It’s a most wonderful time of the year, the annual concert of the Richard Tucker Music Foundation. This outfit has been going for twenty-eight years, doing operatic good works and staging this gala concert. They help young singers in a variety of ways, and give one big prize each year. The foundation is named, of course, for the late, great American tenor, and it is tended by his family, friends, and admirers. The annual concert features a galaxy of stars—or at least established pros—all singing arias or maybe a duet or ensemble or two. Tucker’s son Barry gives a charmingly unpolished speech, and everyone is bathed with good feeling.

The big Tucker winner this year was John Relyea, the Canadian bass-baritone. He is a singer I have praised repeatedly, for he has impressed in opera and oratorio alike. (I have not yet heard him in song.) I recall seeing him in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at the Met. This was a production loaded with low-voice luminaries, such as James Morris and René Pape, and Relyea had only the humble part of the Night Watchman. But even in that, he left a mark, with the beauty of his voice, the intelligence of his singing, and his assured presence. More recently, he has appeared at the Met in a big part, Figaro in the Mozart opera, along with Dorothea Röschmann, the German soprano, and a slew of other young or youngish singers. This was one of the most sparkling and satisfying events of the Met season so far, not least because of Relyea.

He made a splendid Figaro: smooth, endearing, and compelling. It does him no harm that he is matinée-idol handsome, for this is opera, we’re talkin’. (Röschmann, too, is blessed in this department.) Relyea is a clean singer, with dependable intonation and the gift of self-possession. Barring disaster, he will be a fixture in our operatic scene for years to come, and the Tucker Award was well presented—even if one wonders whether such a sure thing actually needed such a boost.

Relyea did not sing at the Tucker concert, for he had a commitment at Covent Garden he would not break. There’s a lad! Many other singers were on hand, however, including one who conducted: That was Plácido Domingo, who led a sort of pick-up orchestra heavy with players from the Met. It can’t be said that Domingo conducted well. His “Hungarian March” from Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust was dutiful and dull, leaving Fritz Reiner’s reputation unthreatened. But it’s good to see the old Spaniard pursuing all his interests, and I will repeat my opinion that he’s no worse, and probably better, than Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the retired baritone god across the pond.

Of the singers who, in fact, sang, I will mention three. The first is the Italian tenor Salvatore Licitra, famous for replacing Luciano Pavarotti in a Met Tosca at the last minute, and for the immense PR machine that works on his behalf. You would think that he was the second coming of … well, Pavarotti or Domingo. He is not. Really not. At the gala, he sang “Cielo e mar,” and he sang it appallingly. He started soupy, sloppy, and flat. He continued much the same way, and his diction was deplorable. Later, he gave an account of Canio’s aria—you know, “Vesti la giubba,” from I Pagliacci—and it was better, but still unimpressive. Even worse, he, or the Sony company, put out a CD of opera arias that is barely competent. But the marketing gods have determined that Licitra is a star, so a star he must be, I suppose. This tells us something about the nature of the music biz—about the extra-musical factors that go into reputation-making.

Speaking of marketing, and, for that matter, the importance of looks in opera: Licitra has slimmed down dramatically from his previously Pavarottian proportions. How this affects his voice, I can’t say—weight loss has affected singers for good or ill, across the generations. But it ought to help with the marketing effort (never mind that Pavarotti did okay—how could he not, given that instrument and that talent?). Another tenor, the Canadian Ben Heppner, has also lost a ton of weight recently, so much that I have referred to him as “half a Heppner.” He is singing perhaps better than he ever has, nearly reborn, for whatever reason.

Our second singer from the gala is Aprile Millo, who wowed the crowd merely by showing up. She is a famous canceller, in a league with the notorious Teresa Stratas. But she was there, and she made an entrance so grand—and so pompous—that there were appreciative chuckles in the audience, in addition to hearty applause. La Millo sang an aria from an operatic rarity, Cecilia, by Licinio Refice, written in 1923. She’s still got it, that dark, gorgeous sound, a sound that doesn’t come to just any throat. She sang in an old-fashioned, super-veristic manner that has all but disappeared. When she was through with this aria, she asked the audience to be silent, and then she spoke: She really wasn’t feeling well, and would withdraw from the rest of the evening (but of course). In truth, she should never have come to the hall in the first place. But she wanted to sing at least something, because “I get to see you so seldom now.” Was that a shot at the Met for not engaging her? If so, what chances should a company take on a major-league canceller?

Millo was also true to form some weeks later, at the memorial service/concert for Harold C. Schonberg, held in Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall: She didn’t show up at all. Schonberg, the illustrious music critic of The New York Times, died in July, and this was a lovely tribute, during which several of his friends spoke and performed. One of them was Earl Wild, the grand old pianist, who played a Liszt ballade with the expected Wildean mastery. You might say, however, that Aprile Millo did her part by sending her regrets—just as she’s supposed to.

My third Tucker singer is Stephanie Blythe, the marvelous American mezzo with the huge, huge voice—a voice so large, you can scarcely believe that it’s coming from one person. I have noted before that she is Horne-like, Marilyn Horne-like, and she was perhaps never more so than in singing the duet from L’Italiana in Algeri, with Kim Josephson (a capable baritone). This is one of Horne’s great roles—Isabella—and Blythe not only sounded quite a bit like her, but her hand gestures, consciously or not, were also like hers. By the way, I sound as though I’m leveling some sort of accusation. Far from it: The more Horne-likeness—from mezzos or others—the better.

Interesting at the New York Philharmonic were the appearances of two conductors and two pianists. David Robertson and Pierre-Laurent Aimard were paired together, which was useful: They are two of the most ballyhooed musicians in the New York press. Really, if they were as good as their clips, they would be carved in some musical Mt. Rushmore already. Robertson is certainly a competent conductor: but he is perhaps given extra points for being young (by maestro standards) and American. Among some critics and advocates, age and nationality are vital criteria. Aimard is a French pianist, and he earns points for being a champion of contemporary music. Indeed, he was for years associated with Pierre Boulez’s Ensemble Intercontemporain in Paris. In the eyes of many, that is next to godliness.

I do not mean to say that these are not worthy musicians, because they are. But the claims made for them are extravagant. I might mention, in addition, that each has a connection to Lyons: Aimard was born there, and Robertson serves as music director there (although his champions are scandalized that he does not yet have a major American podium—he will). For that matter, I should have noted that Robertson was for years music director of that same Ensemble Intercontemporain. Young, American (Californian, no less), the Ensemble Intercontemporain—what more could you want?

The Robertson/Aimard program with the Philharmonic consisted in its first half of two pieces for piano and orchestra, not one. This gave Aimard plenty of opportunity to show what he can do. The first piece was Debussy’s Fantaisie, which had me nervous, because I remembered a Ravel G-major concerto, played by Aimard, that was astoundingly bad—amateurish, really. But he handled the Debussy well. He was nimble and sensitive, and revealed a good sense of the shape of the piece (which can come off rather shapeless). Curiously, he played very quietly, causing one to strain to hear at times. The piano seemed to be another instrument in the orchestra, rather than the featured thing—but that was no disgrace, not in Debussy. In spots, I would have asked for more singing out, less reticence. But, to his credit, Aimard forced nothing, sticking to his relatively modest course.

David Robertson, in this piece, was blunt and straightforward; he allowed for little mystery or sinuousness. In the slow movement, he was overly panting in his risings and fallings, his sudden crescendos and decrescendos—Debussy would have benefited from a subtler touch. And in the last movement, you might have wished for more quivering intensity, a greater sense of aliveness and wonder. Moreover, unseemly blasts from the orchestra are no substitute for a genuinely climactic finale. Still, Robertson had done adequately, and so had Aimard. (Actually, the pianist had done better than that.)

Disappointing, however, was the next work, Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 1, that beloved, rambunctious opus. It has a heart-pounding beginning, but Aimard didn’t play it that way: He was short on visceral excitement. In fact, the entire first movement sounded somewhat plodding and routine, rather than propulsive and headlong. Also, the return of the opening theme at the end of the movement would have been much more effective if piano and orchestra had been together. But Aimard showed a lot of technique, including the tightness—a musical tightness, mind you—that is necessary for Prokofiev. In the final movement, Aimard was decent, but he could have used more crispness and snap, to give this music the jagged thrill it should contain.

As in the Debussy, Robertson led the orchestra ably, but a sense of the pedestrian predominated. Electricity was missing. Toward the end of the work, the conductor did some attractive moving around on the podium, but this is no guarantee of eliciting power from the orchestra.

The purely orchestral portion of the concert was devoted to Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, a fine test of a conductor (and of an orchestra, for that matter). Robertson delivered a fairly correct and uncomplicated reading, and he should be applauded for not trying to make the work too philosophical. You might have fault- ed him for not being especially deep or probing, but at least he wasn’t lost in the clouds. Each section of the work had its essential mood, and Robertson had adequate control over the orchestra—but, in the final pages, I was longing for an accurate entrance. Just one. A conductor, no matter how golden, should take care of the details, even if the details seem trivial.

I have often said about hackneyed music, “It’s not its fault that it’s hackneyed.” I might say of overhyped musicians, “It’s not their fault they’re overhyped.” True. This conductor and this pianist have built solid careers for themselves, and they will likely continue to grow. But I, for one, am blind (or deaf) to the greatness that others enthusiastically perceive in them.

Less celebrated—at least in this town—are the conductor Marcello Viotti and the pianist Stephen Hough. Their Philharmonic concert was immensely pleasurable. Viotti was actually doing double duty in New York, guesting with the Philharmonic, and also at the Met, where he conducted La Juive, the opera by Halévy. An Italian born in French Switzerland, Viotti is very busy in Europe, but not so well known here. Stephen Hough is an Englishman who has had a rewarding, if not supersonic, career all over.

Their program was boldly old-fashioned, beginning with Ibert’s Escales, that coloristic work depicting exotic ports of call. Viotti handled the orchestra with considerable finesse. He is obviously a man of learning, discipline, and musicality. Even more impressive was Hough, in Saint-Saëns’s Concerto No. 5, nicknamed the “Egyptian” (because it was completed in Cairo). This piece is tailor-made for Hough, who is an unabashed virtuoso, possessing a big technique and a Romantic heart. I should say, however, that his playing in Saint-Saëns’s first movement was both Classical and Romantic, reflecting the composer himself. The slow movement was achingly beautiful—sort of breath-catching. And the final movement was jazzy, infectious, and ultimately gripping.

At the memorial service/concert for Harold Schonberg, Earl Wild was described as “the last Romantic.” He often is. So was Horowitz (who indeed had an album entitled The Last Romantic). We are always having last Romantics, but they keep coming. Hough is one. So is Arcadi Volodos, the young Russian. So, in a way, is Garrick Ohlsson, the American, who, incidentally, played a fine recital in Avery Fisher Hall. His program included a Handel suite and a Haydn sonata, the former of which he play- ed exquisitely, the latter of which he played less admirably. But his second half was all Scriabin, and here he was almost ludicrously commanding. In the most difficult works, he is at ease, playing with the music like a kitten with a ball of string.

No, we will always have Romantics. And while I’m digressing on pianists, let me say a brief word about Menahem Pressler, and Schubert. In last month’s chronicle, I reported that New York had seen three performances of the Schubert B-flat sonata, D. 960, from three major pianists, in the space of a few weeks. Well, add a fourth to the list: Pressler played the sonata at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Very few works could bear all this exposure; the Schubert is no average piece.

But back to the Philharmonic concert at hand. After intermission, Marcello Viotti conducted two of Respighi’s Roman tone poems, Fountains and Pines. He traversed these works with sure authority, making himself felt, but letting the musicians have their head, when appropriate. The pictures behind each of the works were vivid, and the Philharmonic players seemed to revel in what they were doing. For my taste, the swelling final section of Pines was a little fast—it has even greater power when more measured. But it was majestic enough, and Viotti merited his ovation. This was one of those concerts that remind you why you loved music in the first place. You know?

We will close with a little Christmas. On a Sunday afternoon, the soprano Deborah Voigt appeared with the Philharmonic for a holiday concert. She had been singing at the Met in Die Frau ohne Schatten, and the night I heard her she was in uncharacteristically poor form—odds are, she was sick. She sounded much better in this Christmas sing, giving of her big voice and big personality. Possibly the highlight of the concert was her opening, Handel’s “Rejoice, greatly,” from Messiah. It was a treat to hear this aria sung richly—even opulently—instead of hootily or chirpily. Exactly when were Voigt-like voices (not that there are many) ruled out of Handel? The soprano herself remarked, after she finished the piece, “Didn’t expect to hear that from a Wagnerian, huh?”

Later that day came one of the pleasantest events on the musical calendar: the Chanticleer Christmas concert, in the Medieval Sculpture Hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, right in front of the huge Christmas tree with its Baroque Neapolitan crèche. Chanticleer, of course, is the twelve-member a cappella singing group from San Francisco. They sang a program crossing seven centuries, from Gregorian chant to now. As usual, they sang in pure, clear tones, beautifully coordinating with one another. This group is so well coordinated, they even open their books together. There was an imperfect entrance or two (vocally speaking), but otherwise they were like a Swiss clock.

Chanticleer frequently sings its audience into a trance. After one shrewdly calibrated, hushed piece, the friend sitting next to me said, “You almost hate to clap.” It’s true. The question occurred to me, Is it the setting, and the special nature of this season, or is it really the excellence of the group? It is the latter, I would say. They are a highly disciplined outfit, striving for and meeting high standards. Even when they let their hair down—when they swing—they remember their musicianship, and adhere to those standards.

One slight complaint I have about these Christmas programs is that they tend to be on the somber side. That is, they tend to favor the somber Christmas repertory. Af- ter one more dirge-like piece, I thought, “Come on, this is not a grim holiday!” Even “Un flambeau, Jeanette, Isabelle!” was more lulling than gay. But the group usually manages to catch a spark, just in time. They ended their printed program with a joyous medley of spirituals, arranged by their music director, Joseph Jennings, and sang one encore, the Biebl Ave Maria, which is rather a signature piece of theirs. They were just this side of precious here—and a little slow—but they still own the piece, no doubt.

For several years, I thought of Chanticleer as a guilty pleasure of mine. But now the guilt is entirely gone, and they are, frankly, one of the most satisfying ensembles I know, instrumental or vocal. In the age of the cheap Christmastime, they give you a substantial concert—one that sticks to you, instead of fading into nothingness.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 22 Number 5, on page 47
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