So it is in the score, I suppose. A masterpiece of masterpieces.

 

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In case you missed it

by Benjamin Riley

Posted: Aug 21, 2015 11:06 AM


James Bradburne, new Director of Milan’s Pinacoteca di Brera © James O'Mara

Recent links of note:

‘The Contemporary Novel’: an essay by T. S. Eliot
T. S. Eliot, The Times Literary Supplement
Recently unearthed by the TLS, this essay, which had previously appeared only in an obscure French translation, offers Eliot’s characteristically pointed thoughts on the state of the then-contemporary novel. In the modern style Eliot discerns the malicious influence of “psychology” on the novel, leading to an increased perversion of traditional forms. He reserves his most vicious invective for D. H. Lawrence, calling him a “demoniac…with a gospel” whose characters, in their more intimate moments, “seem to reascend the metamorphoses of evolution, passing backward beyond ape and fish to some hideous coition of protoplasm.”

Frankenfoods vs. Frankenlaws
Steven Malanga, City Journal
I’m frequently amused by the standard progressive position on genetically modified food (GMOs, generally). The progressive abhors GMOs, deriding them as unnatural, unhealthy, and abominations against nature. And this same progressive is the bore at the party going on about how the government does nothing to address adequately the global hunger problem, unaware entirely that GMOs are a potential solution to the issue. In this reasoned piece, Steven Malanga addresses the real villain in the GMO story: the laws that, without proper scientific support, vilify the crops.

Italy appoints 20 new museum directors
Ermanno Rivetti, The Art Newspaper
For the first time in Italy’s history, its national institutions, including its museums, will be led by non-Italians. Out of the twenty posts announced this week, seven were awarded to foreigners, marking a departure from previous flag-waving appointments that rewarded birthright over competence. Bravo!

Community-Based Chaos
James Panero, City Journal
This week in City Journal, our own James Panero offers sound evidence that the de Blasio administration’s feeble and wrong-minded policies towards vagrants are not only ineffectual but in fact designed to enrich homeless-industry cronies. Panero, a longtime resident of the Upper West Side, presents relevant data and his own observations of his proud neighborhood’s decline to definitively identify the current mayor’s program as the cause of increased vagrancy.

From our pages:

Curing American sclerosis
Charles Murray
A lecture delivered by Charles Murray after he received the third Edmund Burke Award for Service to Culture and Society.

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Greek guts in Salzburg

by Jay Nordlinger

Posted: Aug 20, 2015 11:03 AM


Cecilia Bartoli (Iphigénie) and Christopher Maltman (Oreste) / © Salzburger Festspiele / Monika Rittershaus

Among the offerings at the Salzburg Festival this year is Iphigénie en Tauride, Gluck’s opera from 1779. It is based on Euripides. There are three main roles in this show: Iphigénie, her brother Oreste, and his pal Pylade. To fill those roles, Salzburg hired three stars—starting with one big, big star.

That was Cecilia Bartoli, the Italian mezzo-soprano. She is Iphigénie, of course. Oreste is Christopher Maltman, the British baritone. And Pylade is Rolando Villazón, the Mexican tenor.

The orchestra, chorus, and conductor all come from Switzerland—Italian Switzerland, to be specific. I Barocchisti (a period band, as you can tell) and the Coro della Radiotelevisione Svizzera are conducted by Diego Fasolis. Last year at this festival, he presided over a Schubert evening at the Mozarteum. Bartoli was the draw on that occasion, too.

Iphigénie has not one stage director but two: the team of Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier. More about them, and their production, later.

Last night, Bartoli sang as she can be relied on to sing: with intensity and commitment, as well as accuracy and assurance. Everything matters so much to her. She sings as though her life depended on it. By the way, in this production, Iphigénie tries to kill herself at the end of an aria. That’s Bartoli.

Her intensity and commitment can be spread to her fellow singers, and others involved in a production. I suspect that this is occurring in Iphigénie.

Can Bartoli actually be too intense? I sometimes think that she would sing “Pass the salt” as though her life depended on it. But Iphigénie does not suffer from Bartoli’s intensity, not at all. Last night, she invested the opera with life (and death).

But so did the conductor, let me tell you. Fasolis is a musician of judgment, taste, and integrity. Passion too, when that is called for. His pacing of Iphigénie was superb. His orchestra could be a little rough, but, under his direction, they were entirely musical. And the chorus sang with precision, style, and beauty.

Christopher Maltman was brave and convincing. Why do I say “brave”? His pitch was not always perfect, but he was fearless in soft, exposed music (for example). And he acted with much pathos.

Villazón sang some beautiful phrases, which I was pleased and relieved to hear—he has faced vocal and other problems in recent years. But often, his voice was tremulous and overexcited. Also, his middle range gave him trouble. The higher or lower he went, the better off he was.

This is a tenor who tries so hard. It can be painful to watch and hear. And yet, this was an evening for extreme passion, so he fit right in.

There were other singers in this show, including Michael Kraus, an Austrian baritone who portrayed the Scythian king, Thoas. He owns a beautiful, somewhat booming instrument, and if his pitch occasionally strayed, his sheer sound made up for it.

The Leiser-Caurier production is set in the present day, apparently. Characters are dressed casually. You know the expression “Come as you are”? The characters do so, by the look of it. They are in sweatpants, sneakers, and the like.

In the climactic scene, Maltman wears nothing at all. His hands are cupped over his privates, forming a fleshly figleaf. Time was—do they do this still?—directors seized every opportunity to take Nathan Gunn’s shirt off. (He is an American baritone, or “bari-hunk,” as some people say.) Maltman is built like a soccer or rugby star. Iphigénie’s directors could not resist, evidently.

One of the best moments in this production is the appearance of the goddess Diana, near the end. All of a sudden, there she is, a vision in gold—her face is gold, too. Striking.

Leiser and Caurier have put together an intelligent production. It is 100 percent defensible. They have a case to make. Ultimately, however, their production is not for me, for one main reason: It and the opera do not really match, in my estimation. They are at odds. The ear hears one thing—a late Baroque or early Classical opera (played by a period band, moreover)—and the eye sees another.

Do I demand an Iphigénie in which the characters are dressed in togas and move in stately fashion? Of course not. But . . .

My biases aside, the Salzburg Festival has done well by Gluck’s opera, milking its drama for all it’s worth.

 

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Real Mozart

by Jay Nordlinger

Posted: Aug 19, 2015 02:35 PM


The Marriage of Figaro / © Salzburger Festspiele / Ruth Walz

A successful Marriage of Figaro is a very satisfying evening—and that’s what we had at the Salzburg Festival last night. This Figaro was not always sparkling, but it was always intelligent. And it sparkled often enough.

Figaro, even more than most Mozart operas, has a great many components. You can start with a cast of about ten. Not a single component failed last night.

And plenty of credit goes to the stage director, Sven-Eric Bechtolf. He obeyed the rule “First, do no harm.” Beyond that, he did considerable good. But we’ll get to the production later.

Playing in the pit was the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, and leading that band was Dan Ettinger, an Israeli conductor. He also provided the continuo, i.e., presided at the keyboard. His fingerprints, like Mozart’s, were all over this performance.

The overture was mediocre, not one whit better. The VPO made a poorish sound. The music lacked its lilt, impishness, and delight. This music is practically the high point of the opera, but it was possibly the low point of the performance—after that, everything bloomed.

At his worst, Ettinger was workmanlike, adequate; at his best, he was inspired. You could argue with his choices here and there: I thought “Dove sono,” the Countess’s aria, was too slow, and unmoving. (Unmoving in more than one sense.) But other parts of the score were excellent, and Ettinger made me notice things in this score that had somehow escaped my attention.

I’ll give you one highlight from Ettinger’s baton: the “wedding march,” as it’s known. It was squirmy and deliciously pompous—kind of sarcastic. What an ingenious little composition this is, in an opera bursting with them.

The title role, Figaro, was taken by Adam Plachetka, a bass-baritone from the Czech Republic. He was explosive, cunning, and very human. In other words, he was a fit Figaro. His “Se vuol ballare” had the appropriate menace. His “Aprite un po’ quegli occhi” was unusually theatrical, and winning.

His Susanna was Martina Janková, a Swiss soprano, but one born in the Czech lands, as you can tell. In her singing, she was forward, pointed; in her acting—as well as in her singing—she was spunky. But she also showed gracefulness in that graceful aria “Deh vieni.”

Our Count was Luca Pisaroni, the bass-baritone from Italy. He was, I believe, the only Italian on the stage—and it made a big difference when he opened his mouth, especially when he opened his mouth to speak. One was hearing the real, convincing McCoy.

A little Googling tells me that I have been writing about him since 2003, when he appeared at the Salzburg Festival in two Mozart operas: Don Giovanni (as Masetto) and La clemenza di Tito (Publio). I keep saying the same things about him, and have no reason to stop now.

He emits a beautiful ribbon of sound. His singing is accurate, clean, understanding, and, again, beautiful. It is also sincere. When he sang “Contessa, perdono” last night, he really meant it.

Let me be a little hokey and say that Pisaroni is a singer born for Mozart.

Among his qualities, whatever the opera and whatever the composer, is likability. Extreme likability. Now, the Count is a not very likable character, but in these hands? He was likable despite himself.

Sometimes this Count had a befuddled air, reminding me of Thurston Howell III. Sometimes he had a lanky agility, à la Dick Van Dyke. And when Pisaroni had to bring down the seigneurial hammer, he did.

By the way, the Count plays with a little dog in this production, early on. And he—the dog—was Pisaroni’s own, a pooch named Tristan (thus introducing a Wagner note on this Mozart evening).

The Countess was Anett Fritsch, an elegant German soprano, whose “Porgi, amor” was a model of long-breathed beauty. All through the opera, Fritsch sang with poise. Cherubino was Margarita Gritskova, a Russian mezzo. She was a sparkplug, a shape-shifter, a Cherubino. She walked the line between personableness and hamminess, not an easy walk to walk.

Bartolo was Carlos Chausson, a veteran bass-baritone from Spain (despite his sharing a name with a French composer, Ernest). What a beautiful, glowing instrument he has—still. And his Bartolo was a pleasure to watch. Partnering him as Marcellina was Ann Murray, the veteran Irish mezzo (not to be confused with Anne Murray, the veteran Canadian pop singer). She is a total pro, as you could tell with every note she sang and every move she made.

And could I just say that Marcellinas tend to remind me of Ruth Buzzi, complete with handbag? Marcellinas hit people with handbags.

Basilio was an Austrian tenor, Paul Schweinester, who did a fine job. In this production, Basilio is more mincing than ever. He also seems to be—brace yourself for an outdated phrase—a tormented homosexual. He lunges in agony at Cherubino. Hmmm . . .

Barbarina has one of the strangest little creations in this opera, an F-minor aria, over in a second, but somewhat haunting. An Austrian soprano, Christina Gansch, sang it with maturity. Barbarinas tend to be sprightly and innocuous. This one was strangely, and interestingly, darkling.

Back to Sven-Eric Bechtolf and his production. In recent years, I have taken to quoting Frank Lloyd Wright, who said, “A building ought to be a grace to its environment, not a disgrace.” The same is true of opera productions. They should be graces, not disgraces, to the operas they are meant to serve. They should harmonize with the music, the libretto, and the story.

Salzburg has seen its share—more than its share—of disgraces. Bechtolf’s Figaro is a grace.

Let me say what Bechtolf does not do: He does not have the Count and Susanna carrying on an affair, and he does not have the Countess and Cherubino carrying on an affair. Some directors do. And therefore they have no Figaro. Yes, Bechtolf’s Basilio is a little weird, but when isn’t Basilio a little weird?

This director actually likes the opera—likes Figaro, likes Mozart and Da Ponte (the librettist). He’s working with them, not against them.

He updates their opera, to be sure. This production is set sometime in the early twentieth-century—the 1920s? The Count (if I remember correctly) dials an old-timey telephone, with the receiver on the top. The sets are layered, giving an Upstairs, Downstairs feel. Rooms are open to the audience, meaning that you can see what various characters are doing in the various parts of the palace.

The production is fluid, just like the opera. It is quick-moving, saucy, farcical, subtle, poignant, and fizzy. It is sane and healthy, not sick. Where do I get those words? From Lorin Maazel, whom I interviewed in 2009. (Go here.) The maestro and I were talking about opera productions, and particularly those in Salzburg.

Bechtolf, incidentally, is the artistic administrator of the festival, not just a stage director. Given what he has done to The Marriage of Figaro—namely, serve the opera—maybe he should fire himself?

The production finishes in an unusual way. When the music stops, the action does not. The curtain does not fall. The characters have a party onstage, with lots of clinking of glasses. One by one, cast members leave the party, just for a moment, to bow to the audience.

Tristan returns, his tail wagging happily. I think practically every member of the audience wagged his tail happily at this evening of Mozart and opera.

One more word: Years ago, I interviewed Werner Hink, who was then a concertmaster of the Vienna Phil. He said he had played The Marriage of Figaro—or “Figaros Hochzeit,” as he called it, in his native tongue—more than 500 times. And never tired of it. Always basked in it. That’s Mozart for you.

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A party without heroes

by James Bowman

Posted: Aug 19, 2015 09:50 AM


President and Mrs. Truman at a Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner

According to The New York Times, “State by State, [the] Democratic Party Is Erasing Ties to Jefferson and Jackson.” I’d have thought that “ties” were things to be “cut” rather than “erased,” but it turns out that “erased” in the once-favored etymological sense of “rooted up” is what the headline writer meant.

For nearly a century, Democrats have honored two men as the founders of their party: Thomas Jefferson, for his visionary expression of the concept of equality, and Andrew Jackson, for his populist spirit and elevation of the common man. Political candidates and activists across the country have flocked to annual Jefferson-Jackson Day dinners, where speeches are given, money is raised, and the party celebrates its past and its future. But these time-honored rituals are colliding with a modern Democratic Party more energized by a desire for racial and gender inclusion than reverence for history. And state by state, Democratic activists are removing the names of Jefferson and Jackson from party gatherings, saying the two men no longer represent what it means to be a Democrat.

On the face of it, this exercise in forgetting is absurd. Because your ex-heroes didn’t do a couple of centuries ago everything that’s on your agenda today are they not only to be demoted from hero-status but treated as if they had done nothing? They didn’t know and could not have foreseen what your agenda today would be! Can you get more blinkered and arrogant than this in your attitude to the past?

But when you come to think about it a little, such an erasure makes a bit more sense. For the true progressive, the past is always going to be an embarrassment. Once you have chosen incrementalism as your path to a utopian future, you have committed yourself to a political process and therefore to compromises of one sort or another with the forces of reaction. And once those forces have been weakened to the point where they can no longer demand compromise, or so many compromises as they formerly demanded, you won’t want to be reminded of your past accommodations with those whom it has become more and more safe to regard as simply evil-doers in the lurid melodrama you have made of history.

Indeed the compromisers themselves may come to be regarded as evil, as Jefferson and Jackson now are by many if not most in the Democratic Party on account of their having owned slaves and, in Jackson’s case, mistreated American Indians. Ideally, the progressive will end up in the same place as the revolutionaries who regarded the reactionaries as evil-doers from the beginning and who need to re-start history’s clock at Year Zero on assuming power—it just takes him a little longer to get there. But the revolutionaries, too, because they must live in the real world rather than the utopian one of their imagination, are frequently embarrassed by the past and find that the evil ones have a bad habit of cropping up in unexpected places. That’s why Orwell’s Big Brother needed the Ministry of Truth to make sure that inconvenient memories of his own past found their way to the memory holes.

Scrubbing Jefferson and Jackson from the once proud history of the Democratic Party suggests that that party’s progressives are already becoming comfortable with their Orwellian future. One Stacey Abrams, the minority leader of the Georgia House, is quoted in the Times article as saying “that the state party stripped Jefferson and Jackson from the name of the dinner to tell ‘the entire story of our party’”—by which of course she means the entire story as amended by dumping all memory of everything that it did and everyone who was in it up until the day before yesterday. The logic by which, insofar as possible, all memory of the party’s support for slavery and segregation has been eliminated from its “entire story” is only being carried to its logical conclusion in getting rid of Jefferson and Jackson.

Ironically, as the Times article points out, “President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the father of modern economic liberalism, was particularly devoted to elevating the two men, rushing to complete the Jefferson Memorial so his party could have a monument to compete with the Republicans’ Lincoln Memorial.” In other words, by calling attention to Jefferson’s achievements, FDR hoped to gloss over his party’s past association with slavery. How long before Roosevelt, too, four times elected president with the help of segregationist voters, will have to be wiped from the party’s memory? How long, indeed, before those who are now denouncing Jefferson and Jackson as un-persons are themselves reduced to the same status because of some unforeseen and unforeseeable accommodation of their own with the forces of evil? At least we evil ones stand by our own.

 

 

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Thoroughly modern Mozart

by Eric C. Simpson

Posted: Aug 18, 2015 12:45 PM


Written on Skin / Credit: Richard Termine

I tend to keep my guard up when I hear that a new piece of music is being praised to the skies. Perhaps this is partly cynicism; but I find in a lot of music criticism today a tendency to give a blanket (if often tepid) seal of approval to any new piece of music that manages to make its way to a concert stage, informed by a desire to convince the public not to be afraid of new compositions. An admirable sentiment to be sure, but pretending that there are no uninteresting new pieces (imagine a world in which critical consensus praised every new play, or every new film to appear before the public) hardly seems conducive to a robust discussion around the art form.

So I approached George Benjamin’s 2013 opera Written on Skin, which had its U.S. stage premiere at the David Koch Theater last Tuesday, with optimistic skepticism. It has widely been heralded as the greatest new opera in decades, a masterpiece unveiled before our eyes. The last American premiere to be so hyped, back in 2014, was Nico Muhly’s Two Boys, which was supposed to be daring, even revolutionary, the explosion into maturity of a talented young composer with an original voice. To me, it sounded like warmed-over Glassian minimalism, an aesthetic I find largely vapid to begin with. The music asks little of the listener, in terms of either emotional or intellectual challenge, even if it is awfully pleasant.

Written on Skin is a different beast. It is raw, powerful, taxing, and often excruciatingly violent. And for all of these reasons, it is captivating. Its tale is one of illicit but passionate love, its conclusion a horror that allows no room for grief. Whatever joy there is to be found in the story and libretto comes in short, intense flashes that are always in danger of being swallowed up by the darkness around.

What few shortcomings there are in this work—and there are a few—are to be found in the libretto by Martin Crimp. There is a lot of strong poetry here, and the narrative structure, despite allowing the audience to remain ever one step ahead of it, is strong. The framing device, situating the stagehands and supporting characters as malevolent “angels” viewing the scene, is an intriguing one, though it leads to a lot of self-referential statements by the characters of the narrative, which can be off-putting. The staging, by Katie Mitchell, is the original production from the Aix-en-Provence Festival, presenting a small, drab house whose mood is entirely dictated by the lighting—warm and homey under full floods, forbiddingly dreary in the dark. The presence of sanitized-looking staging areas, in which costume changes occur and set changes are prepared, gives us a feeling of complicity in the dispassionate, morbid fascination of the “angels.”

The chief strength of this piece is Benjamin’s marvelous score. Like the libretto, it has its moments of serenity, but there is little comfort to be found in it—even at moments of apparent dramatic tranquility, the realization of the characters’ inner turmoil in the music is often harrowing, as when the jealous husband slowly awakes from a deep slumber, accompanied by vicious jolts of strings and brass.

Benjamin employs a tonality that has a sharp edge but feels accessible. His music is richly expressive, indulging in no superfluous or opaque gestures, and maintaining just enough texture at all times to sit just a hair under the singers. Benjamin’s orchestration is by no means lavish, but it does not feel spare, either, and his vocal lines, rather than the wandering or darting qualities favored by many modern composers, are hauntingly direct.

The performances given during Tuesday’s premiere were stunning, top to bottom. As Agnès, a young woman forced into a marriage with a much older man, Barbara Hannigan was dramatically transfixing, her voice clear and bright, often just on the edge of piercing. As her lover, a young bookmaker known only as The Boy, the countertenor Tim Mead was a cool presence onstage, matching the temperament of his straight, flute-like voice. Christopher Purves, playing “The Protector,” as the husband is known, made us feel guilty for feeling any touch of compassion for him, but we did so anyway, almost until his final, inhuman act of violence. And, not to be left out, Alan Gilbert gave by far the best performance I have ever heard him lead, drawing dark, intense playing out of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and constructing the arc of the score as surely as though he had conducted the piece a hundred times.

Approaching its fiftieth season, the Mostly Mozart Festival is having its moment. A festival whose main attraction is a seasonal orchestra playing Classical and Romantic standards will fill seats, but will struggle to be more than a local attraction. Mostly Mozart, by facilitating major events like this one, is transforming itself into a destination, and the results have been a boon to locals and visitors alike.

 

***

 

Wednesday saw an odd program at Avery Fisher Hall. Odd, but intriguing. At either end were Mozart’s two immortal G-minor symphonies, about as good a hook for a concert as exists.

In the middle was a set of vocal selections with the baritone Matthias Goerne, one of today’s great recital singers. The Bach cantata Ich Habe Genung was straightforward enough—or it should have been, at any rate. In the first aria the oboist, Randall Ellis, seemed painfully uncomfortable with his obbligato part, as though he were reading it for the first time—which can’t have been the case, since the same program was presented the night before, concurrently with the opera across the way. And the third and final aria was a wreck, coming apart completely at one point and only reassembling when the players gave up trying to make music and concentrated just on blurting out the right notes at the right times.

There followed three orchestral transcriptions of Schubert lieder, and while their preparation felt more solid than that of the Bach, their purpose was unclear, other than to give Goerne a chance to shine in his best repertoire—which he did, in spite of some sweeping arm gestures that danced on the edge of comedy. The first two, An Silvia and Alinde, transcribed by Alexander Schmalcz, added little to the original pieces, relying on unimaginative and rudimentary orchestration—doubling plucked strings with timpani, and the like. And the third, Der Erlkönig, in the transcription by Max Reger, was entirely predictable—simulate the frantic left hand of the piano part with frantic violins, double the Elfking’s vocal lines with woodwinds, and we’re set.

Writing from Tanglewood a few weeks ago, I mentioned my frustration with a common tendency to treat Mozart’s works too cautiously, as though too rough an approach might break them. So it was with Louis Langrée’s interpretation of Symphony No. 25. Anyone who has heard this symphony (and that’s a huge number of people, whether they realize it or not) knows that this is not a timid piece; it is urgent, it is aggressive, it has teeth. Langrée led it with tasteful, urbane detachment. It was clean and it was cute, but it essentially missed the point.

No. 40, the “Great” G-minor, was inspired by contrast, and even on its own terms. It was sprightly and energetic, its Andante rapturous, its Menuet noble and graceful, its finale tart and bristling. This was Mozart the way Mozart should be: spirited, imaginative, witty, and—like the man himself—impishly playful under that veneer of propriety.

 

***

 

One of the common jokes about the Mostly Mozart Festival is that it rarely lives up to its name, especially now that contemporary music is earning a larger place in its programming. One might say that Mozart comprises a plurality of the festival, and in some years even manages to form a majority coalition of the Classical–Romantic bridge with Beethoven and Mendelssohn.

We had Mozart and Beethoven together on last weekend’s weekend program at Avery Fisher Hall. The conductor was Cristian Macelaru, a young Romanian currently serving as “Conductor-in-residence” of the Philadelphia Orchestra. He has an unusual technique, snapping quick, wide strokes with the baton. It seemed the orchestra had some trouble settling in; the impetus in the opening measures of Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 was unclear; the player’s articulation was specific, but the syntax of the music remained a mystery. The easy lyricism and tender sighing of the Andante were marred somewhat by suspect intonation in the strings. The final two movements, though, turned around somewhat, especially the allegro Finale, which developed into a lively conversation by the end.

Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto is just about bound to be the main event on any program on which it appears; unlike many concerti of its period, it is a powerful enough work to stand up to any symphony that a conductor is likely to throw at it. Lars Vogt’s rendition was an excellent one, a considered and earnest reading that concentrated more on the ideas of the piece than on its virtuosity—a good thing, too, since he rushed through and jumbled a lot of his passagework.

The opening of this concerto is unforgettable, a sudden ray of sunlight from the piano that never lingers quite long enough before the first theme is introduced. Vogt on this opening chord was more penetrating than glowing—not quite the way I imagine it, but completely convincing. The only complaint I can really lodge against this performance, in fact, comes from the second movement, and it again concerns Macelaru, who kept too tight a leash on the low strings in their roaring interjections. A group encore, the Larghetto from Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27, was lovely, though a bit on the long side.

Friday’s concert was probably the last time I will set foot in Avery Fisher Hall before it becomes David Geffen Hall at the start of the New York Philharmonic’s season. Renaming a beloved public space is always a contentious matter—many critics and concertgoers still have not forgiven David Koch for putting his name on what was then the New York State Theater across the plaza, and some insist on referring to it by its former name, or by the familiar riff “the venue formerly known as … ”

They are of course entitled to hold and express their political views, and I won’t debate those views here. It is worth pointing out, though, that when Koch made his gift of $100 million for the renovation of the theater, he did so with the understanding that it could be renamed after fifty years. The directors of Lincoln Center, after having paid the Fisher family a small fortune to take Avery’s name off of the New York Philharmonic’s home, publicly (and wisely) said that they would also impose a limit on any naming gift for the hall this time round, but new namesake David Geffen was having none of it: eternity, or bust.

Will snarky observers henceforth refer to the building as “the venue to be known hereafter and—in spite of some very serious objections—without expiration as David Geffen Hall”? I guess that’s a bit of a mouthful.

 

 

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The Critic's Notebook for August 17, 2015

by Benjamin Riley

Posted: Aug 18, 2015 10:15 AM


Dance at Socrates via

 

Sign up to receive “Critic's Notebook” in your inbox every week—it only takes a few seconds and it's completely free! “Critic's Notebook” is a weekly preview of the best to read, see, and hear in New York and beyond, compiled by the editors of The New Criterion.

 

This week: Summer Reading, Dance at Socrates, and the Abduction From The Seraglio.

FictionDecline and Fall, by Evelyn Waugh (Back Bay Books): It is said that houseguests, like fish, begin to stink after three days. Though good novels have a longer half-life than either of the above, summer lends itself to the slim text, just as it does to fresh fish on the grill. Humor, lightness, and delicacy are the order of the summer day, and though set in rainy Wales, Evelyn Waugh’s early satire of desultory life in a provincial boarding school fits the bill. Short enough to finish before the guests depart, it can serve as a welcome respite from the ongoing requests for “more ice” and “clean towels.” Reading Decline and Fall is certainly a better alternative to finding oneself “in the soup,” like the unforgettable Captain Grimes; that the book turns in at just over three hundred pages (not nearly as slim as I had thought) is a testament to the breeziness of Waugh’s then-nascent prose and the book’s ability to captivate. —BR

Nonfiction: Accidents of Fortune, by Andrew Cavendish (Michael Russell Publishing): Anglophiles of the World, Unite! Accidents of Fortune, a slender, companionable volume by Andrew Cavendish, aka Andrew Devonshire, the eleventh Duke of that name, is the perfect late-summer entertainment. Published in 2004, just weeks after His Grace’s death at 84, the book covers all but one of the Duke’s major passions: politics, books, art, horse racing (“Straw,” his colors, are the oldest registered on the Turf), charities of various sorts, and above all Chatsworth, perhaps the most stately of English Stately Homes, whose 300 rooms, extensive gardens, superb library and art collections, and thousands upon thousands of acres of surrounding grounds and pleasances make it one of the crown jewels of English Baroque architecture. It’s been home to the Cavendish family since 1549. Andrew’s ascension to the title was due to a sniper’s bullet, which killed his older brother Billy in 1944. I met the Duke only once, towards the end of his life. He instantly impressed me as a charming, well-mannered, unassuming man of the world—exactly the character that peeps out of these quiet but cultured and well-written pages. Andy, as I would not have dared to address him, seems to have been almost universally beloved. A spirit of decorous gratitude for all that fortune had brought him suffuses these pages, and a most attractive spirit it is. I first became aware of him through his association with Heywood Hill, the great London bookshop in which he had a controlling interest. The comic novelist Nancy Mitford, his sister-in-law, famously worked there during the war (there is a Blue Plaque to commemorate her tenure). I was lunching once with an English friend at Brooks’s when he confessed that he was something of a “cluboholic.” He currently belonged to twelve London clubs, he explained, and was just about to join a thirteenth, Pratt’s, just around the corner and owned by the Duke of Devonshire. To save confusion, he continued, one addressed the staff indiscriminately as “George.”  “That’s so English,” I thought, a contention that another English friend confirmed when, hearing about Pratt’s, he remarked that “At the Beefsteak we call them all Charles.” This fact is completely irrelevant to the subject of this agreeable book but telling it allowed me to defer mentioning the one great interest of the eleventh Duke missing from his memoir: his avid, not to say notorious, interest in, and pursuit of the opposite sex. —RK

Poetry: Yeats2015 (Through December 31, 2015): Some writers get only a single day each year for the public to celebrate their lasting cultural achievement; others get none. In truth, I was unaware until recently of the existence of “Yeats Day,” which commemorates the legacy of Ireland’s foremost modernist poet. But 2015 is a special year for Yeats, being the 150th anniversary of his birth. And so “Yeats Day” has been expanded to “Yeats Year,” or as the Irish tourism authorities have it, Yeats2015. With a full schedule of events from art exhibitions to interpretative dance through the end of December, anyone with an abiding interest in Yeats should find something to capture his interest. But with all the events taking place in Ireland, the only way to experience Yeats2015 in person is to slouch towards Sligo, as it were. —BR

Dance: “Dance at Socrates” at the Socrates Sculpture Park (Through August 22): This Saturday is your last chance of the summer to see “Dance at Socrates.” The free, open-air resident dance festival at Socrates Sculpture Park along the East River in Long Island City, Queens, now in its third season, is produced by the newly minted Cypress Hills art nonprofit Norte Maar. This final week features new work by Meagan Woods & Co. and Julia K. Gleich, the organizer of the festival, with an appropriately artful dance inspired by the paintings of Jack Tworkov. —JP

Music:  Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio), by W. A. Mozart, performed by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe: I’ve been a little unkind to Mozart lately—but a new album from Deutsche Grammophon gives us a fresh take on one of his first major successes, the singspiel Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio). Diana Damrau leads the cast as Konstanze, taking on one of the most difficult roles in the coloratura repertoire, including the infamous show-aria "Martern aller Arten." Rolando Villazón plays opposite as her beloved Belmonte, and the superb Yannick Nézet-Séguin leads the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. —ECS

From the archive: Yeats revisited, by C. H. Sisson: Though Yeats Day has passed, the namesake’s year is ongoing. As such, we present C. H. Sisson’s 1989 review of the first volume of Yeats’s Collected Works.

From our latest issue: Exhibition note, by Mario Naves: On “Trenton Doyle Hancock: Skin and Bones, 20 Years of Drawing” at the Studio Museum, Harlem.

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The Trio Zimmermann: a fabulous three

by Jay Nordlinger

Posted: Aug 17, 2015 11:27 AM


The Trio Zimmermann/ © Salzburger Festspiele / Marco Borrelli

At the Salzburg Festival, as elsewhere, opera productions hog most of the attention, but there is a variety of offerings, including chamber music. Last night, the Trio Zimmermann played in the Great Hall of the Mozarteum Foundation (and a great hall it is—glittering, inspiring, and beautiful).

The Zimmermann of the Trio Zimmermann is the German violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann. His partners are Antoine Tamestit, a French violist, and Christian Poltéra, a Swiss cellist.

As I have noted several times—in this post, for example—there are two standard lines in musicians’ bios: First, the musician is totally committed to chamber music; second, the musician is totally committed to new music.

Tamestit’s bio tells us that he is “a dedicated chamber musician.” My thought: Well, he’d better be—he has a viola career. (Poltéra’s bio, by the way, tells us that he is “a passionate chamber musician.” I have emphasized the word, which is even better than “dedicated.”)

Listen, let me not joke too much. Last summer, in a review from Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival, I said there had been “an unaccompanied viola recital. Have you ever heard of anything so odd?” At the end of that review, I said, “Antoine Tamestit is an excellent musician—a musician’s musician—and a credit to his instrument. If you had told me that one of the best recitals or concerts of the year would be a solo viola recital, I might have doubted you. But it was.”

On the Trio Zimmermann’s program here in Salzburg were three works, three string trios. The first was the one in B flat, D. 581, by Schubert. He wrote it when he was twenty.

The three players began absolutely, perfectly together. That proved a sign of things to come. They also played with true musicality. Within a few pages, you could relax—you knew you were in the hands of very, very capable people. What a gift, to be able to sit in the audience and not be nervous for the music or the performers!

The performers’ playing was songful and rich (though not heavy). In the middle was Tamestit, the violist. He was in the middle in more than one sense: He was in the middle of the stage, physically, between the violinist and the cellist. And his sound was in the middle of the playing. He is a great asset, Tamestit.

Incidentally, I once heard a violist say that the role of his instrument, in the orchestra, is to be “the cream in the Oreo cookie.”

Schubert’s final movement is the rondo, marked “Allegretto.” It’s not easy to find the right tempo here, and the Zimmermann did. The music was unforced and unrushed, and it never dragged. And Schubert’s Gemütlichkeit pervaded the hall.

Next on the program was Hindemith’s String Trio No. 2. In the Zimmermann’s hands, it was just as good as the Schubert, if not better. It occurred to me that I was starting to take the players’ precision for granted. They were “as one” (if you’ll forgive the cliché). They were also unfailingly musical. And each player, individually, was making a fine sound.

They did a service to Hindemith, whose composition was beautiful, exciting, and interesting, in equal measure.

After intermission, there was just one composition, a big one, Beethoven’s String Trio in E flat, Op. 3. He wrote it when he was twenty-one. In the first movement, the players managed to suggest some of Beethoven’s bigness and uncontainability. Some pages were quasi-symphonic (but not overblown). Other pages, of course, were duly intimate.

Throughout the work, we could hear Beethoven’s budding “strangeness.” I have used Harold Bloom’s highest encomium, which he applies to authors, and which I sometimes apply to composers. Beethoven’s off-kilter rhythms, for example, still catch the attention. In any event, the Trio Zimmermann did full justice to his Opus 3.

Let me now ask a rude question, or at least an impertinent one: Is there such a thing as too much string trio, even in a great concert? I believe so, yes. I think I would have bade farewell after the Beethoven—but these players sat down for a quick encore, which turned out to be an excellent idea.

The encore was a scherzo, full of pizzicato—don’t hold me to it, but I believe it was from Hindemith’s first string trio. In any case, this piece has a Scaramouch quality, which the players brought out to a T. They played with their clockwork precision, and their flair.

The audience thundered its appreciation. Honestly, the applause for the Trio Zimmermann was longer and louder than the applause had been on Friday for Riccardo Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic, after Brahms’s Second Symphony. The trio should definitely have called it a night.

But they sat down for Schubert’s String Trio in B flat, D. 471, which has one movement, the composer never having finished the work. (He would later do that to a symphony.) This was a mistake, on the Zimmermann’s part. They played the piece beautifully, of course. But it was too long, and too mild, for this juncture of the evening, and it deflated the hall. After the last note, people got out of there like a bat out of hell.

The cliché is right: Always leave ’em wanting a little more. And by all means, don’t overstay your welcome.

In the first row, there was a little girl—an adorable little blond girl—about four years old. That’s an unusual sight at a chamber concert. As far as I could tell, she was good as gold, from the beginning of the evening till the end, though she fidgeted a bit during the Schubert encore.

Regardless, she heard a first-rate concert of chamber playing. Absolutely, 100 percent first-rate.

 

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In case you missed it

by Benjamin Riley

Posted: Aug 14, 2015 12:07 PM


Jeremy Corbyn/Photo Credit: Andy Rain European Pressphoto Agency

Recent links of note:

Day of Dupes
Robert Conquest, The Spectator
Our remembrance of Robert Conquest continues with a look back at his response to a letter published in The Times regarding the Bay of Pigs invasion. Conquest’s piece is a masterful takedown of the bien pensant public. With words that resonate now as then, Conquest perspicaciously declares, “There is something particularly unpleasant about those who, living in a political democracy, comfortably condone terror elsewhere.”

Isis Happens
Theodore Dalrymple, City Journal
Frequent New Criterion contributor Theodore Dalrymple offers perspective on the way the liberal media normalizes the malicious group known as ISIS by removing agency from its participants. By repeating that its zealots merely “fall into” ISIS, the media obscures the wickedness of its members, turning them into victims rather than agents of terror.

TWTB
Jay Nordlinger, National Review
Most of our readers may know Jay Nordlinger as the sharpest music critic in New York, but he is also a political wit writing for National Review’s blog on a regular basis. In this insightful piece, Nordlinger discusses the schadenfreude felt by Tories in viewing the potential election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader. Despite the mirth occasioned by the prospect of a leftist madman leading the opposition, true Tories like Nordlinger know that “to see [the Labour Party] go bolshevik, with the election of Jeremy Corbyn, would, in part, be a blow to us all.”

Knoedler gallery and former director quietly settle three claims over fake paintings
Laura Gilbert, The Art Newspaper
The ongoing saga of the Knoedler Gallery’s forgery case appears to be coming to a close. Despite a longstanding denial of wrongdoing, the former director Ann Freedman has discreetly settled three of the ten lawsuits brought against the gallery. For more background on the case, please read our own James Panero’s interview with Ann Freedman from August 2013 and Daniel Grant’s recent reflection on art and the law.

From our pages:

In memoriam: Robert Conquest, 1917-2015
Roger Kimball
This week we deviate from our usual print offering to share Roger Kimball’s tribute to his friend Robert Conquest, who died last week at the age of 98.

 

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Love is a battlefield

by Kyle Smith

Posted: Aug 12, 2015 11:38 AM


Georgia Engel, Christopher Abbott, and Lois Smith/ Photo: Matthew Murphy via

In the 1970s, the actress Georgia Engel played the sweetly aloof girlfriend and bride of anchorman Ted Baxter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Now 67, she has changed little—she has the same eager, daft smile and the same singsong, nursery-school-teacher voice. It hardly need be said that she would make an ideal choice to play a serial killer, a psychotic or even a vaguely sinister bed & breakfast owner who seems reluctant to explain what happened to either of her two husbands.

It is the latter role that Engel plays, marvelously, in Annie Baker’s circuitous, funny and unnerving new play, John, at the Pershing Square Signature Center on West 42nd Street through September 6. Baker, whose last play The Flick won her the Pulitzer Prize last year at age 33, writes three-hour plays that tend to take place in a single setting with a small cast. Characters test the audience’s patience by speaking in banalities interrupted with frequent long pauses, and the reading-room quiet of the (in)action on stage often induces naps in audience members, whose snoring in turn makes it even more difficult to hear. Tickets for John are only $25, though, so consider it implied that you should use the savings to invest in an espresso, maybe a double.

Even so, John may not hold you in its thrall: it’s a 195-minute, two-intermission piece that guards its secrets, releases them only at lengthy intervals, and can be read any of several ways. Nevertheless, for playgoers who enjoy theater with aspects of a puzzle, it is a stimulating evening. It might be premature to call Baker a “genius” (The Daily Beast), but she is not to be dismissed either. Baker’s voice is developing impressively, and if her trademark in previous plays has been the inarticulacy of her slacker characters (The Flick was labeled “mumblecore” by Natasha Simons), the cupboard of Baker’s thoughts is ample, especially in John.

The play is a sort of implied ghost story that takes place entirely on the ground floor of a chintz-infested bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania at the end of November. The doddering owner-manager Mertis (Engel) is a shuffling, harmless old thing who exists almost silently in the shadows among the doilies and the flowered upholstery and the knickknacks. At right is a bookcase holding a collection of ceramic winter cottages. Next to it is a fully decorated Christmas tree. A young Brooklyn couple, Elias (Christopher Abbott, a Seth Rogen type) and his girlfriend Jenny (Hong Chau, ditzy and passive-aggressive) arrive late in the evening. They are on their way back to New York from her family’s home in Ohio and intend to spend a day or two exploring the nearby battlefields, Elias being a Civil War buff. Between the two of them exists an unspoken tension, and Jenny is obsessed with an American Girl doll that is part of the decor. It’s an exact copy of a doll she possessed as a girl, and lately on a visit to her childhood home she grew obsessed with the idea that the doll hated her for being boxed up and placed in the basement. Jenny, trying to be humane, cut some windows in the cardboard box to make things more bearable for the object.

Baker creates the sense that violence could erupt, but instead such shocks as arrive are largely the ones we learn about when characters talk about their back stories—about history. Segue to the War Between the States: the B & B itself once served as a hospital, and so many limbs needed to be hacked off in July of 1863 that the discarded arms and legs formed a ten-foot pile outside the windows. Mertis delivers this piece of information, like all the others she dispenses, as dispassionately and fondly as she offers plates of Vienna fingers or cups of chocolate tea. About subjects closer to her own history she is less forthcoming: it isn’t till about halfway through the play that we learn she has a husband, who apparently is in the house somewhere, though no details are offered about why no one else has seen him. Moreover, she once had another husband, someone who died in an unfortunate accident that is, again, not described in a satisfactory way, though Mertis, Georgette-like, is so feather-brained that it’s difficult to tell whether she is intentionally withholding information or simply is unaware how strangely incomplete her personal reminiscences sound to others. 

A fourth character (impeccably played by veteran actress Lois Smith, whose career spans from Elia Kazan’s East of Eden to HBO’s True Blood) adds a bizarre twist to the proceedings, but to say more would perhaps be to say too much. Her name is Genevieve—a near-match for Jenny. Via Genevieve we begin to learn that the past is, as in Faulkner, not dead, and not even past. There are discussions of whether the house is haunted: certain rooms, Mertis says in her sweetly oblique way, are simply “unreliable on certain nights.” Christmas tree lights blink on and off. The piano to the left begins to play itself. Oddness fills the air.

There are no men named John in the play, and yet there are two men named John in the play, one in the present and one long ago, each looming strangely over the relationships of the characters onstage like a harvest moon. In the final minutes, Baker skillfully coaxes the two together, ending the proceedings with a devastating one-liner that settles a point of suspense even as it clarifies John’s larger theme. This may not be an especially wicked or devastating black comedy, but it’s a droll and deftly designed one. Baker is a playwright on the march.

 

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In the Aeneid, the Roman poet Virgil sang of "arms and a man" (Arma virumque cano). Month in and month out, The New Criterion expounds with great clarity and wit on the art, culture, and political controversies of our times. With postings of reviews, essays, links, recs, and news, Armavirumque seeks to continue this mission in accordance with the timetable of the digital age.

 

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