Joyce DiDonato in La Donna del Lago; photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
When we go to a major opera house like the Met, we expect to have it all—first-rate singing, beautiful playing, and compelling drama. That can be a difficult package to put together. The Met's new production of La Donna del Lago isn't much to look at, but Joyce DiDonato's performance is absolutely worth hearing:
If you can't make it to the house in person, there will be SiriusXM broadcasts on February 25 and March 10. Click here to read more of my thoughts on Monday's opener.
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by James Bowman
Brian Williams and David Carr
It must have been the fifth or sixth time this morning that the “anchors” on my local news-radio station told me that the “wind-chill factor” was sub-zero that poor old Brian Williams came swimming up into my thoughts. Having been born in a part of the country where sub-zero temperatures—the real, not the “wind-chill factor” kind—are pretty normal at this time of year, I have always been a bit impatient with the weather hyperbole so often to be met with in softer southern regions such as Washington, D.C. I understand that it is a convenient conversation-starter and therefore a contributor to social solidarity at an informal level—when you meet someone in the elevator, for example, or walking the steaming dogs. But heard on the radio, and at such length, it makes you think these people are desperate either for something to talk about or to pretend to be my friends.
But then it occurred to me that such desperation is only what we expect of our “anchors,” whether on radio, television or even, I suppose, the internet. Like other celebrities, they come to us in the guise of friends. To be sure, it is a very particular kind of friendship, and most people—apart from a few stalkers and other nut cases—can tell the difference between it and the genuine kind. Nevertheless, our expectations of the celebrity are analogous to our expectations of our friends. We expect them to acknowledge that we are members of the same community, whether of interest, of kinship or just of being in the same place at the same time, and within that community to be loyal and confiding and to tell us stuff that we didn’t know, including (especially) gossip. And most of us, unless we are egomaniacs, tend to rank most highly in the hierarchy of friendship those friends who have the most to tell us that we didn’t know.
The big advantage that celebrities have over our other friends is that they don’t have to do anything to make us interested to hear stuff we don’t know about themselves. Real friends, unless they have remarkably interesting lives, have to have established some basis of affection and sympathy before we take much of an interest in their everyday doings. Celebrities can expect that kind of interest from people who have never even met them. Still, they too must expect to have a kind of hierarchy in our estimation, in which our celebrity-friends with better stories to tell will naturally be ranked more highly than those with less interesting ones. As celebrities are mostly successful people, we should expect that they will be competitive sorts and possibly less scrupulous about not telling what Mark Twain called “stretchers” than we ourselves no doubt are. In a favorite phrase of the late celebrity journalist David Carr — according to A.O. Scott’s tribute in today’s New York Times —someone is “always competing to be the tallest leprechaun.”
Carr, of course, had way better stories to tell than most celebrity journalists, including those he told in his memoir of cocaine addiction, The Night of the Gun.That, along with the documentary Page One: Inside The New York Times was what made him a celebrity, in spite of his being only a print journalist. Another passage from Mr. Scott’s tribute also has a certain resonance: “David was always hungry for stories. He was a collector of personalities and anecdotes, a shrewd and compassionate judge of character. . .The only rule was that the stories had to be true.” There is no mention here of Brian Williams, but there can be few readers of those words to whose minds he and his stretchers are not recalled. But then Carr’s celebrity was of different sort from that of a TV “anchor.”
Or maybe the tendency to exaggerate has nothing to do with celebrity but comes from being “just folks” in a more traditional sense. Robert Wright at what’s left of The New Republic claims that “Brian Williams Is Being Punished for Something Every Human Does.” What he means by “something every human does” is not exaggeration but misremembering — which we all do, supposedly, for the sake of increasing our status. The piece’s larger purpose is to make the preposterous suggestion that this kind of misremembering could have been responsible for the Iraq War, but that doesn’t mean he’s not right to say that it’s natural. All the same, I’m not sure that that’s a good enough excuse. Lot’s of things that we, and those who occupy positions of public trust, should not do are also natural. Remember what Katherine Hepburn said to a gin-sodden Humphrey Bogart when he claimed that his drinking was “only human nature” in The African Queen. “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.”
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Recent links of note:
Museums Ban Selfie Sticks From Their Stately Venues of Enlightened Gazing
Picasso Trial: So how did French couple come by £50m art hoard?
The Whiff of a New Blacklist
One Wine, Two Wine, Red Wine, Blue Wine
From our pages:
The other Italy
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by James Panero
Recent protests at the Met Opera and Carnegie Hall signal a new turn in the relationship between art and politics.
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On Tuesday night, Janine Jansen played a recital in Zankel Hall, accompanied by Itamar Golan. She is a Dutch violinist, he is an Israeli pianist. I knew they would play a competent recital, probably a good one. As it transpired, they played a great one. Isn’t it nice when that happens?
The program consisted of Prokofiev in the first half and Ravel in the second. To begin were the Five Melodies, which Prokofiev wrote in the 1920s. The first one has intervals reminiscent of “I’ve Got a Crush on You” (Gershwin). Swear.
When Jansen entered, she was matter-of-fact, conversational. She was not so much beginning as continuing. Do you know what I mean by that? She entered as though the music, or conversation, had been going on already. There was no real onset. It was more of a midstream floating.
She made a good sound, and she played in tune. A listener could concentrate on the music. Generally, these pieces had a quiet intensity. Sometimes they had a submerged panic (which is stronger than a quiet intensity).
At some point, I became aware of a dog not barking: the pianist, Golan. What I mean is, he was doing nothing wrong. There was no bad accent, no ungainly phrase. So I had not really noticed him. What’s more, he and Jansen were blending perfectly. Their notes and thoughts matched. This was uncommonly intelligent music-making.
The Five Melodies, played like that, might have been enough for one evening. But there was more—starting with Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in F minor, composed over a stretch of eight or nine years: 1938 to 1946. That was a very cheery period, wasn’t it?
As in the Five Melodies, one could simply listen to the music, quite aside from performance. In the first movement, the music was generally understated. You don’t have to milk it. The emotion is embedded. And the players were inside the skin of this music. They had the introspection, the anxiety—the fear.
At the piano, Golan was neither too loud nor too soft. This is harder to pull off than a person might imagine. Gerald Moore, the famed accompanist, titled his memoirs Am I Too Loud? Golan was percussive when he had to be, but not foolishly so. Prokofiev often calls for a mixture of the percussive and the lyrical. Both Golan and Jansen were attuned to this mixture.
The second movement of this sonata is marked Allegro brusco—and that describes the music. A brusque allegro. But brusque need not mean obnoxious, as the players knew. In addition to brusqueness, this movement has an underlying insanity, or a sense of just hanging on, mentally. The players expressed that.
Next comes the slow movement, Andante, a perfectly Prokofievian slow movement. Jansen gave the sense of gliding on ice; Golan accompanied delicately underneath. With her violin, Jansen did some melting singing (which is maybe not very good for ice?).
The final movement expressed its controlled—but not stifled—fury. It was a study in tasteful madness (if you can imagine such a thing). Jansen and Golan had given us an absolutely first-rate performance of the Sonata No. 1.
You almost didn’t want to go back after intermission. But you were glad you did—because of the magnificence of the Ravel Sonata, as played by these two musicians.
I will repeat myself, because they did, in a sense: In the first movement of the Ravel, I was not really aware of interpretation. I was just listening to the Ravel Sonata. There was no intrusion of ego by either violinist or pianist. All that was in the hall was Ravel.
The second movement, Blues: Moderato, I have always considered American. On this occasion, it was not really American. The music had a touching awkwardness. It was like a simulacrum of blues or jazz, rather than blues or jazz itself. This must be what Ravel intends? As Jansen played, I thought of an oxymoron: elegant rawness. Her playing of this bluesy and Frenchy music was elegantly raw.
And the third movement had a wonderful, exciting forward momentum—as well it should have, being marked Perpetuum mobile: Allegro.
Finishing off the printed program was Tzigane, Ravel’s homage to the Gypsy tradition. From Jansen, I could have imagined a bigger sound. Also, she was not 100 percent clean. The Tzigane was the only thing on the program that was okay, rather than excellent or great. But I am grading strictly here.
For an encore, I thought of “Beau soir,” the Debussy song. Maybe Jansen should play that (in transcription, needless to say). Instead, she played another French song: “Après un rêve,” by Fauré. It was sensitive, unfussy, and beautiful. Janet Baker might have sung it the same way—though that’s not a good analogy, because Baker is a mezzo, and Jansen plays a soprano instrument. Maggie Teyte?
To close the evening, Jansen played a Kreisler number, the Marche miniature viennoise. This little piece is smart, feeling, and delicious. And that is exactly how Jansen played it, with an assist from her pianist.
You can go for many a moon without hearing a recital so fine. This recital was one of the best events I have heard in the entire 2014-15 New York season.
I’d like to end with a kind of footnote—something out of left field. It may be my paranoid imagination, but I think I have noticed, in the last few years, that the nationality of Israeli musicians is omitted from their bios. It is not omitted from Golan’s. You might say there’s no escaping that name. Still: Good for him.
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Paul Cézanne, Still Life with Carafe, Bottle, and Fruit, 1906
Henry Pearlman liked to say that every time he saw his art collection, it gave him a lift. We should all be so lucky. His highly selective collection is far from the grand holdings of Alfred Barr, Isabella Stewart Gardner, or Samuel Kress, but no less remarkable. In fact, it is an enviable group of paintings and sculpture that describes the uniquely acquisitive personality of a cold-storage magnate from Brooklyn.
The son of Russian immigrants, Pearlman (1895–1974) started out as a cork salesman and went on to make a fortune in marine refrigeration and as a distributor of a new product called Styrofoam. After World War II boosted demand for Pearlman’s product, he and his wife began collecting art, at first strictly for decorative purposes. Pearlman’s early purchases were aesthetically wide-ranging, to say the least: Fernand Léger, Gustave Courbet, Eugene Speicher, and Ernest Lawson, among others. The purchase in 1945 of Chaim Soutine’s View of Céret (c.1921–22) for $825 completely changed his approach to art even as it “provided a revelation about prices,” as Pearlman notes in his collection of essays, Reminiscences of a Collector.
Soutine’s expressionistic view of the town of Céret, hardly a picturesque French village, is a dynamic, heavily-impastoed exploration of what happens when the picture plane is anchored by neither horizontals nor verticals. Pearlman also collected several Soutine portraits, works tinged with melancholy and ambiguity. The artist’s characteristic psychological acuity even comes through in Hanging Turkey (c.1925), a brutal still life against a shallow background that suggests everything from Dutch still lifes to the symbolism of James Ensor and the flayed style of Francis Bacon.
Chaim Soutine, Hanging Turkey (c.1925)
Overall, Pearlman’s collection of portraits offers a concise lesson in how modern artists have reinterpreted and amplified an academic motif. Courbet’s head study from c.1845 is exquisitely modeled and richly shadowed, with the sitter’s lower lip pushed out in resignation or perhaps frustration. It is easy to see why John Ashbery described this work in 1974 as “shot through with spiritual electricity.” Honoré Daumier’s Head of an Old Woman (c.1856–60) is a quietly devastating example of the master’s skill at la peinture des moeurs, a portrait of such simplicity that it seems to tell the woman’s full life story in three colors.
With Modigliani’s 1916 portrait of Léon Indenbaum, Pearlman had the good fortune to hear from the sitter himself how the painting came about. Modigliani had seen Indenbaum at a café and was eager to paint him, but Indenbaum would have to provide canvas and paint. Modigliani came to Indenbaum’s atelier the next day, hungover but eager to work, and Indenbaum began showing him some unsold paintings by other artists, assuming that they could be painted over. Modigliani rejected several of these, saying they were too good to spoil, but at last settled on a still life and scraped off the existing paint. After three sittings, the portrait was finished. “Several weeks later,” Pearlman relates, “Indenbaum, being short of money, sold his portrait for forty francs (eight dollars). When he finally explained to Modigliani that he was forced to sell it, Modigliani said, ‘That’s all right, I’ll do it again.’ However, this never happened.” On close examination, one can still detect the original still life behind Modigliani’s incisive portrait.
Amedeo Modigliani, Léon Indenbaum, 1916
Pearlman’s Reminiscences (selections of which appear in the exhibition catalogue) reveal not only how much the collector relished the hunt for a coveted piece of art, but also how important it was to have business acumen and a well-trained eye. At one point, Pearlman avoids purchasing a fake Cézanne drawing of a house in Aix-en-Provence because he measures the paper and notices that it is an American standard size rather than one that would have been used by a French artist. He also makes an educated guess that the drawing is by Marsden Hartley, who had stayed in the same house where Cézanne once lived. In another anecdote, Pearlman tracks the fortunes of a forged Modigliani portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne, the artist’s tragic mistress. For years, he watched this fake appear at auctions at higher and higher prices. Finally, he saw it displayed in a Modigliani exhibition in Los Angeles, but hung behind a column, making it almost impossible to see. The curator, with considerable chagrin, told Pearlman that he had been forced to hang the work even though he knew it to be fake.
In Manet’s Young Woman in a Round Hat (c.1877–79), a bourgeoise in a jaunty round hat and veil peers sidelong with a knowing gaze. She wears a deep blue walking costume and black gloves—her identity may be unknown, but she is familiar in Manet’s oeuvre as an example of a modern woman shaping her identity through her sense of dress.
Van Gogh’s lively Tarascon Stagecoach captured Pearlman’s attention in the 1940s, and he tracked the painting down in Uruguay, purchasing it in 1950. Van Gogh had sketched the scene in an 1888 letter to his brother, but the whereabouts of the finished product remained a mystery for years, until an Impressionism exhibition in Montevideo in 1935. As Pearlman notes in his Reminiscences, the discovery of this painting, as with so many of his acquisitions, came about through luck and a reluctance to deal with high-profile dealers.
Vincent Van Gogh, Tarascon Stagecoach, 1888
The same year that he purchased the Van Gogh, Pearlman embarked on what would become the core of his collection: more than thirty paintings and works on paper by Cézanne. This includes sixteen watercolors, works toward which Cézanne was famously dismissive. But observing Pearlman’s extraordinary holdings, it becomes clear that Cézanne painted in watercolor not because he was bored, but because it offered a way to work out composition and color challenges in a medium particularly conducive to this kind of aesthetic rumination. Delicate and iridescent, these works duplicate many of the motifs he later rendered in oils, but in watercolor they show more directly the correspondence between natural and plastic forms. Cézanne meets watercolor’s particular demands by beginning with an underdrawing, a practice not unusual among French watercolorists. As catalogue essayist Matthew Simms notes, this results in a division of labor that belies the idea that Cézanne was tossing off these works because he had nothing better to do. The facility with modeling, the mosaic-like patches of pure color, and the deliberately considered surfaces indicate that Cézanne was engaged in a singular intellectual exercise, exploring representation through the peculiar economy of water and pigment.
The exhibition’s catalogue gives full-dress treatment to Pearlman’s collection, with fascinating excerpts from his Reminiscences, a chronology, and essays that treat the artists individually and thematically. Pearlman himself comes across as congenial and candid—the photographs of him in his office surrounded by his artworks present a uniquely American concept of the collector as autodidact and inspired capitalist. How refreshing this is in today’s climate of anti-intellectualism and anti-commerce.
Cézanne and the Modern: Masterpieces of European Art From the Pearlman Collection opened at the Vancouver Art Gallery on February 7th, and will be on view through May 18, 2015. It next travels to the Princeton University Art Museum, where it will be on view from September 12, 2015 through January 3, 2016.
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Last Wednesday night, Matthew Polenzani gave a recital in Alice Tully Hall. He is the American tenor with the ultra-beautiful lyric voice. He was joined by Julius Drake, the well-known British accompanist. (Please note that I am one of the last of the Mohicans in not considering “accompanist” a dirty word.)
When Polenzani took the stage, the audience gave him a long and roaring ovation. They knew. They had heard this tenor before.
Polenzani and Drake gave a nicely mixed recital. That is, they offered an appealing variety of composers, styles, and languages. There was no “theme” to this program. Bless a program with no theme. It seems to me they are getting rarer.
The program started out with Beethoven, his most famous song, “Adelaide,” virtually a tenor anthem. Drake did not begin it promisingly. He was full of rubato (license with time). He warped the opening, in my opinion. There is time for liberality, or personalization, later in the song. The beginning cries out for something straighter, I believe.
When Polenzani opened his mouth, you could let the beauty bathe you. It is a beauty that you never tire of, whatever Polenzani is singing. In “Adelaide,” there were flaws here and there, but they were insignificant. Occasionally, Polenzani was flat—but what a beautiful flatness! Furthermore, he is not afraid to trumpet his sound, even in a song, even in a recital. The opera stage, the recital stage: He sings out (and perhaps this is especially important for a lyric).
From the pianist, the song could have used a much sturdier pulse. Also, the pianist was too retiring, too mousy. I remind myself of Woody Allen’s favorite joke: Having lunched together, two ladies are leaving their club. One says, “The food is getting lousy.” The other says, “Yes, and such small portions.”
I will tell you something funny about Beethoven songs—or rather, about me and Beethoven songs: I have always regretted that he didn’t write better ones. Yes, “Adelaide” is fine, and the Gellert-Lieder are excellent, and so is the song-cycle, An die ferne Geliebte. But don’t you think Beethoven, being Beethoven, should have done better, song-wise?
After “Adelaide,” Drake spoke to the audience, as is the habit these days. Every concert is a concert-lecture. He told the crowd how nice, how especially rewarding, it was to be in New York. Crowds always fall for this boilerplate, for some reason. The next songs were by Liszt, he said, and Liszt liked Beethoven. Oh, he was the one? It was Liszt who liked Beethoven?
Anyway, audiences seem to appreciate, or at least not to object to, talking from the stage, and I believe I am in an increasingly small, and increasingly grumpy, minority. (Also, I think talking is especially excusable in voice recitals.)
Polenzani and Drake performed five German songs of Liszt. The tenor sang with understanding and passion. In one song, the word “Sonnenschein” appears, over and over. Singing this word, Polenzani sounded a lot like what it means: sunshine.
Drake did his job ably, too. In a Rhine song, his playing was beautifully fluid, wavy, watery.
Next came French songs of Liszt, four of them, all setting poems of Victor Hugo. I cannot help associating at least two of them—“Comment, disaient-ils” and, especially, “Oh! quand je dors”—with Leontyne Price. She sang them for decades, and with such charisma, beauty, and dynamism. That was a word that Ned Rorem, the composer, applied to her: dynamism.
Polenzani had beauty, of course, if not technical purity: Some of his onsets were scratchy. He characterized “Enfant, si j’étais roi” with nice humor. (So did Drake.) I’m afraid that I found “Comment, disaient-ils” calculated or telegraphed—overly interpreted. Sometimes you should just sing the song.
Worse in this regard, in my opinion, was “Oh! quand je dors.” In the opening, Drake was mannered, fussy. The song continued much that way. It would have benefited from much straighter, freer singing. I have a friend who often says, “Give me a dumb singer any day. Stop thinking, would you?” Hear, hear.
Polenzani and Drake paused, frozen, for a long while at the end of this song, as if they had just presented something holy (instead of another romantic song). You could have gagged me with a spoon—but the audience ate it up.
After the lights dimmed for the second half, it was Polenzani who did the talking. He talked about the Satie songs he was about to sing. I didn’t like the talking—I think it detracted from the magic of a recital—but I can excuse it on two grounds: Polenzani is damn likable, whatever he is doing. And he may have helped prepare the audience for the humor, the jokes, in the Satie songs.
He and Drake performed them commendably, as they did the next set: Ravel’s Cinq mélodies populaires grecques. They ended their printed program with an American set: Barber’s Hermit Songs. Talk about Leontyne Price!
Polenzani sang his Barber attractively, and I will make just two remarks. One concerns a single note: the high G at the end of “Saint Ita’s Vision.” It was long, beautiful, and soft, sung in a head voice, but not a wispy, wimpy head voice—one with body. Not many are the tenors who can pull this off.
My second remark is a complaint. The brief, sly song “Promiscuity” does not have to be milked or hammed up. Its humor does not have to be emphasized. It can just be sung, straight and matter-of-factly.
We did not have anything Italian on this evening until the first encore—and it was Venetian. That is, it was a song in Venetian dialect, a song from Reynaldo Hahn’s Venezia. Polenzani sounded completely at home in it.
Then he sang something British—“Love Went A-Riding,” by Frank Bridge. This is one of my favorite songs, and do you know that I had only heard it once, live and in the flesh? It was sung by Christine Brewer. I think a lot of us learned this song from a recording of Arleen Auger and Dalton Baldwin, years ago. (Go here.) Bridge sets a poem by Coleridge—not the Coleridge, but Mary Coleridge, his great-grandniece (1861-1907).
I might have asked for a little more freedom—a little more soaring and abandon, a little more spinning—in Polenzani’s voice. And I might have asked for a horsier gallop from Drake. But this was a song well performed, and I looked forward to the third encore.
Surely, Polenzani would sing “Danny Boy.” This song from Polenzani is one of the most beautiful and touching experiences you can have in music today. But the crowd stopped applauding, maddeningly. There was no third encore.
Mr. Polenzani, were you, in fact, intending to sing “Danny Boy”? On second thought, don’t tell me. If you were, I’ll be bitter for weeks.
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Edith Schloss, Still Life, 1951
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This week: Russia’s past, Chile’s present, and Oxford’s famous friends.
Fiction: My Documents, by Alejandro Zambra, translated by Megan McDowell (McSweeney’s): The latest work and first short story collection from Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra, My Documents introduces us to liars, ghosts, armed bandits, and young lovers. In eleven short portraits of life in Chile before and after Pinochet, Zambra manages to be both funny, sad, and strikingly honest. —CE
Nonfiction: Madison's Gift: Five Partnerships That Built America, by David O. Stewart (Simon & Schuster): In his newest book, David O. Stewart examines Madison’s relationship with four key Founders: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe. Stewart shows how some of the greatest accomplishments of these four men would not have been possible without the help of Madison. The last partnership described in this book is that between Madison and his wife Dolley, a woman who pushed Madison to become politically confident. –RH
Poetry: What More?, by Daniel Brown (Orchises Press): Winner of the 2008 New Criterion Poetry Prize, Daniel Brown has spent the past decade bringing a modern voice to traditional poetry. His latest collection is, as poet Rachel Hadas puts it, “a rare and bracing pleasure to read.” Revisit some of his poetry here. –DY
Art: Edith Schloss: Still Life, Myths, and Mountains, A Retrospective (February 26-March 28): It is said that the artist Edith Schloss (1919–2011) knew “everyone who counted in Manhattan’s legendary postwar art scene," but the time has come for us to know more about her. This Tuesday at 7 pm at the Arts Students League, the curator Jason Andrew will discuss this New York fixture, one of the founders of the cooperative Jane Street Group gallery, who relocated to Italy in 1962, and counted Fairfield Porter, Nell Blaine, Giorgio Morandi, and many others as friends. The talk will be a preview for an exhibition of Schloss's work to open at Sundaram Tangore gallery on February 26, her first in New York in twenty-five years. —JP
Music: Janine Jansen and Itamar Golan (Tuesday, February 10) and The Danish National Symphony Orchestra (Wednesday, February 11): February seems to be a terrific month for violin-playing in New York, and this week keeps the ball rolling. On Tuesday in Carnegie's Zankel Hall, Janine Jansen and the pianist Itamar Golan will present a program of twentieth-century works for violin and piano by Prokofiev and Ravel, including the ever-popular Tzigane. Wednesday finds Anne-Sophie Mutter, the doyenne of concert violinists, on the main stage at Carnegie Hall to perform Sibelius's masterful Violin Concerto with Cristian Macelaru and the Danish National Symphony Orchestra. —ECS
Other: The Oxford Inklings: Their Lives, Writings, Ideas, and Influence, by Colin Duriez (Lion Hudson): This new edition of The Oxford Inklings is a delightful and informative look at the group of friends who congregated around the lodestars of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien at Oxford from the 1930s through the 1950s. It was a motley, eccentric, somewhat twee, but powerfully entertaining confraternity that included the novelist, poet, and somewhat outlandish theologian Charles Williams (if you don’t know his work, take a look at The Place of the Lion), the literary critic Owen Barfield (Poetic Diction, Saving the Appearances), Lord David Cecil (classic books on Jane Austen, William Cowper, and others), and perhaps half a dozen other literary-types of varying eminence. The group had no mission statement, no unanimity of purpose, but enjoyed as a sort of existential glue a passionate if idiosyncratic devotion to Christianity. –RK
From the archive: What time is it in Russia?, by Jonathan Brent: Russia past and present.
From our latest issue: Shakespeare’s Franciscans, by Kenneth Colston: Why Shakespeare risked including the persecuted order in his plays.
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Yesterday afternoon, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra played a concert in Carnegie Hall. They were led by their music director, James Levine. By the end of the concert, he was conducting like the Levine of old—i.e., like an immortal.
The program began with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 in D major. The symphony begins with a little note followed by a big, sustained note. From Levine and the Met Orchestra, this second note had amazing heft and gravity. It was completely Levine-like.
Over the years, I have used the word “Beethovenian” in connection with Levine. I have said that his Wagner is “Beethovenian,” and his Schubert, etc. Well, it is certainly right to be Beethovenian in Beethoven.
The entire first movement was solid, weighty. This was not a musicologist’s idea of early Beethoven. (Earlyish, I should say.) Levine despises the namby-pamby. This movement was unrelentingly, unstoppably virile. In fact, it was almost too big and grand. It also erred, perhaps, on the side of bluntness. I would have welcomed more subtlety and grace.
Still, it was pleasurable, stirring.
Reviewing Lorin Maazel regularly, I used to say that he knew when to cut off a note—he did not let a note linger, sloppily. I thought of this when Levine cut off the final note of the first movement, perfectly.
At the beginning of the second movement, Larghetto, the orchestra could have been warmer, and also more unified. But this movement was satisfying—as was the following Scherzo (which anticipates, I believe, the unbeatable Scherzo of the Ninth). The final movement was imperfect. This is a word I would use about very few, and Levine is one of them. But the finale was laudable, regardless.
It was Szell-like. Now and then, one wished that George Szell would unclench his fist a little, savor a little more, even milk a bit. But, honestly, you would not have wanted Szell to compromise. I thought of this, listening to Levine conduct the Beethoven.
(As you may know, Levine apprenticed under Szell in Cleveland.)
Onto Carnegie Hall’s stage walked a soprano, to do some singing. She was Anna Netrebko, the Russian star, now appearing at the Metropolitan Opera as Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta. You will want to know what she was wearing—won’t you?
Up top, she had on a short white fur. Lower down, she was wrapped—tightly—in something silvery and shimmering. When she walked across the stage, I thought of a cartoon character, in a long-ago movie: Jessica Rabbit.
Netrebko sang an opera aria and a song. The former was “Song to the Moon” from Dvorak’s Rusalka. The latter was Strauss’s “Cäcilie.” (Come to think of it, the opera aria is a “song” too. Sorry about that.) In the Dvorak, Netrebko was dusky, beautiful, and sharp. What I mean is, she sang sharp, most of the way through.
She sharped through her Iolanta last week, too, and I wrote, “But this imperfection hardly mattered; indeed, it was almost an endearment.” I received a note from one of the most discerning and most exacting critics I know. He said, in effect, “Jay, a singer has to sing in tune. It is really not an option.”
He was right. And, I must say, I was more bothered by Netrebko’s sharping yesterday than I usually am.
About her “Cäcilie,” two things were surprising. First, one rarely hears Netrebko sing in German. A whole world of music awaits her, in German. Second, she showed some really juicy, big, loud low notes. They were almost mezzo-y. I had never quite noticed this register of Netrebko’s, or maybe I had forgotten about it.
Levine did his job aptly. Has anyone in music history ever spent more hours accompanying or leading singers? He has conducted the Met since about 1970.
After intermission, he conducted a work by Elliott Carter, Three Illusions. In this same hall, he conducted this same orchestra in this work in May 2007. I wrote,
Mr. Levine certainly knows his Carter—he is the composer’s foremost exponent—and he conducted the “Illusions” sure-handedly. Plus, the Met brass … played very well. They were both rich-toned and agile.
The same was true yesterday. The entire orchestra played with accuracy, understanding, and fondness.
Carnegie Hall saw its first performance of Three Illusions in October 2005, when Levine conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra. After that concert, I wrote that the orchestra had repeated the middle movement, “Fons Juventatis,” “as a kind of encore.” I’m not sure what I meant by “a kind of encore,” as opposed to a plain encore. In any event, there was no repetition yesterday.
Levine concluded his program with another symphony, another Symphony No. 2, in fact, this one by Schumann. The performance was as satisfying as they come.
I have often spoken of Levine’s sense of “just rightness.” This sense was all over Schumann’s first movement. It was “just right” in accentuation, weight, phrasing, dynamics, note values, spirit—everything. It was inarguable. You thought—or at least I thought—“This is the way it goes, period.”
The music was amazingly well sculpted. It was also happy, heroic, and noble. More than noble, it was ennobling. It lifted you up.
Levine conducted the second movement, the Scherzo, with incredible vigor. I had a bad thought: “Why did this man ever waste two seconds in the opera house if he can conduct symphonic music like this?” But I did not mean it (in the main). There is plenty of great music in opera. And poor operas need great or good conducting.
Schumann’s slow movement, Adagio espressivo, was a tad heavy for my taste. I longed to lighten it. But it had its yawning allure. (I don’t mean that the music is sleepy. I mean that it features yawning intervals.) And the finale? Beethovenian, to the max.
James Levine has had his battles in recent years, over health and mobility. But yesterday one had to make no concessions or allowances whatsoever: He conducted, especially in the Schumann, as he always did at his very best.
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