Sir Colin Davis came to town to conduct concerts with the New York Philharmonic. He began his career when Clement Attlee was prime minister. He still has vigor, and a crown of glorious hair (pure white). You know how important hair is, in the conducting world. Sir Colin opened his first Philharmonic concert with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2. It was marked by this conductor’s good taste. In general terms, the music was full but not fat, lean but not spare. It had energy and bite, but not that excessive punchiness you hear from “period” practitioners. This performance was not one for the ages. The final movement could have been fleeter and lighter, though it produced its humor. And, overall, things were a little routine, a little workaday. Still, routine from Sir Colin is no great disappointment.
As regular readers know, I am not a sound hound, someone overly concerned about sound, including orchestral sound. (I hope I am adequately concerned.) Nonetheless, I don’t understand why the New York Philharmonic’s sound has to be so poor, so often. In the Beethoven, it was notably so. Maybe not downright ugly, but still not the sound that a major orchestra should have. Some people have blamed the hall, Avery Fisher. And it is not an acoustical paragon. But the Philharmonic has made excellent sounds in that hall, and so have other orchestras. Because I can’t explain the phenomenon of the Philharmonic’s sound, perhaps I should not bring it up. I do note it, however.
After intermission, Sir Colin conducted Mahler’s Knaben Wunderhorn, and he had two renowned soloists with him: Dorothea Röschmann, the German soprano, and Ian Bostridge, the English tenor. I don’t understand why Bostridge was cast, or hired. He is a light, high tenor of the familiar English school. And he was singing essentially baritone music, with a big Mahler orchestra behind him. He could barely be heard. When he first opened his mouth, his voice was tiny, a toy. Throughout the songs, you sometimes saw his mouth move without hearing him. He simply had no chance, in that hall, with that orchestra, in that music. You could hear his highest notes, and they were very nice. But they were baritone high notes, which are impressive from a baritone: They’re at the top of a baritone’s range. They are nowhere near the top of Bostridge’s. And they sounded wrong.
Bostridge—sure to be Sir Ian someday—is of course a very smart singer. This was evident. Last summer, he sang Wolf’s Spanish Songbook with the mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirchschlager in the Haus für Mozart in Salzburg. That was splendid, perfectly fitting. But Des Knaben Wunderhorn with the New York Philharmonic was something else.
Röschmann, I have extolled for many years. I have called her “our Schwarzkopf,” an Elisabeth Schwarzkopf for our time: an example in Mozart, Strauss, Schubert, and well-nigh everything else. A singer valuable in both the recital hall and the opera house. She proved herself valuable in the concert hall too. She sang her Mahler songs intelligently and deliciously. She sang with a beautiful voice—vibrant, warm—and beautiful German. No one sings a better one. She also sang with a super-secure technique, which allowed her to negotiate Mahler’s intervals easily. It was like do-re-mi to her. She sang these songs with a strange blend of innocence and sophistication. Funny, because that’s the same blend the songs have.
You know that Colin Davis is just about the best Messiah conductor in the world, and one of the best Messiah conductors ever, right? Proof lies in his 1966 recording with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Now, he conducted the Philharmonic into the second week of December. Then the orchestra had a period specialist—yet another one—come in to conduct its Messiah performances. The Philharmonic tries to be Musica Antiqua Köln or something at Messiah time. What a pity, what a waste.
Risør is a little fishing village on the southeast coast of Norway. They have a wooden-boat festival there, and also a chamber-music festival. One of the leaders of the latter festival is Leif Ove Andsnes, the pianist. He is the most famous Norwegian musician in the world, and one of the most famous ever. Can you name Norwegian musicians? I’ll give you Flagstad, Truls Mørk (a cellist of today), and, of course, Grieg. And Andsnes.
There were a lot more Norwegian musicians in Carnegie Hall recently, men and women with slashes and little circles in their names. Andsnes brought in his Risør Chamber Music Festival pals for four concerts, with a greatly varied repertoire. This repertoire did not exclude Grieg. Andsnes was prominent in these concerts, of course, but he was not the only pianist: He shared keyboard duties with Marc-André Hamelin, the virtuoso from Montreal. The fourth and final concert featured a singer, Measha Brueggergosman, who is also Canadian. She is a personable singer, known for whimsicality or a slight eccentricity. In this concert, she was barefoot (as a friend of mine pointed out—I hadn’t noticed). She has a quite small soprano, but it is a juicy and characterful one. And she generally knows what to do with it.
Accompanied by Hamelin, she sang four songs, by Liszt, Wagner, Brahms, and Duparc. Outstanding was Duparc’s “Au pays où se fait la guerre.” Brueggergosman brought out the exquisite and aching feelings of this song, and it wound up transfixing. She was then joined by Andsnes and a string quartet for Chausson’s Chanson perpétuelle. Here, the soprano, with her partners, demonstrated what you might call controlled passion, or Gallic passion—which in any case is written in by Chausson. You can pick at Brueggergosman in a number of ways, most of them technical, but her overall musicality wins the day.
The concert, and the Risør series, ended with Brahms’s Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, with Andsnes again at the piano. In my “Salzburg Chronicle” of a few months ago, I reported on a performance of this same work, featuring Andsnes. I think of an old expression: “Second verse, same as the first.” Once more, Andsnes was a model of Classical Romanticism, which is what this quartet is. He was as clean as he would be in Mozart, yet amply Romantic. Let me offer just a few details. The work opens with unison notes on the piano, and these seem very simple. But they’re rather hard to play perfectly together and evenly—which Andsnes did. He never plays on the surface, never slaps at the keyboard. All of his notes have substance, and usually a roundness. He can play with huge, huge force, and yet never pound. There is a moment in the third movement where there are solid octaves in the left hand and leggiero notes—ethereal stuff—in the right hand. Andsnes was, to use this word again, a model.
He is a natural leader, as he shows in chamber music such as this. I wonder whether this pianist, now forty, will take up conducting in a big way.
An evening of the American Composers Orchestra presented four brand-new works, plus a piece by Ives, written in 1906. This was Central Park in the Dark. People have always loved this work, or at least many have: It is mysterious, friendly, and very American. Midway through, a popular song squawks up: “Hello, my baby, hello, my honey, hello, my ragtime doll.” George Manahan, music director of the aco, conducted as he usually does: with knowledge, clarity, and precision. He can be relied on to let his players know what to do.
Two seats over from me, a woman was knitting. That was a new one on me. First, shortly after the music began, she fished out her knitting from her bag. That required some unzipping and zipping. And when she tended to her knitting, the needles were not exactly silent: They clicked, as needles do. Also, the woman in front of me was on her BlackBerry. This made no noise, but the lights and movements were distracting. What do people think this is, an outdoor folk festival?
The first new piece on the bill was High Line, by Ryan Francis. This is a “Greener New York City” commission. (Trust me, environmentalism is almost as big in music as it is everywhere else.) The composer wrote in a program note that his piece was “a musical response to the newly opened High Line park,” in Manhattan. Before the orchestra played this piece, a video was screened, showing the composer walking in the park. Of course, this piece is not “about” the High Line park, any more than Ives’s piece is about Central Park. Music without words is seldom about anything. If we think the Ryan Francis piece is about this particular park, or any park, or anything at all, it’s only because we’re told so.
Actually, Francis’s piece is less about the High Line park than Ives’s piece is about Central Park: because Ives tries to evoke particular sights and sounds associated with the park. High Line is more about . . . what? Feelings? It is the type of piece that we know quite well. It is “sound design” (in the phrase of a friend of mine), rather than music as it was long understood. High Line is psychedelic, New Agey, sort of pleasantly druggy. We get lots of soft percussion, and some whale-like sounds. The piece grows monotonous, or at least it did to me. I wonder when people will tire of writing this type of piece.
Jerome Kitzke has written a piece called Fire at 4 a.m., whose title reminds me of a Hillary Clinton campaign commercial in the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries. Do you remember the 3 A.M. phone call? The aco program told us that Kitzke is “influenced by Native American song, Beat poetry, and jazz.” Take a tip: If you are applying for a grant, say that your influences are Native American song, Beat poetry, and jazz. You may want to add the gamelan, too. You’re a shoo-in.
Fire at 4 a.m. is one of those pieces in which orchestra members make noises with their mouths, lots of them: They shout, whisper, whistle, sort of chew, etc. The piece has some pretty melodies and wonderful, engaging rhythms. I swear, I thought of high-school bands and cheerleading squads: “Let’s go, let’s go, l-e-t-esss-g-o!” There are also touches of Ferde Grofé, as the West is evoked. I’m afraid that, for me, the piece became tedious, strained. There is a sameness about pieces that mix American Indian chants and so on with classical music. I have heard a great many of them. There is also a self-righteous quality, as composers strive to be the most honorable paleface on the rez. You know what I mean?
I have mentioned the West, and the concert included a piece called Westering, by Christopher Trapani. According to his program note, his piece “evokes the idea of westward movement.” He has drawn on Harry Partch, Joni Mitchell, and others. Trapani is obviously a brainy type, and he knows the lingo: His program note employed such words as “spatializing.” Westering features a hexaphonic guitar, an electric guitar with extra-special effects. Sometimes, I thought I was hearing a balalaika. From elsewhere in the orchestra come pluckings, twangs, assorted other sounds. Westering is, in fact, another example of sound design. Intelligent sound design, to be sure (isd?), but sound design all the same.
To me, the piece seems more experimental than composed. What I mean is, it presents the elements that might go into a piece rather than a piece itself. Trapani says this composition “evokes the idea of westward movement.” Really? You have to take his word for it. It is not evident from the music. It is merely in his head (which is fine). Also—and this will come out more sarcastic than I mean it—I don’t know how the music knows when it’s over, or why it’s continuing. I do not discern a structure, or an arc. At some point, the music simply up and quits, and the musicians are on their feet taking their bows.
For my money, the big success of the program was Black Diamond Express Train to Hell, by Douglas J. Cuomo. He calls his piece “a double concerto for cello and sampled sermon.” He goes on to say that his “source material is a fiery sermon by the Reverend A. W. Nix that was released as a 78 rpm record in 1927.” Nix was a black preacher in Chicago. Cuomo plays around with his sermon, taking bits and pieces from it, repeating them, grooving with them. Remind you of anything? It might remind you of Steve Reich’s It’s Gonna Rain, from 1965, which played with a tape of a preacher in a San Francisco park. Black Diamond Express Train to Hell is jolting, haunting, varied, infectious. Frankly, it is ingenious. The woman near me even put down her knitting for a minute. That’s how arresting the music was. Black Diamond Express is very well crafted, and not a moment too long (or too short). I quote the late Earl Wild: “Music ought to say what it has to say, and get off the stage.” Amen. I might also note that Cuomo’s piece could easily get cute with religion, or mock it. My feeling was, it does not.
As I have made plain, I was not enamored of every piece on the program. But I’d like to record that Zankel Hall was packed for this concert, and that the audience was both enthusiastic and attentive. (Even the knitter was probably paying attention.) The aco’s executive director, Michael Geller, made graceful and appropriate (and brief) remarks from the stage. I think that, at the end, people felt they had had a full and satisfying evening.
The Metropolitan Opera has a new production of Don Carlo, the Verdi masterpiece (one of them). It was conceived by Sir Nicholas Hytner, of London’s National Theatre. The production is suitably Verdian. There is some grandiosity on the Mussolini level, but this does no harm. I have reservations about the huge image of Jesus in the auto-da-fé scene. And I think opera directors have gone way overboard with torture and other depravity: As I keep saying, a little suggestion on the stage—especially the operatic stage—goes a long way. But Sir Nicholas has produced a commendable Don Carlo—Verdian, as I say.
And the Met’s cast produced some commendable singing, the night I attended. In the title role was Roberto Alagna. When he sang his opening cry, “Fontainebleau!” he sounded like a Frenchman. As he continued, he sounded like an Italian. He has two native languages, lucky guy: Alagna is a Parisian of Italian parentage. In this first act, he was shaky, strangled, at sea. I felt sorry for him. But, as the opera wore on, he was a new tenor: his best lyric-heroic self, utterly gleaming. Seldom will you see such a turnaround. His Elisabeth, our Elisabeth, was Marina Poplavskaya, a Russian soprano. She did not sound Italian in the least. But she sounded wonderful. She handled both her musical and her theatrical responsibilities with intelligence and sympathy. In fact, those responsibilities were merged. “Tu che le vanità” was unusual: more sensitive and inward than stage-burning. But highly effective.
Poplavskaya did not sound Russian at all, compared with our Eboli, Anna Smirnova. This mezzo-soprano could not have sounded more Russian if she had been singing in Russian (which she might have been). But she sang with aplomb and guts. “O don fatale” was for sure a stage-burner. Simon Keenlyside, portraying Rodrigo, did not sound Italian at all, and he is no kind of Verdi baritone: but he is an excellent baritone, who makes the most of what he has, which is plenty. This was a lyric, rather poetic, and ultimately convincing Rodrigo (though not one you would want in every production, unto the end of time).
The conductor was Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the young man—thirty-five—from Quebec. He has a big reputation, and a very big career. Starting in 2012, he will be the music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, no less. I don’t quite understand Nézet-Séguin’s reputation and career, just as I don’t understand much of the music business. I have heard him conduct several times, and he has been okay. His weaknesses seem to be fast, racing tempos, an over-peppiness (which is, of course, related), and superficiality. I once heard him make the overture to Carmen sound computerized. But I have also heard him conduct like a man who deserves an international career, if not the most exalted podiums—if not them yet.
The main problem with his conducting of Don Carlo was that it sometimes lacked gravitas. It was short on solidity, heft, sweep, pomp, majesty. Furthermore, Nézet-Séguin sometimes had the orchestra too loud, and he sometimes allowed disunity between the pit and the stage. Moreover, I will complain about his phrasing in “Dio, che nell’alma infondere amor”: It was formulaic, therefore wearying. But now I will stop complaining: and say that, on the whole, the young man acquitted himself admirably. The encounter between King Philip and the Grand Inquisitor was well led. (That can be too slow, and it was not.)
Did I mention Philip? He was Ferruccio Furlanetto, probably the Philip of our time. When I heard him in Salzburg last summer, singing in a concert performance of Norma, I was worried: For the first time in my experience, he sounded old, worn. At the Met, however, he was glorious. The voice was glowing, the technique unbudgeable. And the Italian—you can’t beat it. Has there ever been such sung Italian? (Well, Pavarotti.) In his every word, gesture, and look, Furlanetto was Philip. He has lived with this role for many years, and he knows it down to the last breath and tic. One of the most gratifying things about his portrayal is that he won’t overdo anything. For instance, he does not approach “Ella giammai m’amò” as if it were some sacred object. He just goes ahead and sings it, straightforwardly. We who were at the Met that night witnessed a singer for the ages in possibly his greatest role.
Chanticleer gave its annual Christmas concert at the Metropolitan Museum (Medieval Sculpture Hall, in front of a large Christmas tree and a Neapolitan Baroque crèche). Chanticleer, as you remember, is a twelve-man singing group from San Francisco—a group that usually performs a cappella, as they do in the sculpture hall. Among their offerings was a new work: The Word Became Flesh, by Jan Sandström, a Swede (as the name tells you) born in 1954. His text is the first chapter of John, opening verses. The piece begins small and gentle, then widens, gathering strength. Think of a flower opening. Later, the piece contracts. This is an interesting and sincere work, and I would like to hear it again. Yet, in my opinion, it becomes repetitive. Interest flags (at least mine did). It should stop while the stopping’s good. It should know when to get off the stage. I realize I have said this a lot in this chronicle. I myself am growing repetitive, monotonous . . . Chanticleer sang two other songs written by a composer born in 1954, Steven Sametz, an American. These are Two Medieval Lyrics, the second of which is called “Gaudete!” It has beauty, grace, verve, a little jazz—a little swing. A delightful creation, it earns its name, “Rejoice!”
Chanticleer, as usual, sang like a dream, particularly in “Suo gân,” the well-loved Welsh lullaby. They were expansive, yet not too slow: The music, and their breath in it, kept moving. It was so beautiful, you could have died. Tears were seen to stream down faces. The spirituals that concluded the concert weren’t bad either. The Chanticleer Christmas concert is part musical, part religious, and part medicinal.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 29 Number 5, on page 58
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