The conductor Dennis Russell Davies has given much of his life to contemporary music—and contemporary composers are lucky for it. Luckier than they deserve, in some cases. Davies is both a talented and a well-schooled musician, effective in just about anything he leads. He was a co-founder of the American Composers Orchestra in 1977, and relinquished its directorship only last year. He has also had ample experience in the opera house. Though most closely identified with contemporary music, he has taken care not to pigeonhole himself.

I might note that Davies has undergone a remarkable change of appearance in the course of his career. When he was younger, he sported a ponytail—which is not something you see on a podium every night. Now he is utterly bald, in the manner of Kojak, or—perhaps more aptly—his fellow conductor Christoph Eschenbach. Davies might be said to be a tonsorial extremist.

Like most conductors today, he is busy and peripatetic, but his principal jobs seem to be opera chief in Linz and director of the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra. It is with the SCO that he appeared recently in Carnegie Hall. Their program was an appealing one, consisting of a Haydn symphony, Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, and a new piece by William Bolcom. Davies is a longtime champion of Bolcom, as he is of just about every living American composer. Earlier in the season, he’d led the New York premiere—at the Metropolitan Opera—of Bolcom’s opera A View from the Bridge.

The Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra happens to be in the midst of what it calls its “Haydn Decade.” This includes the recording of all of those symphonies—the full 104. The symphony chosen for Carnegie Hall was No. 65, in A major, which is rarely heard. In fact, it had never been performed in this historic hall, which is supposed to have seen more or less everything.

Tonally, Davies and the SCO struck a nice balance in this Classical score. By that I mean that they did not sound too polished or glossy, and did not sound too scratchy or primitive (as some of the original-instruments bands do). They were somewhere in between. The symphony came off with clarity and sprightliness, qualities that this work—like other Haydn pieces—requires. The Andante was exceedingly graceful, and the concluding Presto was bracingly crisp.

Davies is a relatively “straight” conductor, who allows for imagination and inspiration. You might think that, as a vessel for contemporary music, he would evince an anything-goes mentality on the podium. But he is actually a fairly “conservative” conductor, mindful of a composer’s intentions and of general musical taste.

The SCO did not deliver the most precise performance of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade you ever heard, but it is always a pleasure to hear this dear little work: One forgets how good it is. Davies treated it with dignity and care. The ending of the Elégie was positively ethereal. I might have liked a Finale more vigorous, less chamberly—it could even have been raucous—but the conductor’s politeness was not to be disdained.

The big news of this evening was the Bolcom work: Medusa, which is subtitled “Monodrama for Dramatic Soprano and String Orchestra.” That is a tidy summing up of the piece. Bolcom has had a good year in New York, same as he always does, really. He is never without a new piece to unveil, and they are invariably interesting. They are also extremely diverse. You never know what Bolcom will show you next. He is called an “eclectic” composer, and some critics consider him scattered, unfocused; but at least he makes you sit forward in your chair.

Bolcom composed this extraordinary Medusa with his longtime collaborator, the writer Arnold Weinstein. Bolcom and Weinstein are as much a team as Bolcom and Morris (meaning Joan Morris, the composer’s singer wife, with whom he performs cabaret songs and the like). Weinstein came up with a brilliant libretto on the Medusa theme. As Bolcom says in his accompanying notes, “I have tried to sail my musical boat according to [Weinstein’s] laid-out course—a wild ride full of surprises—affording Catherine Malfitano a real tour de force as well as one for Maestro Davies’ virtuoso strings.” He continues, “[T]he grand curve of the work traverses [Medusa’s] early beauty, her horrifying transformation, and her death, which again leaves beauty in its wake.”

The composer has already mentioned the star performer for us, Catherine Malfitano, a steely, electric, gutsy American soprano. Like Davies, she is a longtime associate of Bolcom (and of Weinstein). She, in fact, is a crucial element of A View from the Bridge (which features a libretto by Weinstein fashioned from the Arthur Miller play). Malfitano is one of our most complete singing actresses. She’s a hell-for-leather soprano, letting it all hang out, but somehow not going over the top. You feel, when you see and hear her, that you have been given the full operatic experience.

Certainly, no singer could be better qualified to deliver Medusa. She even looked like that creature, meaning no disrespect, for Malfitano is an attractive woman. But she so inhabited this character that she seemed to change before our eyes: and she frightened. Malfitano spoke many of her lines, and shouted others, and sang still more. Text, music, and part seemed to meld in her. She transfixed her audience. She delivered, indeed—just as Bolcom hoped—a tour de force. This was a performance that will stick with me a long time. It’s hard to imagine that anyone else could do it. The audience was reluctant to stop applauding, and to leave.

One nice thing about both Bill Bolcom and Arnold Weinstein is that they don’t take themselves too seriously. They are serious artists, all right: but they are free of pretentiousness, and they know that a little fun is part of art, even high art. Try out a Weinstein couplet: “Tongues of desire flickered in eyes,/ Even the eunuchs’ tunics would rise.” At one point, Medusa says, “My body is still finger-lickin’ fine.” She also cries, “Come see this monster Medusa, this gruesome muse of ugliness, this deformed enormity,” who was so very different in “the sweet used-to-be.” I don’t know about you, but that phrase “sweet used-to-be” is devastating to me.

Bolcom’s score grips and startles and amuses throughout, qualifying as a triumph. He has given us a meaningful career, composing music that is not only intelligent but satisfying to hear. That may seem like modest praise, but, given our current musical straits, it is not.

Everyone likes to monkey around with Bach, and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center decided to do its part. It concocted a festival called “Bach Variations,” just in case people got tired of plain old Bach. The Cantor of Leipzig has been messed with in a variety of ways. And I always contend—call it a Rule—that you can’t ruin him. No matter how you transcribe him, or intrude on him—with dancers or circus animals or what have you—you cannot bury him. He and his greatness will out.

I have said the same about that other supreme genius, Shakespeare. No matter how much you try to ruin him, he will out. He is unkillable. Sometimes, I acknowledge, this Rule is sorely put to the test: but it generally holds up.

Part of “Bach Variations” was an evening entitled “Point-Counterpoint: Bach’s Art of the Fugue.” The Chamber Society commissioned ten brief new works from ten composers, the works being “companion pieces” to contrapuncti from The Art of the Fugue—all for the Brentano String Quartet. It was an odd idea, but it worked out.

In his program notes, Mark Steinberg, first violinist of the quartet, explained:

By asking composers to write “commentary” pieces as companions to selected contrapuncti from the Bach work the Brentano String Quartet is presenting an evening of Bach and contemporary composers’ musical reaction to his work. We have asked each composer to write a short piece that reflects on a particular Bach fugue, each in his or her own idiom. [The PC language—“his or her”—is de rigueur. But be thankful it wasn’t “their.”] As well as being a celebration of Bach and of composing, this project represents a celebration of the tenth anniversary of our quartet, and we have chosen composers with whom we have had exciting and meaningful collaborations over this span of years… . It is our belief that this program will make for a compelling evening of listening, linking the past to the present, and giving us all the opportunity to listen to the music of Bach through the ears of some of the great composers of our own time.
Nicely said, huh? Although I would object that Bach is never “past.” I dare say that he is more present than all of the ten still-working composers put together. But there is no need to be (too) petulant, and one of course takes Steinberg’s point.

Those ten composers included Charles Wuorinen, Nicholas Maw, Sofia Gubaidulina, Steven Mackey—even Wynton Marsalis. It was a nice lineup, and each composer was distinctive. The way it worked was, the Brentano String Quartet would play a Bach contrapunctus, and then would come the contemporary composer’s “commentary” on it. (About half the time, the order was reversed. In the case of one entry—Mackey’s—the Bach and the new were interspersed.) The experiment was, in a way, a study in today’s composers and composing. You got snapshots of them, all fulfilling the same task, in one neat album.

I must say, however, that it was nice to hear the straight stuff—to hear portions of The Art of the Fugue themselves. One effect this evening had on me was to make me want to hurry home and put on the entire Art of the Fugue, in string-quartet version. No matter how they monkey with Bach, the monkeying sort of leads you home again: to Bach himself.

It virtually goes without saying that the Brentano String Quartet played superbly, for this is one of the greatest such ensembles in the world. The alertness, cohesion, and musicality of this quartet are a continuing marvel. I might single out the playing of Nina Maria Lee, the cellist, in Gubaidulina’s “commentary”: It combined modern spikiness and Romantic passion, reminding me of the playing of Natalia Gutman, the extraordinary Russian cellist. This was, again, an evening both unusual and worthwhile.

They are “the Love Couple,” and everyone likes to snipe at them. Who are they? Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck? No, in the operatic world, they are Angela Gheorghiu, soprano, and Roberto Alagna, tenor. They are married to each other, and they are fodder for the press—even the tabloid press!—for they are attractive, willful, and “controversial” (to use the catch-all, though mysterious, term). That they are both first-rate singers is our main concern here.

She is probably greater than he, but he has his nights too. They frequently sing together—sometimes it seems that they exclusively sing together—and many critics seem to want them to fail. Gheorghiu and Alagna seldom oblige. I remember an Elixir of Love, at the Metropolitan Opera, in particular: It was an almost perfect evening of bel canto opera, lithe, fizzy, and fun. Why would anyone ever want to be crabby about them?

Their most recent outing at the Met was in Faust, and they again proved an excellent pairing, and excellent separately. In my view, this long-popular opera can be boring: that is, boringly performed, boringly produced. It never sagged at the Met, thanks to Gheorghiu’s Marguerite and Alagna’s Faust, and also to the Méphistophélès of James Morris. Credit, too, should be given to the conductor in the pit, Bertrand de Billy, whom I had found pedestrian before, but who was plenty alive on this occasion.

Gheorghiu has one of the most splendid voices now before the public—it is beautiful, but, perhaps more important, it is interesting. She has a technique that allows her to sing a range of roles, and she has an inherent musical sense. With all of her powers, she was able to enliven even “Il était un roi de Thulé,” which can put a damper on any evening of Faust. She is a coloratura soprano—among other types—but she is not a songbird. She is a coloratura with body and strength. Her Jewel Song was probably the most exciting I have heard.

Alagna is a seriously beautiful singer, whose pitch can unfortunately falter and who is prone to some dullness. He had a capital night in Faust, however. He has a smallish voice, but he can fill a large house like the Met without much strain. Often, power—particularly on top—can come out of nowhere. His voice is creamy but with a ring—greatly desirable for a tenor. Furthermore, it was a pleasure to hear such correct and natural French. Alagna may be said to benefit from two worlds: He was born to Sicilian parents in Paris.

James Morris is an old operatic hand, and he makes for a splendid devil. (All basses have to give the devil his due; it is in the nature of the repertory. In fact, Samuel Ramey has just come out with a CD called A Date with the Devil.) Morris may be in the late afternoon of his career, but the sun has yet to set. He was magnificent last season as Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger. And you could hardly ask for a more effective Méphistophélès—even Ramey. Morris can put cold cruelty in his voice (think Scarpia). He can be uproariously funny as well. His Méphistophélès was more merry than despicable, and the devil, of course, got his in the end.

Maestro de Billy handled the orchestra beautifully. Some sections were tender, knowing, warm—kissed by a French transparency. Others were appropriately fiery. And this was a Faust remarkably free of sappiness. The concluding trio was thrilling, with Angela Gheorghiu blazing. If it were always accorded such treatment, Gounod’s most famous opera would be less tired.

I must append a political-social note. As this Faust was in production, the war in Iraq began—and the Love Couple flew home to be with their children. Their decision was entirely defensible, especially as one learns the details of their unusual family. But it added to their reputation for flightiness. No one concerned primarily with music should much care.

Mstislav Rostropovich joined the New York Philharmonic for a three-week residence. This was a festival dubbed “Slava & Friends” (“Slava,” of course, being the great cellist-conductor’s nickname). The friends? Most of them were young, including the pianist Evgeny Kissin, the violinist Maxim Vengerov, and the cellist Xavier Phillips. Rostropovich was supposed to have had with him Martha Argerich, the legendary pianist, but she canceled, and was replaced by another fresh talent, Konstantin Lifschitz. Argerich, as you may know, is one of the most prolific cancellers of all time. She seems not to be marked down for it, however, as Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna are.

The Slava-fest was full of goodwill and marvelous musicmaking. Many trees have been felled for the sake of describing, praising, and wondering over Mstislav Rostropovich; I have used a small forest myself. So I will not go on at length here. Suffice it to say that Slava does not decrease your admiration for him, or lessen your awe. The moment you begin to suspect that you and the world might have overrated him, he presents the glorious reality.

In his three weeks with the Philharmonic, he played only those composers he knew well and worked with closely. Of course, if he confined his career to only these composers, he could still go a long, long while before exhausting their music. He performed Prokofiev and Shostakovich, as you might expect. And also Dutilleux, Britten, Lutoslawski, Bernstein, and Penderecki. Everything Slava did had a ring of authority. But I have always argued that his intimacy with these composers is a side issue. He is a born musician, from the Land of Music, if you will. His Bach is no less impressive than his Shostakovich.

In one of these concerts, Maxim Vengerov joined him for the Britten Violin Concerto. This work can be played soullessly—but not when these two men are involved. No matter what the age difference between them, they are birds of a feather. Vengerov played with beauty and heart—but also with steel and modernism. He was at times sweet-toned, but then something-else-toned, as the score demanded. He employed many and various dynamics, and he made sure that every phrase counted: Nothing was wasted, or merely glossed over. Even so, this performance had a unity, with all thoughts relating to one another.

Vengerov is known as a splashy, impassioned violinist, but he knows the effectiveness of a clear but small amount of sound. Of his intonation, passagework, and so on, there is no question: He is all-capable. In the Vivace, he played with his relaxed arms, executing difficult music almost casually. And—like the bear on the podium—he is an utterly natural musician: He seemed to be making up some of the score on the spot (though he wasn’t). The concluding movement—a passacaglia—had Britten’s strange holiness and longing. When Vengerov—and Rostropovich—were through, one felt that the concerto had been exploited to the hilt. No more can be wrung out of it.

To risk some sentimentality, I might say that I felt grateful that these two musicians had a chance to play and work together. Generations separate them. Vengerov is pretty much just starting out; Rostropovich celebrated his seventy-sixth birthday during this festival. These are kindred spirits, as I’ve noted, and it’s right that they didn’t miss each other. It would have been a shame if they had.

Elsewhere on this program, Slava led the Philharmonic in Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9 and in selections from his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (and also from his revised version, called Katerina Izmailova). Slava captures the off-kilter genius of Shostakovich to perfection. The Ninth was not a model of technical precision; indeed, there was a good deal of clumsiness. But these things are overlooked for the musical trueness of the matter. The Lady Macbeth excerpts were, as always—especially with Rostropovich—a rousing affair. Every page had the right pace, the right emphasis.

In the final section—which was hair-raising, of course—Rostropovich lost his baton. It went up and back, landing on the head of a woman in the second row (I believe). I had never seen that in a concert. Slava never got it back, but he plowed ahead. And—predictably enough—he repeated that last, pulverizing Lady Macbeth section as an encore. Then he plunged into the orchestra, thanking them, kissing them, congratulating them, like a charged-up politician.

He is a great musician; and a great man. Take your choice—or celebrate both.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 21 Number 9, on page 50
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