Menahem Pressler, the octogenarian pianist, and Richard Stoltzman, the sexagenarian clarinetist, gave a joint recital. This took place in the Metropolitan Museum. They had with them a soprano, Heidi Grant Murphy, who came on at the end for The Shepherd on the Rock (Schubert). They also had with them a violist, Richard O’Neill, who participated in a piece by György Kurtág, the octogenarian composer. Pressler thinks a lot of Kurtág, including him on a variety of programs. We must think a lot of Kurtág, too: for he is both one of the brainiest and one of the most intriguing composers going.
Pianist, clarinetist, and violist played Kurtág’s Hommage à R. Sch.—that being Robert Schumann, of course. The piece was written (or completed) in 1990. You might think of Schumann and Kurtág as miles apart, and you would be right: but that Kurtág has such respect for Schumann says something wonderful about Kurtág (and about Schumann, you might add). In his Hommage, Kurtág finds ways of incorporating his ancestor. But the music is all his—all Kurtág’s. It is spare, squirmy, and edgy. If modern music has a single hallmark, it is probably edginess, or nervousness. As for spareness: Kurtág takes the cake here, availing himself of remarkably few notes. The Hommage is an example of his “micro-music.” And it has an overall compositional integrity.
Our performers played it splendidly, with just the right understanding and sensitivity. Some of Kurtág’s phrases for the piano are inquiring—they seem to ask something. And Pressler played them in just this fashion. Throughout the piece, the audience was held in a kind of spell, keeping absolute silence—which was gratifying.
And I will tell you something amusing: On the stage sat a huge bass drum. What was it doing there? The final note of the piece is a tiny, barely audible tap on the drum—administered on this evening by the clarinetist, Stoltzman. So large and imposing an instrument for just that tiny tap! But I think of something that Samuel Barber once told a friend of mine: You, the composer, must find exactly the right notes; all the other notes are wrong. Kurtág is certainly a seeker after right notes. He must have wanted exactly that sound, on exactly that instrument. Nothing else would do. And if the sight of the drum is comical—so be it!
In Carnegie Hall, James Levine conducted his Boston Symphony Orchestra in a concert beginning with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6. After intermission, it had a new piece by Leon Kirchner, and the concert ended with Schumann’s Piano Concerto. Had a concert ever begun with the “Pathétique” Symphony and ended with Schumann’s Piano Concerto? I doubt it, but Levine must have had his reasons.
He conducted the symphony unusually and memorably. Never have I heard him more emotional than he was in the first movement—he was emotional while retaining his typical discipline. Granted, the “Pathétique” is an emotional piece, one of the most emotional in the repertoire. But even taking this into account, Levine conducted with extraordinary, almost jarring passion. The third movement—that G-major march—was bracing and thrilling. Levine insisted on every note value, making the music even more emphatic than it normally is. The closing movement—whose initial marking is Adagio lamentoso—was a little bit earthbound, or matter-of-fact. It can be more draining, if you know what I mean. But Levine was far from inept in it.
And the main point of this performance was that first movement. I am loath to link the personal with the musical—to attribute qualities in music-making to what is going on in “real life.” But I must admit that the following thought crossed my mind: James Levine has had health scares recently, though he seems to be in fine fettle now. Could that have to do with the extraordinary emotional power of his conducting?
Kirchner was born in 1919, meaning that he will mark a big birthday next year—not as big, however, as the birthday Elliott Carter is marking this year, which is his hundredth. With the BSO, Levine conducted Kirchner’s The Forbidden, which is explosive, yearning, and churning. It is also highly Romantic. Wagnerian elements rise from the depths. And the music is ever-flowing, never-resting (or almost never-resting). Kirchner has unleashed something of a corker in what should be autumnal years.
And, incidentally, he has composed this piece three times—meaning, he has used the same music in a piano sonata, a string quartet, and now this orchestral piece. I was put in mind of the late journalist Richard L. Strout. He counseled that you should try to write a piece three times—and get paid for each, needless to say.
The soloist in the Schumann concerto was Maurizio Pollini, the acclaimed Italian pianist. Unfortunately, he was at his most grim and joyless: You would have thought he was enduring dental surgery rather than playing Schumann’s Piano Concerto. To add insult to injury, his technique was unusually faulty. Levine, on the podium, seemed to be enjoying himself—and Schumann—to the hilt. This made for a strange contrast with the pianist. Pollini simply offered no charm, which is especially bad in a concerto overrunning in it.
At the Metropolitan Opera, the charming Diana Damrau sang Lucia, in Donizetti’s bel canto masterpiece (Lucia di Lammermoor). Last season, after she sang Konstanze in The Abduction from the Seraglio (Mozart), I said to a senior critic, “She’s a great singer, isn’t she? I mean, an all-time great—we can say that now.” The critic replied that it was too early. I persist in saying, “Why wait?” But Damrau did not have her best outing in Lucia—at least in the first act, on the night I attended. “Regnava nel silenzio” was spotty, with the soprano occasionally off-pitch and occasionally strident. That is not Damrau. But even when she is having technical difficulties, she is musical. And she soon got back on technique track: with her pitch secure, her top register fabulous, and her ornamentation easy. Damrau is a lyric soprano—even a light lyric—but she can deliver power from nowhere. This is a matter of focus, which is a branch of tech- nique.
She can act, too—better than opera-act. She is an especially good comic actress, as you can see when she is Rosina (in Rossini’s Barber of Seville). For years, I have said that Damrau is a combination of Lucille Ball and Grace Kelly—she is an elegant, funny, often hilarious blonde beauty. But she can do tragedy too, as you saw in Lucia. Her mad scene was superbly poised and intelligent: theatrically and vocally.
A word about the tenor, who was Piotr Beczala. Readers may recall that he shone in Dvořák’s Rusalka at the Salzburg Festival last summer. He shone in Lucia as well—though not at the beginning, when he was rough, sloppy. But, like his soprano, he came on strong: and by the end of the opera, he was practically stealing the show. We may not have been ready to call this opera Edgardo rather than Lucia—but it was close.
Carnegie Hall hosted the premiere of a symphony by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, the American composer born in 1939. This was the Symphony No. 5. Actually, the formal title is “Symphony No. 5 (Concerto for Orchestra).” Isn’t that double dipping, kind of cheating? Is the work a symphony or a concerto for orchestra? It is both, I suppose—it certainly has a concerto-like aspect, in that there are conspicuous solo opportunities for principals. Besides, a composer is entitled to her own designation.
The work is in four movements, of which the first is called “Prologue.” It is very Shostakovich-like, and the music it may most bring to mind is Shostakovich’s own Fifth Symphony. We hear what I can best describe as angular lyricism. Beyond Shostakovich, you may detect a touch of Mahler, too. Zwilich’s second movement is called “Celebration,” and it is like a scherzo—only this is an unusual kind of scherzo: marked by menacing or angry jazz. If this is a celebration, it is a sort of angry celebration. An arresting movement, really—and as long as I’m talking about influences, or imagining them, I might as well say that there is a bit of Bernstein in this music.
The third movement is a good idea: “Memorial,” written “in remembrance of composers whose voices were silenced by tyranny.” (Those are Zwilich’s own words.) This movement, like the others, is intelligent and well wrought. But it is also a little nice, a little innocuous—maybe slightly too bland for its purpose. The fourth movement, balancing the first, is called “Epilogue.” I found it Bartókian, particularly in its use of percussion. But maybe I was a little influenced by the work’s title. (Didn’t Bartók write a concerto for orchestra?) Titles and other non-musical clues can play such tricks. This fourth movement, I believe, is less successful, less involving, than the others, particularly the first two. But it is unquestionably competent.
Forced to speak a bottom line, I would blurt out the following: On first hearing, the first two movements of Zwilich’s Symphony No. 5 struck me as excellent, even exciting. Here was a newly penned symphony to hail! The second two movements struck me as more ordinary—again, not bad, by a long shot. But less outstanding. And I bow to Zwilich for having the courage, in mid-career, to write with tonality, melody, and the other elements of music. (At the same time, she did not go vanilla, make no mistake.) Lee Hoiby once told me that he felt “the hot breath of the composition police” on his neck every time he wrote a major third. The police are less fierce than they used to be: but they can still swing their clubs.
Performing the Zwilich symphony was the Juilliard Orchestra, conducted by James Conlon. On the second half of their program, they played another Symphony No. 5: Mahler’s. You may agree that that’s a creditable work, too.
Time, now, to sing the praises of Patricia Racette. This American soprano was Butterfly at the Metropolitan Opera, and she is widely considered the Butterfly of our age. That is not a stupid judgment. Butterfly is a special role requiring sweet strength (or strong sweetness, if you prefer). And Racette has that, among other qualities. You think of the A-list Butterflys of yore: Licia Albanese and Victoria de los Angeles; Renata Scotto and Diana Soviero. (And how about Maria Callas?) Racette is putting her own stamp on the role, and bidding fair for the A list.
What does she bring to the table, other than sweet strength? She has an interesting voice, beautiful yet formidable. (This is tied to sweet strength, of course.) That voice has some liquid in it, like Elisabeth Söderström’s, for example. Funny how a voice can seem wet. Racette can melt and she can penetrate. When the voice cuts and scalds, it does so beautifully, if Racette desires. Also, she can bend it (like Beckham?). She can bend her voice, turning steel to silly putty—pliancy is an invaluable vocal quality. And she has a sure, probably inborn musical sense. Of course, she is prone to errors, like most everybody else: She can be strident, and she can also be flat. She was both when I heard her Butterfly this time around. But the total package more than makes up for any lapses.
Her tenor at the Met was an Italian, Roberto Aronica, and the night I was there he had a terrible, terrible time. The less said about it the better. But I will offer one detail: At the end of the Love Duet, he was alarmingly flat, while Racette was right on—but, tragically, he held his note longer. And let me give the final word to Butterfly itself—to Puccini’s score itself: Every time I think I can’t hear it again, I rediscover it—and realize what a marvel, of craft, variety, and inspiration, it is. No wonder it has lasted this long, and will last long, long after other footprints have vanished.
The Met presented a new score, or newish one: This was John Adams’s Doctor Atomic, which premiered at the San Francisco Opera in 2005. To quote the Met program —immodest in the way of publicists—“This monumental contemporary opera is a riveting examination of one of the most significant episodes in world history: the events leading up to the testing of the first atomic bomb in New Mexico in 1945.” The man referred to in the title is J. Robert Oppenheimer. John Adams, as you know, is the most famous classical composer in the world, or certainly one of them: perhaps tied with Philip Glass. The conductor Marin Alsop, who is to be respected, compared him to Beethoven. I will simply acknowledge that Adams is endowed with much talent. He likes to compose operas on political-historical themes, as evidenced by Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer (about the Achille Lauro crime), and now Doctor Atomic. The libretto of the latest opera is by Peter Sellars, chiefly known as a director. What is Sellars like? Well, to turn again to the Met program, he is “the remarkable and often controversial theater director whose work has expanded the horizons of traditional opera for many audiences.” That is putting it flatteringly indeed.
Doctor Atomic has a political interpretation of the events it treats, and that interpretation is exactly what you would expect: In San Francisco and New York, it could be no other. The director of the Met production is, not Sellars, but Penny Woolcock (a fine production it is, too). And in her note for the Met program, she cited the theorist Gar Alperovitz. The Alperovitzian view, as you may recall, is that the Japanese government was ready to concede and that the United States torched human beings needlessly. I was taught that, K through graduate school, and perhaps you were too: Then I grew up (expanded my horizons, so to speak). The Met production was funded by Agnes Varis, who said, “This opera and its subject fall right in line with my politics and my love of history.” She, too, is an Alperovitzian, saying, “The Japanese were teetering, and what we were doing by killing people was punishing them for a rogue regime.” Heigh-ho.
But what about the music? It is rather eclectic, as are so many American operas composed today. We hear American sounds and rhythms from mid-century. We hear old-timey radio and the like. There is a jazzy energy, and the score is often busy, but it does not descend into mere busyness, as can any number of contemporary American scores. Given the subject matter, there is obviously a lot of tension, nervousness, foreboding. There is also beautifully tender music, such as the lines in Act I sung between Oppenheimer and his wife, Kitty. And the opera as a whole is skillfully, imaginatively orchestrated.
The music is at its worst, I believe, when it is gimmicky, or cheap: when it employs atonality, for example, to suggest that which is undesirable or bad. How many times in contemporary opera does a composer comment on events through atonality? Sellars’s libretto is often didactic, not to say hectoring or preachy. And, frankly, the music can feel a little propagandistic, too. There were times when I felt I was being manipulated, emotionally. When you deal with Armageddon—best to tread lightly, to have maximum effect.
Moreover, the score can be a little tedious, or at least I thought so, in my first experience with the piece. And here is a particular criticism: The notes and the words sometimes fail to match up—that is, musical stresses are at odds with linguistic stresses: as in the phrase “overexposure to fallout.” Why composers aren’t more attentive to this issue, I don’t know.
But Doctor Atomic is unquestionably a worthy score, and John Adams—forgetting kinship to Beethoven—is unquestionably a worthy composer. He does like his politics. In a program note of his own, he described coming of age in the Cold War: a childhood “always clouded by the absurdities of air-raid drills, ‘family’ bomb shelters, arsenals of nuclear warheads, and the chatter of politicians invoking the evils that lurked behind what Churchill with his gift for epithets had so evocatively dubbed the ‘Iron Curtain.’” I wonder whether Adams ever found out about those evils behind the Iron Curtain—by reading The Gulag Archipelago, for example. I wonder whether he today acknowledges that there were evils at all.
And a quick, closing word on the atomic bombing, if I may: This is a multifaceted and largely unresolvable question, of course. But I well remember working at golf courses, years ago, and knowing men on the grounds crews: who thought that their lives had been spared—along with those of countless other Americans and even more Japanese—when the invasion was called off. If you didn’t like the atomic bombings—and who could?—you really, really would have hated the invasion of Japan.
One Friday afternoon at the New York Philharmonic, Lang Lang, the twentysomething Chinese pianist, and Christoph Eschenbach, the sixtysomething German conductor, teamed up. The program consisted of Beethoven and Bruckner—with the Beethoven being the Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major. Lang Lang was a trip: toying with the music, adding notes, speeding up, slowing down, experimenting with the pedal, exploring the outer reaches of dynamics, conducting himself. I loved it. Because, most of the time, Lang Lang was musical, and thrillingly so. He was sometimes eccentric, but he was more natural than willful, and often he is the other way around. Lang Lang played with a rare combination of beauty and excitement, dripping talent in every bar. I can’t claim to speak for Beethoven, who departed this vale in 1827: but I dare say that he, too, would have loved it.
Lang Lang has recorded the C-major concerto, and with Eschenbach, as it happens (and the Orchestre de Paris). The recording is more restrained than this performance was, if not exactly conventional. I wish I had the Philharmonic account on disc—because it was far better. And Eschenbach was superb with Lang Lang and the Philharmonic, filling the concerto with what I must call, briefly, Beethovenness.
After intermission, he conducted Bruckner’s last symphony, the Ninth. Throughout the three movements—Bruckner did not have the time or health to produce the fourth—he was muscular, virile, bold. He showed us that “coiled tension” of his, about which I have frequently written. He was not especially spiritual or transcendent: This was a somewhat secular Ninth, and occasionally sensual. But Eschenbach did justice to the work, allowing it to unfold “organically,” to use a word that so often arises in Bruckner. And please allow me to conclude with a brief story: One day, a few years ago, at lunch, Paul Johnson asked me which I thought the best of Bruckner’s nine. After some protests about how great they all are, I named the Ninth: because it is a summa, or summit, wreathed in glory. He smiled his approval and agreement. When Paul Johnson approves and agrees with you: That is a good lunch, to say the least.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 27 Number 4, on page 53
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