By the look of it, there’s a leading candidate to succeed James Levine as the music director of the Metropolitan Opera: Fabio Luisi. Levine has been sidelined with injuries and ailments for some time, and people worry that he won’t return at all. Luisi has now been named the Met’s “principal conductor.” So, when he led the orchestra in a concert at Carnegie Hall, the event was of more than usual interest: If this guy is to be the music director, what does he got?
The concert began with Mozart’s Magic Flute overture, and chords that were not together. This was a bad sign. As the overture continued, it was okay, but technically uneven and musically uninspired. We’ve grown accustomed to different standards from this orchestra. The concert went on with more Mozart, the Piano Concerto No. 25 in C major. Guess what? The opening chord was not together. I thought, “It’s going to be a long thirty years,” or whatever Luisi’s tenure is to be, if it’s to be.
Our soloist was Richard Goode, a very fine pianist—but far from his best on this occasion. In a nutshell, he was too retiring, too timid, too bland. This is a grand concerto, no matter that it’s by Mozart, not Brahms. Mozartean doesn’t mean mousy, as we know. There were times when I could hardly hear the piano. From Goode and Luisi, the concerto was unfortunately dull, which it certainly is not.
We later heard a new work by John Harb-ison—one of the modernists whom Levine loves to commission. This work is Closer to My Own Life, for voice and orchestra. It is in four parts and uses texts by Alice Munro, that brilliant Canadian writer. Frankly, I felt I had heard the score before. Harbison belongs to a school, and its products tend to run together, at least in my ears. I often say, “They claim that all Vivaldi concertos sound alike, which isn’t true. But even if it were true, they would at least have the excuse of having been written by the same person.” What excuse do American modernists have? Closer to My Own Life is brooding, frenetic, nervous. It is neither atonal nor tonal, but dwells in some in-between land. As I sit here, I have a hard time remembering a single measure from it. Is that my fault? Could well be.
I have described Alice Munro as brilliant, and that applies to Harbison, too. Of his smarts, there is no doubt. Whether he’s a natural-born composer—whether a muse speaks to him—I’m not so sure. In any event, his new work had a wonderful singer in Christine Rice. This English mezzo sang with freedom, excellent intonation, and clear diction. To sing freely and in tune! That is a rare and precious gift to an audience. (Clear diction is mere gravy.)
Maestro Luisi ended the concert with Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, the beloved Strauss romp. It was—to resort to this word again—okay. Good enough for government work. It had no thrill, where thrills should be, and almost no jokes. A Till without jokes? I’m joking, right? Sadly, no.
Nine days later, Luisi was at the Met, conducting a performance of Don Giovanni. I wish I could say he acquitted himself a lot better than in Carnegie Hall. But he was much the same (so one could credit him with consistency). The conducting was never poor, mind you. It just seldom rose above the competent and acceptable. Mozart’s score too often lacked its bounce, trenchancy, lilt, and drama. Luisi presided over a gray performance of one of the least gray works extant. He has had many better nights—I’ve been there—and will have many more. He’d better, one might say.
A Don Giovanni cast has eight members, none of them unimportant—well, maybe Masetto is not so important—but I will touch on just three from this particular night. The title role was assumed by Mariusz Kwiecien, the dashing Polish baritone. His dash was somewhat limited, as he was coming off back surgery. He sang roughly, though he improved as the evening wore on. “Deh, vieni alla finestra” was beautiful. But let me make a point about the Champagne Aria: Why do singers and conductors race through it, as though they’d receive a prize for speed? Why do Don Giovannis merely bluster and shout their way through it? This is what Kwiecien did, and it is a mystery.
Outstanding in the cast was Luca Pisaroni, our Leporello. He has proven himself in Mozart for a good ten years now. His Leporello was colorful without being clownish. His Catalogue Aria was individualistic without being hammed up. Pisaroni understood his job extremely well. Ramón Vargas was Don Ottavio, and I was looking forward to his arias: Vargas is a robust lyric tenor, and you can belt those arias out there. The music can bear it, and so can the Metropolitan Opera House, that (elegant) barn. But when he got to the arias, Vargas tried to be Joe Delicate, scaling down his voice to maybe half size. He was barely singing. Was this his idea of proper Mozart? From his throat, the arias were smaller than from, say, Matthew Polenzani, a pure Mozart tenor. What a waste.
This season, the Met has a new production of Don Giovanni, and it is the responsibility of Michael Grandage, an English director. I’ll tell you what Grandage doesn’t do: He doesn’t rewrite the opera. He doesn’t rip it out of Mozart’s and Da Ponte’s hands. Donna Anna does not have the hots for Don Giovanni. Leporello does not shoot Don Giovanni to death at the end. I have seen other productions do both of those things (and worse). So, Grandage has obeyed the principle “First, do no harm.” He gives you Don Giovanni essentially as it is. His production looks like the story.
Critics have knocked the production for lack of excitement. I grant you it’s not all that exciting, although the hellfire at the end is kind of cool. In my view, however, the excitement is not supposed to lie with the production: It’s supposed to lie with the conducting, the orchestral playing, and the singing. Give Don Giovanni a hot performance, and the Grandage production looks pretty hot, is my guess.
Juho Pohjonen is a pianist from a cold country, Finland, and he played a recital in Zankel Hall. According to the press, he is thirty years old, but he looks much younger: If he bought beer at my Food Emporium, he would surely be asked for ID. He began his recital with Beethoven’s Sonata in D major, Op. 28, known as the “Pastoral.” I like this sonata very smooth, seamless, almost glassy. Pohjonen disagrees. He was as crunchy as he was smooth. (Sounds like we’re talking about peanut butter.) He was as vertical as he was horizontal. He used surprisingly little pedal, which is fine, even admirable—but his playing was sometimes blocky. The music suffered from a paucity of legato.
In the Andante, Pohjonen did not commit the error of slowness—good. In the Scherzo, he was simple and unfussy—also good. But in the Rondo, there were errors, misjudgments. Pohjonen accented the very first note, which was bizarre, and he left the coda practically untouched. By that I mean that he did not exploit it, and it is one of the most delightsome things in all of Beethoven, there to be exploited.
Pohjonen also played three pieces by Debussy, the Estampes. He did not try to out-color Thibaudet. He played these pieces straightforwardly, and a little bluntly. They can have more nuance, more subtlety—certainly more colors, especially pastels. But, you know? I like Pohjonen’s bold, unafraid, self-confident playing. In both the Beethoven and the Debussy, he knew what he wanted to do, and he went ahead and did it. You could quarrel with interpretation, as I have, but you could not quarrel much with execution. As he played the “Pastoral” Sonata, Pohjonen reminded me of Alfred Brendel—who enjoyed a major career, didn’t he?
Speaking of Beethoven, Sir Colin Davis conducted the Missa solemnis in Avery Fisher Hall. His forces were the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (plus the four soloists). He has been conducting those Londoners for more than fifty years now. I could pick at some aspects of his Missa solemnis, but I should cut to the chase: This was a great performance, with Sir Colin seeming to channel Beethoven—giving you the work as if straight from Beethoven’s mind. You could forget the conducting, the playing, and the singing and absorb the Missa solemnis itself. Absorbed as I was, I did think of this: Sir Colin’s performance recalled the famous recording made by Otto Klemperer in 1965. Klemperer was eighty then, and Sir Colin is eighty-four now. Age does not always equal wisdom, heaven knows, but it can be an advantage. I hesitate to use the phrase “religious experience,” because it’s subject to such mockery. But was this Missa solemnis, in Avery Fisher Hall, a religious experience? If you were open to that, yes.
About Yuja Wang, there is an unmistakable whiff of sin. The young pianist likes to dress slinkily and provocatively. And she can be a demon at the keyboard. She has caused a sensation all over the world, and she is sensational indeed. Here in New York, she made her Carnegie Hall recital debut. Two years before, she had played a concerto in this hall, with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Charles Dutoit. It was Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 2, a piece that most pianists are unwilling, and unable, to get near. As Wang was receiving her applause, a veteran pianist said to me, “That’s supposed to be a hard piece, right?” Sure, for non-wizards.
Wang was twenty-two then, and is now a venerable twenty-four. She began her Carnegie recital with a Scriabin set: three preludes, an étude, and the Poème in F-sharp major, Op. 32, No. 1. She was not really herself in the beginning—tentative, unfocused. She even made some technical muffs, which is utterly unlike her. From where I sat (I mean that literally, not figuratively), her sound was dry and unsinging. But she played the Poème well, capturing its offhandedness and following the melody wherever it went, which can be tricky in pieces such as this.
Throughout the Scriabin set, there had been a great deal of coughing in the hall, and Wang left the bench quickly, without bowing, without smiling, without even looking at the audience. She pretty much stalked off the stage, and did not return for a curtain call. Was she upset at the audience or at her own playing? At both, I suspect. When she did come back, she played Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 6. And she showed, once again, that she has all the tools for this composer—including spikiness, limpidity, a sense of whimsy, and a tiger’s heart. The waltzy third movement was delicious. And the Vivace was all poise and mastery. This bode well for the rest of the recital.
After intermission, Wang played the Liszt Sonata, which she recorded three years ago. She played it supremely, too. Now, you have heard this sonata bigger, heavier, grander. Wang tends to make thin sounds (though not insubstantial ones). In the past, I have written that she demonstrates “clarity within virtuosity,” or “nimbleness within virtuosity.” She has the qualities of a cat. And there were Debussyan qualities in her Liszt. The slow portions of the work were extraordinarily intimate. When she got to fast octaves, those were positively Horowitzian. Best of all, she made the piece a coherent whole, which pianists far her senior can’t manage.
Taking her bows, she gave the audience a big smile, for the first time of the night: She knew she had scored. And then a separate show began, in the form of four encores. I’ll mention two of them. We heard something new under the sun, a transcription of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Where had it come from? I thought maybe it had come from Arcadi Volodos, whose Rondo alla turca Wang plays. (That is one of the best transcriptions of the last fifty years.) Regardless, Wang played The Sorcerer’s Apprentice dazzlingly, bewitchingly. She made the piano do things it’s not really designed to do. I later learned that Wang herself had made the transcription. How nice to see pianists today roll their own: create their own pieces, to show off with and otherwise, as they did of old.
She bade goodnight with another transcription, this one by Georges Cziffra: his treatment of the Tritsch-Tratsch Polka. From Wang, it tripped and flitted and astonished. Seldom is piano playing so fleet, intricate, or accurate. Or fun. The crowd screamed and screamed for this girl. Years from now, they will be able to say they were present when the legendary Yuja Wang made her Carnegie Hall recital debut (with a dress or two slit up to here).
A week later, the Minnesota Orchestra arrived in the hall. You might expect Scandinavian music from this ensemble, and they gave us a Nielsen symphony—not the Fourth, the “Inextinguishable,” which is probably the most popular, but the Third, the “Sinfonia espansiva.” If orchestras played it like the Minnesotans under Osmo Vänskä, we would want to hear it every month. The orchestra was prepared to the gills. They were tight (in the good sense, meaning very much together), sensitive, and rhapsodic. I have come to regard a visit by Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra as rather a can’t-miss event. One trusts they are appreciated back home in Minneapolis.
Appreciated by many is Michael Hersch, the American composer. Anyone thirsting for estimable new music should. In the first half of the 2000s, he composed his massive piano work, The Vanishing Pavilions. He has now fashioned a less massive version of that work. The original takes two and a half hours to play, while the new version takes about an hour. In other words, the original version is a full evening (and then some), and the alternative version is half an evening, or two-thirds of one. Either way, The Vanishing Pavilions is a strange and wondrous thing: intense, as most Hersch pieces are. Also mysterious, ferocious, visionary, and original. As I was listening to the work in Merkin Hall recently, I began to hear some dogs not barking. There are no flourishes, no wasted notes. There is no showing off, no display. Just honest composition.
The pianist was Hersch himself, playing the hour-long version. He had taken the stage as he usually does, in a shy, almost embarrassed way. But what a pianist. I have said before that he writes as though his life depended on it, and the same could be said of his playing. He has a huge technique, to go with his formidable musical mind. He can make quick leaps across the keyboard without missing. He knows how to use the pedal, or pedals, allowing him to come up with all sorts of gradations and blurs. He can play fff without pounding. True, he beat the hell out of the keyboard at the end, making an immense white—but that was appropriate.
Obviously, he could have a piano career, or a combined piano-and-composing career, the way Thomas Adès does. But apparently he does not want it. His composition, I sense, is not to be distracted from. To my knowledge, no other pianist has played The Vanishing Pavilions, but I suspect some will, as the years and decades roll on. The hour-long version makes the work more programmable, not that Hersch has ever cared much about salability. At Merkin Hall, there was just a small audience, and I bet the composer knew virtually everyone in it. Nonetheless, I think we all had the sense that we were experiencing something of broad significance.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 Number 4, on page 60
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