There is considerable foreplay in the New York Philharmonic season: The orchestra plays several concerts; then they have what they call their opening night. How do they decide that that particular concert is Opening Night? Ours is not to reason why, they just do. Naturally, the music director was on the podium for this concert. He is Alan Gilbert, who took over the job in 2009. Thus we are in the third year of what Philharmonic PR calls “the Gilbert Era.” His guest was the extraordinary American soprano Deborah Voigt.
His program was composed of Wagner and Barber on the first half, and Strauss on the second. Leading off was Barber’s Overture to The School for Scandal. Barber wrote this little gem the first year he could vote, 1931, when he was twenty-one. The piece started almost together, when Gilbert and the Philharmonic played it. In the end, this was a competent, acceptable account, nothing special. It did not really have snap or fizz, although the piece does.
A short while later, the orchestra played the overture to Tannhäuser. As it happened, this was the second time I had heard Gilbert and the Philharmonic perform this piece in the space of five days. It figured on one of those concerts that preceded Opening Night. On that occasion, the overture was stiff and dull, without its swirling magic. Not so on Opening Night: The overture’s magic was restored. This was an intelligent, musical, first-class performance. “What a difference a day makes,” went the old song. Same with five days.
Debbie Voigt sang two pieces on this first half: “Dich, teure Halle” from Tannhäuser and the Barber scena called Andromache’s Farewell. She is well familiar with both pieces. Opening Night was a kind of gala, and “Dich, teure Halle,” in my observation, is Voigt’s go-to gala piece. She sang it in 1996 when James Levine celebrated his twenty-fifth anniversary at the Metropolitan Opera. He conducted a marathon gala, and Voigt was the first singer to appear, performing Elisabeth’s aria. In 2000, she sang Andromache’s Farewell with the Philharmonic under Kurt Masur, its then-music director. I have never heard the scena sung better, and probably never will. And I believe she is the best Elisabeth of my lifetime.
In a program note, Alan Gilbert wrote of her, “No soprano better couples great expression with beauty of sound.” That was certainly true, for many years. I would add that Voigt was the ultimate combination of power and lyricism. And this is not to mention a formidable musical brain. The brain is, of course, intact. But in recent seasons, the voice has curdled somewhat, and the singer has had trouble with her pitch. This was the case on Opening Night. But, as everyone says, Voigt looks smashing, having lost a great deal of weight. What did Fernando on Saturday Night Live say in the mid-1980s? “It’s not how you sing, it’s how you look.”
The second half of the Philharmonic’s program gave us highlights from Strauss’s Salome. One of them was the Dance of the Seven Veils, which needs eroticism above all. No, Voigt didn’t dance (although she could have): Gilbert and the orchestra played. Lorin Maazel, Gilbert’s immediate predecessor as music director, had eroticism in spades. I think I once wrote that his Dance of the Seven Veils should have come in a brown paper wrapper. (For the especially young, I ought to explain that that’s how porn used to come, through the mails.) He was obviously a man who knew his way around carnality. Gilbert, perhaps to his credit, conducted a chaste dance, all too chaste.
The evening ended, appropriately, with the Final Scene, which I refer to as “the mad Liebestod.” It needs electricity, bite, sensualism, terror. From Voigt and her partners it was okay, barely okay. These days, Voigt has better nights and worse nights, like most people, like mortals. But Voigt is no mortal, as I conceive her. I look forward to her rejuvenation, a great and gratifying comeback.
Just across the street from Avery Fisher Hall, where the Philharmonic plays, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center opened its season. They play at Alice Tully Hall, recently refurbished. cms’s opening program was an appetizing smorgasbord, offering pieces from different eras and in different styles. There were two living composers on the program. They were born almost sixty years apart.
Vivian Fung was born in the Canadian province of Alberta, in 1975. According to cms’s program notes, Fung has “taught and organized the World Music Series at Juilliard”—uh-oh. To the likes of me, the words “world music” are a warning. In a program note of her own, Fung said, “I am Western-trained, but my works are infused with Asian elements.” We see that composers have something in common with chefs. The piece we heard at Alice Tully Hall was Pizzicato for String Quartet, written in 2001 and soon incorporated into Fung’s String Quartet No. 1. She informed us that “the piece is influenced partly by the music of the Chinese plucked instruments pipa and qin as well as by the energetic rhythms of Indonesian gamelan.” Ah, yes, gamelan: For the last twenty-five years or so, if you’ve wanted to win a grant or something, you’ve had to say, “I’m influenced by Indonesian gamelan, you know.” Bach could submit his Well-Tempered Clavier, and Beethoven his Missa solemnis—but no gamelan, no dice.
Now that I have mocked Vivian Fung and her world, shall I say that her Pizzicato is clever and exciting? Hearing it made me want to hear the entire string quartet of which it became part. The Escher String Quartet played Pizzicato with conscientiousness and zest. They came and went without their bows, as a quartet would when faced with pizzicatos alone.
The other living composer on this program was Henri Dutilleux, born in 1916. He composed his Sonatine for Flute and Piano in 1943. It is a smart and well-balanced piece. The first movement, Allegretto, is quite typical of Dutilleux: mysterious, insinuating, and a little off-kilter. The second movement, though marked Andante, is scherzo-like and skittering. The third and final movement is marked Animé—like so many final movements of French works. For cms, Tara Helen O’Connor was the fine, assured flutist, and Alessio Bax did well on the piano. I would have liked from him a touch more jazz, however: In the Animé, he was maybe a little straight and polite.
This pianist is an Italian, by the way, as his first name will tell you but his last name will not. Is he related to the British composer Sir Arnold? That, I cannot say.
Another composer on this program was Giovanni Bottesini, who lived in the nineteenth century. If we’ve heard of him today, it’s for two striking facts: He was known as “the Paganini of the Double Bass,” and he conducted the premiere of Aida, way down in Cairo. His Gran duo concertante in A minor for Violin, Double Bass, and String Quartet is a pleasantly trashy piece, a souvenir from an era. Seldom has a bass been given more to do, and young Daxun Zhang, in Alice Tully Hall, did it with skill and gusto.
There was just one piece on the second half of the program: Mendelssohn’s Octet. He wrote it when he was sixteen. It is arguably the greatest juvenile work ever composed (although perhaps it is safest to say “aside from Mozart”). Barber’s voting-age effort is admirable too. But the Octet? Almost unbelievable.
The Metropolitan Opera opened its season with two Annas: Anna Bolena and Anna Netrebko. The former is an opera by Donizetti, and the latter, as you well know, is a Russian soprano. She is probably the hottest commodity in opera today. “Anna Bolena” is the Italian way of saying Anne Boleyn, and she is one of Donizetti’s “Three Queens.” The others are Mary, Queen of Scots, in Maria Stuarda, and Elizabeth in Roberto Devereux. The Met had not staged Anna Bolena until this season, and the other “Tudor operas,” we are told, are coming.
Netrebko is the company’s poster girl this season, and I mean that quite literally: She is on Met posters all over the city, writhing in a pink dress. She is not a classic bel canto singer in the manner of Sills, Sutherland, or Caballé. But she is an all-around singer, not unlike Renée Fleming. Fleming has scored big in bel canto—I think in particular of Il pirata. Netrebko has scored big, or respectably, too. At the Met she has sung in I puritani, Don Pasquale, and Lucia di Lammermoor. Again, she and Fleming are not “bel canto singers.” But they are something a little better: singer singers.
I attended Anna Bolena about a week after Opening Night, and Netrebko (in the title role, of course) was sharp off the bat. Sharp in pitch, I mean. She is often that way, especially in repertory outside the Russian. There were other flaws and imperfections too: for example, some flatness in the mad scene. Also, she has some idiosyncrasies that may not be to everyone’s taste. For instance, she will scoop up a bit to a climactic high note. What she does is create her own little grace note. But this is acceptable, certainly in opera.
Whatever her flaws or idiosyncrasies, she is a phenomenal singer, with inborn musical and theatrical sense. She has the ability to match word and note, thought and note. She always engages your attention, meaning that she engages you in the work at hand. The role of Anna Bolena requires low, low notes, and high, high ones, and Netrebko managed them all. When she sang about Percy’s hot tears, falling on her hand, she conveyed what I can only call an intense simplicity—very rare. Know this, too: Stars shine most when they really must, and Netrebko did this in the mad scene.
Singing the relatively minor role of Smeaton was Tamara Mumford, a young mezzo-soprano from Utah. She was flawless, superb, well-nigh perfect. I can’t overemphasize what a difference singing in tune makes. The other mezzo, in the much bigger part of Giovanna (Jane Seymour), was Ekaterina Gubanova. She had a mediocre Act I, but was a new woman in Act II: magnificent of voice, secure of technique. Ildar Abdrazakov was the villain of the piece, Henry VIII, known here as Enrico. The singer’s bass voice seems to grow more beautiful every year, and his authority onstage seems to increase. For many years, I have noted that he is Olga Borodina’s husband. Maybe I should start noting that she is his wife. I should note, too, that three of the major roles in Anna Bolena were taken by Russians. This makes a statement about international opera today.
Percy was taken by Stephen Costello, the young American tenor. I have long praised his beautiful lyric voice. I have also worried about his straining it. Two summers ago, he was Romeo opposite Netrebko’s Juliet when Salzburg staged the Gounod opera. I thought the role was heavy on him, and that some of his freshness had been crushed out. He was fresh enough as Percy, even if the voice was a little small for the house. And he performed Percy’s acrobatics—vocal acrobatics, of course—impressively. Marco Armiliato was the conductor, leading the opera with a sure hand.
The production was in the hands of David McVicar, a Scottish director. Some critics have knocked it as too “literal,” i.e., too true. I like its trueness, a lot. The production looks like a Tudor opera should. If you want an opera set in, say, the Obama administration, you can sit right down and write yourself a nice little opera set in the Obama administration. About McVicar’s production, I could say fifty things, for and against (mostly for). But let me confine myself to a general point: What I think I like best about this production is its refusal to show off. It doesn’t say, “Look at me! I’m the star of the show!” It is willing for Donizetti, the story, and the singers to be the stars of the show. McVicar has held directorial ego in check, and for this one should bow to him.
It had been years since I had heard a “9/11 piece.” We heard a slew of these, of course, in 2002, 2003, and maybe even a bit into 2004. These were pieces that were supposed to be “about” 9/11, or comment on those attacks in some way. Almost all of the pieces, of course, were instantly forgettable. But this is not to single them out: Most new pieces, I’m afraid, are instantly forgettable. A few years ago, André Previn said that the last new piece that had really excited him was Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. It was written in 1943. (Previn was maybe slighting himself, being a composer who has written a healthy body of work.)
This season, we are hearing some new 9/11 pieces, because 2011 marks the tenth anniversary of the attacks. Among those pieces is One Sweet Morning, by John Corigliano. (No, the title does not refer to 9/11.) The work was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. Corigliano is now a grand old man of American music, which seems hard to believe: Only yesterday, he had written his violin sonata, memorably played by his father, also John Corigliano, the concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic. But the calendar says that Corigliano Jr. is seventy-three.
In a program note, the composer spoke of his recent commission: “When Alan Gilbert asked me to write a work commemorating the 10th anniversary of ‘9/11,’ I frankly had no idea what to do. I did know what not to do, and that was to write a piece of abstract orchestral music.” He wrote a song-cycle, for mezzo-soprano and orchestra. It comprises four songs on four diverse texts. The message, broadly speaking, is an anti-war one. The texts come from Milosz, Homer, Li Po, and E. Y. “Yip” Harburg. Li Po is an eighth-century Chinese poet. Harburg is an American lyricist who lived from 1896 to 1981. Ever hear of “Over the Rainbow”?
The first song, on the Milosz text, is “A Song on the End of the World.” The musical line is not quite tonal, not quite atonal. There is much percussion, mainly of the soft variety (bells and the like). Frankly, this song sounds like a great many others. By turns, it is lugubrious, woozy, and anxious. There are ominous pulses, knockings at the door. The accompaniment is relatively spare, letting the singer sing. And low strings match a low voice.
The second song is the Homer song, “Patroclus.” It is fast and furious, to use a phrase recently in the news. It is war-like and also ancient-sounding. The orchestra gets terrifically loud, and I thought, “Only a Stephanie Blythe could project through it.” Luckily, Blythe was the soloist, with the Philharmonic and Gilbert, in this world premiere. The Li Po song is like the Homer song: fast, furious, war-like, ancient (ish). Called “War South of the Great Wall,” it is also Chinese, or Chinesey. This is the Chinese moment in music at large. I have spoken of the “Sinofication” of music. It is rare, however, to hear a Chinese-inflected piece from a non-Chinese composer. Perhaps the presence of this song in Corigliano’s cycle has to do with the co-commission from Shanghai.
Ending the cycle is the Harburg song, the title song, “One Sweet Morning.” Here is sweet resolution, sort of—resolution after so much noise and war. The words go, “Spring will bloom—one sweet morning. . . . Peace will come—one sweet morning.” In my judgment, the song could stand to be more beautiful. Did Corigliano shrink from this for fear of being called a tunesmith? At his age, with his stature, he should be beyond worrying about such brickbats. I think his song-cycle is a creditable one, and I would willingly hear it again. If you think this is faint praise, be assured it is not.
Carnegie Hall is celebrating its 120th anniversary, which may seem like a curious number. Couldn’t the hall have waited until the 125th? Maybe so, but, in the music business, they never miss an opportunity to mark an anniversary. Music has long been infected by anniversaryitis. Because the great Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky conducted at the inaugural concert of Carnegie Hall, in 1891, the hall’s focus last month was on the music of Tchaikovsky. Doing the main honors was the Mariinsky Orchestra from St. Petersburg, conducted by Valery Gergiev.
Gergiev is a musician so uneven, it is downright abnormal. He conducted a cycle of Mahler symphonies last year, and you never knew how a performance would be: either one of the most stunning Mahler experiences you ever had, or ho-hum. Last month, Gergiev and the Mariinsky opened Carnegie Hall’s season with a gala program of Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov. It was ho-hum, except for Scheherazade, which was flat-out poor—uninspired and incredibly sloppy.
The very next night, Gergiev led the orchestra in two symphonies of Tchaikovsky, the first and the last—No. 1 (“Winter Daydreams”) and No. 6 (“Pathétique”). We heard a new conductor and a new orchestra. The Symphony No. 1 was anything but sloppy and anything but uninspired. The orchestra was tight as a drum, in a good sense. And the music was fabulously exciting. It was both solid and fluid, vertical and horizontal. There was nothing namby-pamby about it, having muscle, but it was tender where it should have been. I thought, “This is what Tchaikovsky should sound like.” The music seemed to flow from Gergiev’s fingertips, the conductor in total command.
And that was just the first movement. I was ready to go home right then, not needing to hear more.
The second movement was appropriately like a dream, covered in mist. The third movement, the Scherzo, was endearingly Mendelssohnian. The Finale began with wonderful suspense, then built into something stirring and noble. To say it once more, the orchestra was tight as a drum—clicking, interlocking, immaculate. The closing chords were so together, they could have been played by Yefim Bronfman.
Surely that was enough. The “Pathétique” was bound to be a letdown, right? No. It was just as good as “Winter Daydreams,” or better. Gergiev started the symphony with unusual clarity—a quiet clarity. Some conductors like this music to emerge from primordial soup. Gergiev took a different approach. As the symphony continued, he exercised superb judgment. His rubato sometimes verged on too much, but never crossed the line. His dynamic shifts were daring and always musical. He answered the question, “Can you hear the ‘Pathétique’ again, after a lifetime of hearings?” Yes, you can. The piece was startling and new.
The last movement, marked Adagio lamentoso, was quite slow, more of a largo than an adagio. But it seemed right. And seldom has this music been more lamentoso. There was some magnetic connection between Gergiev and this orchestra, as though the orchestra were an extension of his will, or Tchaikovsky’s. The final pages were perfectly and unusually clear, down to the last drumbeat. And never has this music sounded more like death. When it was over, there was complete silence in the hall. It was a long while before the audience could applaud. And when they did, they could hardly stop.
As we left, I remarked to a friend, “This was one of the best Tchaikovsky concerts I have ever attended. To be honest, it was one of the best orchestral concerts I have ever attended.” I then thought, “I’d better have the nerve to say that in print.” And to think how lousy the previous night had been! “What a difference a day makes.”
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 Number 3, on page 55
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