The Dresden Staatskapelle is not the first orchestra in Germany, but it isn’t the least, either. It has been led by some formidable men, including Weber, Wagner, Karl Böhm, Rudolf Kempe, and Bernard Haitink. Ah, yes, Haitink: The Dutch maestro had charge of the orchestra until last November, when he quit over “fundamental differences” with management. (I heard something about a pops concert.) This meant that he was unavailable for the Dresdeners’ spring tour, which included two nights at Carnegie Hall. He was replaced by Myung-Whun Chung, the Korean conductor who has spent much of his career in France. (He led the Bastille Opera, for example.) Chung chucked some of the originally scheduled programming, most notably Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7. Haitink is maybe the best Bruckner Seventh conductor in the world; perhaps it was just as well to have chucked it. Instead, the second concert—which was to have featured the Bruckner—turned all-Beethoven, peddling the Sixth Symphony and the Third Symphony (in that necessary order).

The first concert was all-Brahms: the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat, and the Symphony No. 4 in minor. The piano soloist was Emanuel Ax, who, by the way, is the most frequent soloist with orchestras in North America. (The music business makes a fascinating, sometimes depressing topic, for another time.) This first concert was not poor, but neither was it good, suffering from the quality of okayness. And one should not travel from out of town—way out of town—to play an okay concert, of the canonical repertory, in Carnegie Hall.

Myung-Whun Chung, as you may know, is part of one of the most famous musical families in the world. His sister is Kyung-Wha, the violinist, and his “other” sister is Myung-Wha, a cellist. I hope Myung-Wha will forgive that awful word “other.” I’m reminded of a story from the realm of journalism. Years ago, Marvin Kalb was a big deal at NBC News, and his brother, Bernard, was a less big deal. One day, goes the story—probably apocryphal—their mother called up and said to the receptionist, “This is Marvin Kalb’s mother. Is Bernie there?”

Back to Dresden (or to Carnegie Hall): On Night II, Maestro Chung and the orchestra did the two Beethoven symphonies, and if you’re going to do a Beethoven symphony—especially two—it had better be good. The Symphony No. 6, known as the “Pastoral,” is sometimes considered the least of the nine symphonies, chiefly because it’s “programmatic,” meaning that it tells a kind of story: about the countryside, with its brook, and merry folk, and storms, and shepherds, and so on. Some people, intending sophistication, have never gotten over those birdcalls. (What must they think of Messiaen?) But the “Pastoral” Symphony has also been called the greatest program music ever penned, and it is certainly a great symphony, as can be understood even from an ungreat performance.

For years, the line about European orchestras—especially Central European ones —has been this: They may not have sky-high technical standards, but they make a lovely—usually a burnished—sound, and they exude a refined musicianship. What you’re deprived of in technique, you’re supposed to get back in sound and musicality. Not always does it work this way—sometimes you get fine technique; sometimes you get shoddy musicianship. The Dresdeners certainly made a beautiful sound, a special sound, of which they can be proud (and are). And they, indeed, committed a lot of technical bobbles along the way. But the higher music-making left something to be desired, and this can be laid at the feet of Maestro Chung.

The first movement of the Pastoral passed decently, but the conductor was somewhat wayward with tempo: If you’re not going to keep a decent pulse, the music loses some of its nobility. The second movement—that beloved “Scene by the brook”—began with gross disunity, and continued to be loose. Its ending was bizarrely drawn out, almost rewritten. The third movement—when those countryfolk gather—was very, very fast, and also imprecise. In fact, the Dresdeners played like high-school musicians, or, alternatively, professional musicians who were drunk. It was strange to take in: a first-class sound amid amateur execution.

The final movements were less objectionable, but not crashing successes. The Shepherds’ Song ought to breathe peace, along with some jollity. It largely did.

The Third Symphony, of course, is called the “Eroica,” and its opening movement was heroic, indeed: on the fast side, but heroic. Then comes the funeral march, one of the most gripping, strangely overpowering things in music. It was respectably shaped, but fell short of its full effect. The ensuing Scherzo is marked Allegro vivace, yes, but Chung abused the privilege: He was incomprehensibly fast, and the orchestra was unable to play accurately. And the Finale was similar: It was uncomfortably, unenjoyably fast, and the Presto finish had no thrill at all, because so much of the rest of the symphony had been in fifth gear. This was a failure of interpretive management.

I have a theory about what Chung was doing: I believe that he was influenced by the “period” movement, by notions of what is authentic. He might have thought that Furtwängler, Klemperer, Walter, and those duffers got it all wrong—didn’t know what they were doing. So too, he might be beguiled by those (alleged) original metronome markings, and I always say, “Who knows what those instruments were like” (referring to the metronomes)? A just tempo is found in the score itself, arrived at by musical sense. We have plenty of orchestras here at home who will play Beethoven and Brahms disappointingly, and did not need to hear from this storied ensemble that came all the way from Germany.

City Opera has the habit of staging unfamiliar operas, and it recently staged an unfamiliar opera by a familiar composer: The Pearl Fishers, by Bizet. But here’s what’s not unfamiliar: the opera’s great tenor-baritone duet, “Au fond du temple saint.” This is a staple of the French repertory, and the opera repertory, and opera galas. Wherever two or more singers are gathered, for a gala, there will be “Au fond du temple saint” (provided a tenor and baritone are among the singers). Jussi Bjoerling and Robert Merrill made a hot recording of the duet in the 1950s, and there have been hundreds since. In the opera itself, Bizet has the tune and harmonies recur over and over. You would too, had you written them.

And it is a bit shocking—for the first-time Pearl Fishers-goer—to hear the duet in context. It is interrupted now and then; we hear, at galas, a concert version of it. I’m reminded of my first-ever experience of seeing Saint-Saëns’s Samson and Delilah: Who knew that the great mezzo aria “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” is actually a sort of duet, in which the tenor voice twines around the mezzo’s, and in which he, not she, has the final, glorious lines (“Dalila, Dalila”—not “Samson, Samson”—“je t’aime!”)?

“Au fond du temple saint” aside, The Pearl Fishers is not an immortal opera (although we’re still seeing it in 2005, aren’t we?). Bizet wrote it at 25, and would write Carmen at 36, the year he died. Who knows what else we would have had from him, if he’d had more time? A question to ask about Pearl Fishers is whether, inherently, it’s worth hearing, and seeing. Is it staged merely because it is by the composer of Carmen? I remember reading an essay by Joseph Epstein, years ago, in which he said that, if it weren’t for The Great Gatsby, The Last Tycoon would never be read. (Or was it Tender Is the Night? Or both? I forget.) I believe that The Pearl Fishers would be staged, once in a blue moon, somewhere—if only for that irresistible duet.

The story of the opera, set in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), may seem hokey—and is often claimed to be hokey—but it is actually quite good. It concerns love, friendship, betrayal, sacrifice, redemption. So, it’s an opera, I’m saying—yes, but The Pearl Fishers deals with these elements rather well. City Opera’s production was offbeat and fun, in the manner of City Opera productions. The stage was full of color—“Ceylonese” color, don’t you know: We might have been looking at a beach party. Where were Troy Donahue and Annette Funicello? For that matter, given the exoticism, where were Bob and Bing (and Dorothy Lamour)? (Dorothy Lamour happens to be a priestess in this show.)

Providing able leadership in the pit was Emmanuel Plasson, son of the renowned French conductor Michel Plasson. (Father-son conductor teams are with us: We have Armin and Philippe Jordan, too.) Our Dorothy Lamour (Leïla) was Mary Dunleavy, who showed solid technical control and fine musical instincts. The tenor, Yeghishe Manucharyan, has a lightish, pleasant voice, not dissimilar to Matthew Polenzani’s. In the great duet, he missed his first notes, then bleated and scooped. His singing throughout the evening could have been tidier. But he acquitted himself honorably. The baritone, Stephen Powell, exhibited a healthy range, and a lovely instrument, and other good things.

In music, looks don’t matter—but in opera they do, a bit. And there’s no denying that it’s nice to have attractive young people in an opera whose characters are attractive young people. Such was the case here. All things being equal, better-looking is better. But when are all things equal? Right: Practically never.

In a subscription concert conducted by Leonard Slatkin, the New York Philharmonic played a new piece, by Jefferson Friedman, a thirty-year-old American composer. (Wonderful name, isn’t it? Jefferson Friedman.) He studied with John Corigliano and Christopher Rouse, among others, and has won a slew of prizes. In time-honored fashion, he spent a year at the American Academy in Rome. His most visible champion is Slatkin, who is the music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, in Washington, D.C. (after spending many fruitful years in St. Louis).

The Friedman work featured by the Philharmonic was The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly. This is the second piece in a trilogy called In the Realms of the Unreal. The third piece was written first; the first has not yet been birthed. The trilogy is inspired by “outsider artists,” a term applied to artists who are self-taught, highly eccentric, or in some other way far from the mainstream. (Although who can say what is mainstream today? Damien Hirst and his sharks and ewes?) If the composer Harry Partch were with us now, he might be called an “outsider composer,” instead of a sadly mentally ill hobo.

The Throne of the Third Heaven … is based on an installation sculpture of the same title, by James Hampton, a Washington, D.C., janitor who died in 1964. The sculpture is elaborate, intricate, and laden with religious symbolism. It has long been in the Smithsonian Institution’s permanent collection.

Jefferson Friedman’s composition tries to bring the sculpture into sound, and it makes for an interesting listen, whatever the provenance. (Of course, when a piece of music hits the listener’s ear, he “owns” it—all of the composer’s not-purely-musical intentions are out the window.) In common with countless other modern works, The Throne of the Third Heaven … uses a ton of percussion—modern works have more pots and pans than Williams-Sonoma. But Friedman makes engaging use of this stuff. A jangling is heard throughout the piece, as the composer roars, then quiets, then builds, then roars again. Toward the end, there is a Straussian soaring, which reminded me of Death and Transfiguration. The work concludes with a mammoth chorale—extraordinary.

This is a piece full of great will. It’s a piece that believes in itself, and encourages you to believe in it, too. It has a sincere intensity—or an intense sincerity—that is seldom evidenced today. It should be a pleasure to watch Jefferson Friedman develop. He has something to say, and anyone who writes a chorale—in whatever garb—is obviously not beholden to the orthodoxies and shibboleths of the present age. May Friedman be an insider composer, with an outsider spirit. (At least half a one.)

Above, I described the Dresden Staatskapelle as not the first orchestra in Germany, but not the least, either. The same could be said about the Bamberg Symphony. It was founded in 1946, “by former members of the German Philharmonic Orchestra of Prague and by musicians from Karlsbad and Schlesien, who came to Bamberg as refugees from the Second World War.” (I am quoting from the orchestra’s literature.) Among the conductors who have stood before the Bambergers are Kempe, Hans Knappertsbusch, Clemens Krauss, and Eugen Jochum. Not bad. And they’re currently led by an Englishman in his early forties, Jonathan Nott. He’s not bad, either. He is known as a champion of contemporary music, being a leader of the Ensemble Intercontemporain, too. (This is the outfit in Paris started by Pierre Boulez.)

Nott and the Bamberg Symphony traveled to Avery Fisher Hall for two concerts, under the auspices of Great Performers at Lincoln Center. Joining these forces was Pierre-Laurent Aimard, the French pianist. He, too, is an ardent champion of the contemporary (the “founding pianist” of Boulez’s band, for instance). Each of their programs consisted of three composers: Beethoven, Mahler, and Ligeti. This last is György Ligeti, the octogenarian born in Transylvania; for half of his life, he has been an Austrian citizen. Aimard is a steadfast advocate of Ligeti’s music, and Nott does his bit, too. Both concerts were long—generous, you could say—with the first one lasting more than two and a half hours. (Of course, in past times—e.g., Beethoven’s—that would have been a mere warm-up.) And in both concerts, there was some good, mixed with some less good.

The second concert began with a Ligeti piece, Atmosphères, composed in 1961, and heard in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey seven years later. (How faraway and exotic the year 2001 seemed in 1968!) Maestro Nott treated it exactly as one should, attentive to balances, dynamics, shadings. Atmosphères has a wan, sickly, end-of-the-world feeling, and is in fact a leading example of that genre. It also has many neato effects, making it ideal for the movies.

This is not the sort of remark that Ligeti partisans would care to hear, and they were out in force at Avery Fisher Hall. Something of a cult surrounds Ligeti: If anyone coughs or rustles a page during one of the master’s pieces, the offender is viciously shushed—a kind of religious service is being performed, onstage. The partisans believe their man is a genius, a (largely) neglected giant of these centuries, and he is doubtless a very intelligent composer, whatever we may think of his ultimate musical worth.

The Bambergers continued with the Adagio from Mahler’s Symphony No. 10, the only movement completed in that symphony, or symphony-to-be. In the previous concert, they had played Mahler’s Todtenfeier (Funeral Rite), which is an earlier version of the “Resurrection” Symphony’s first movement. That performance was magnificent: amazingly clear, and tight, and scrubbed, but not so clear and tight and scrubbed as to lessen the music’s emotional impact. The performance of the Adagio, from the Tenth, was not so successful. It, too, was clear, tight, and scrubbed—“Modern,” you might say—but overly so. It was clinical, almost as though you could see the cold, hard instruments of the doctor. Instead of taking you into dreamland, or soul-land, it gave the impression of sterility. In addition to mysticism, the Adagio has some witchcraft—a little sorcery—and Maestro Nott handled this well: It was taut and biting. But the piece overall was disturbingly unfelt, and its ending was terribly blunt.

After intermission, we had a bit of a piano recital. The same had been true at the first concert. What I mean is that Pierre-Laurent Aimard played six Ligeti etudes, before the orchestra retook the stage. Why this mixing of an orchestra concert and a piano recital was necessary, or desirable, I don’t know—perhaps the organizers wanted to highlight Ligeti in another form.

In any case, Aimard played those etudes, and played them well. He and the composer are said to be very close; in fact, Ligeti has dedicated some of the etudes to Aimard. These pieces, as a collection, tend to have French titles—such as “En suspens” (“In Suspense”)—and they reflect a range of moods and approaches. Some are jazzy, some are Debussyan (some are both, I suppose). Some are enjoyable by anyone, some are fiercely intellectual, virtually mathematical. In all twelve etudes, Aimard displayed sure technique and interpretive poise. I wish, however, that he would introduce more limpidity into his playing. (Odd that a French player should be short of that.) Aimard favors a style—in a variety of music—that is detached, staccato, and aggressive. Take the Etude No. 5, “Arc-en-ciel” (“Rainbow”). There was no need for that heaviness, that pounding of notes.

Done with the etudes, Aimard—and the Bamberg Symphony—moved to Beethoven’s Concerto No. 5 in E flat, the “Emperor.” Aimard is widely acclaimed as a Beethoven player, thanks in part to his recording of the complete concertos, with Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (on Teldec). In the first movement of the Emperor, Aimard showed bravura authority, and there is always a logic to his playing: This is ordinarily a smart pianist, even if we can’t endorse what he is doing. His octaves, in the Beethoven, were oddly subdued, but not wrong. There were some bothersome ritards, however, and some of Aimard’s logic harmed the piece. The orchestra, meanwhile, under Nott, was precise and springy, and they exuded a Beethovenian strength. Don’t they all when playing Beethoven? No, sadly.

In the slow movement, the orchestra gave us a strikingly warm B major, and when Aimard entered, he did not pound, offering instead a raindrop beauty. And that closing movement—the Rondo—is hard to manage, a little clumsy in unsure hands, but Aimard succeeded, playing forcefully.

His fans went crazy. If Ligeti has a cult, Aimard has probably a greater one. How did it come about? This is a creditable pianist—although I have heard him play very badly (e.g., in Ravel’s G-major concerto)—but there are lots of creditable pianists. Why the hoopla over Aimard? He has the full-throated and constant backing of the New York press, in particular the Times, and of course he is associated with modern music, which wins him many points: Advocacy of contemporary music is next to godliness. To hell with your Mozart sonatas: Give us some Knussen! And we should not forget a certain bandwagon effect, for when the public is told that a pianist is great, it may well believe it. At Avery Fisher Hall, they roared for Aimard—as for Martha Argerich, or for a reigning soprano—stamping their feet, taking pictures with their cellphones.

Stephen Hough and Louis Lortie are excellent pianists—virtuosic, refined, versatile—and they don’t receive half the enthusiasm (or press, which is surely related). As I said earlier, the music business, including musical reputation, makes a curious topic.

Jonathan Nott closed his second concert—and his New York stand—with a raucous, swinging version of the last movement from Ligeti’s Romanian Concerto, written before true-blue Modernism set in. People are always fretting about the future of music, and of orchestras, asking, for example, where the conductors will come from. Well, here’s one, from England, by way of Bamberg, Germany.

We will conclude this chronicle, and this season, with something completely different: actually, not so different, because Renée Fleming has long been a jazz singer. She started out that way, and she has always kept a hand in jazz. You will see Duke Ellington on her recital programs, and she recorded some Ellington songs—exquisitely—with Daniel Barenboim (at the piano). Not long ago, Carnegie Hall commissioned Brad Mehldau, a jazz pianist and composer, to write some songs for her: and he responded with two sets, the major one being a group of seven Rilke songs (translated into English).

Most of these songs are fairly straightforward contemporary American art songs, rather than jazz songs, although a few are jazzy enough. A couple of them may be excerptable—that is, singers may use them singly, for whatever performing purposes. (I think especially of “No one lives in his life.”) The entire set is quite long, and I am skeptical about its power to endure. Such speculation can be hazardous, though.

What’s not hazardous is to say that Mehldau’s songs will never receive a better performance—more royal treatment—than Renée Fleming gave them in Zankel Hall (downstairs in the Carnegie complex). She brought all her technical and interpretive wiles to bear, negotiating some difficult intervals and exploiting every musical and poetic opportunity. She is a delicious singer, no matter what the material. She sang cleanly, while feelingly, and her diction was crystal-clear: She can get a little southern, when notes get jazzy. (Fleming is from Rochester, New York.) She has a vast range, low to high, and she used it all, in the course of the Rilke songs.

As for Brad Mehldau, he may be a better pianist than he is a composer. But people always ask for something new, and Mehldau gave them something—gave Renée Fleming some things, in particular. She has had a rich career, with Handel, Bellini, Richard Strauss, jazz, and the rest of it. She has written a book too (The Inner Voice), and it is a good book. There’s a lot of envy directed at Fleming; people like to take potshots at her. Historically speaking, she is in good company.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 10, on page 54
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