I don’t think I’ve ever written about a trumpet recital in these pages. I don’t think I’ve written about a trumpet recital in any pages. They are few and far between. It’s a shame, really, because the instrument has a wonderful repertory—a repertory going far beyond the Haydn Concerto (wonderful as that piece is). Also few and far between are trumpeters—solo trumpeters. Years ago, there was only Maurice André, or so it seemed. Then we had Gerard Schwarz—who became a full-time conductor. At some point, we picked up Wynton Marsalis, the starry jazzman, who has made distinguished forays into classical music. And now we have Tine Thing Helseth. She is a young Norwegian woman—twenty-three—and a phenom. An impressive, even an exciting, musician.
She appeared in Weill Recital Hall, the upstairs venue in the building known as Carnegie Hall. (It can get complicated.) In the first half of her recital, she played three trumpet staples, by Martinu, Enescu, and Hindemith. She also played a new piece, written expressly for the occasion. She handled herself like a singer, and I found myself evaluating her as a singer. What I mean is, I noticed onsets, articulation, intonation, breathing, tone (or a variety of tones). I even thought of certain passagework as coloratura! Helseth passed in all departments. She has gobs of technique, and abundant musicality. Her phrasing was particularly admirable. Plus, she has tremendous poise, a dauntlessness.
The new piece was Here, by the soloist’s fellow Norwegian Rolf Wallin. Our program notes described the piece as “an expression of gratitude for Carnegie Hall and concert halls in general, sanctuaries where the mind is active but distracted.” That is a lot for a four-minute trifle to convey. At any rate, Here is a respectable trifle, featuring some anxious noodling, then some excited whizzing around.
In the second half of her recital, Helseth turned to music for the voice, transcribed for her own voice, or trumpet. First she played Haugtussa, the song cycle by Grieg—“our very own,” Helseth said from the stage (meaning that the composer was Norwegian—and not just any Norwegian). She explained that, though we wouldn’t be hearing the “beautiful words” of the poet Arne Garborg, “the beautiful music is enough, I think.” Is it? I’m not sure. These are, indeed, songs—songs with words. But as songs without words, they are adequate, at least. As she played Haugtussa, Helseth had a problem or two. Some impurities sneaked in. For instance, she stopped phonating—making sound—at one point. But these problems were hardly major. They kind of popped out at you because the first half of the recital had been immaculate. Helseth may have been experiencing some lip fatigue.
She got a rest when her pianist played some solo pieces of Grieg—more song transcriptions, these for the piano alone. The pianist was another Norwegian, Håvard Gimse. (Do you know the motto of Haverford College? I learned it from an alumnus: “No, I did not say Harvard!”) All evening long, Gimse was keen, alert, alive—a tasteful and trustworthy player. You could do worse than hear him in a recital of his own.
When Helseth returned, she played Falla’s Siete canciones populares españolas. She did not sound tired: She sounded eagerly and colorfully Spanish. Then she played two encores, also Spanish, or almost Spanish—two pieces by Piazzolla, the Argentinian tango master. In these works, she was alternately sultry and spicy. Not very Norwegian (meaning no offense to that sturdy and worthy northern race).
As Helseth was playing Haugtussa, I had a voice in my head. This was not deliberate; it was totally involuntary. I was “listening to” Anne Sofie von Otter, the Swedish mezzo, who sings that cycle so well. Oddly enough, she appeared in Carnegie Hall—in Zankel Hall, Carnegie’s “basement” venue—the very next night. And she began her recital with Grieg: not something from Haugtussa, but Grieg nevertheless. She went on to songs by a couple of Swedish composers. No one is better in the Scandinavian repertory than she. But she is no specialist—the farthest thing from it. Virtually every repertory is her repertory, because she is one of the most cosmopolitan and versatile singers we have. She seems at home in every language, every style. She just slips into a different skin.
Does she sound like she always has? No and yes. No in that, at this stage of her career, the voice is smaller and somewhat frayed. Yes in that she still has the technical security, intelligence, and musicality that make her von Otter. In some of the Scandinavian songs, she sounded like some Nordic goddess-sage. Her gifts of communication—her way with music and her way with words—are very rare.
Her pianist was Brad Mehldau, who is mainly known as a jazz composer. He and von Otter have collaborated often. Unfortunately, in this first half of the program, Mehldau was simply too loud. You may remember how Gerald Moore titled one of his memoirs: “Am I Too Loud?” Mehldau made no attempt to accommodate his singer, and the lid on the piano was sky-high. This was an error. He covered a singer who was singing with modest volume, and whom we had all come to hear. Otherwise, he proved a passable accompanist. He also, on this first half, played two Brahms pieces on his own. He was less passable there. He is not a pianist like Håvard Gimse. He is something else. But his obvious sincerity, and talent, are not to be gainsaid. He and von Otter closed out the first half with songs of Brahms and Strauss. Is she a lieder singer? Oh, my.
The second half began with songs of Mehldau himself: Love Songs, to texts by Sara Teasdale. As far as I’m aware, von Otter and Renée Fleming are the two foremost champions of Mehldau’s songs (meaning, of his songs in general). It would be hard to ask for two better champions. The Love Songs are pleasant, though they may not stick to your ribs. I would describe them as jazzy art songs, or arty jazz songs. And here is just one detail about von Otter’s singing: When she sustains a note, piano, she retains the pitch. She does not sag. This is not all that common, even among high-echelon singers.
After Mehldau came a bouquet of jazz and pop songs: by Michel Legrand, Jacques Brel, Paul McCartney, others. Von Otter was a chameleon. She is a singer who avails herself of all of music, who is a gobbler of music. Barbara Bonney, the American soprano, is another. Strangely enough, in this second half of the program—starting with his own songs—Mehldau was not too loud. He was natural and sensitive. Von Otter likes to sing a Swedish version of “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home,” and she sings it deliciously. She also did a Joni Mitchell song, “Marcie.” (Do you know who else loves Mitchell? Fleming. The composer Lee Hoiby loves her, too.) And I should mention “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” Von Otter sang it with what I can only call killer subduedness.
She ended with Richard Rodgers: “Something Good,” from The Sound of Music. And here, in my opinion, she departed for the first time from taste. She kind of gilded the lily, laid it on too thick. You know what I mean: She oversang this little thing. But, for a couple of hours, she had given a clinic in how to sing songs.
Not long after, the Philadelphia Orchestra came into Carnegie Hall—into Carnegie Hall proper, the main auditorium. Leading them was their chief conductor, Charles Dutoit, the veteran Swiss. He began with a composer for whom he is known: Berlioz. This was the overture to Béatrice et Bénédicte, the composer’s take on Much Ado About Nothing. The overture is touched by gaiety, charm, impishness, whimsy. From Dutoit, it was a little bit sober—but it was still itself. And the Philadelphia Orchestra was a well-oiled machine in it. They also made a beautiful sound. Was it the Philadelphia Sound, that cherished sound of old? I can’t quite say, but it was beautiful, regardless.
After this brief and endearing curtain-raiser, we heard a new work by James MacMillan, the Scottish composer. On offer was a violin concerto—written in memory of the composer’s late mother. I ask, How do you criticize such a work? Anyway, MacMillan is an interesting composer, and an interesting man. He has stood apart from the crowd. He is religious, and has composed much religious, or religion-inspired, music. And he has refused to be subject to modernist dictates. Two years ago, Standpoint magazine in Britain published “Music and Modernity,” a long, searching statement by MacMillan. Here are two extracts: “The liberal elites who control the commanding heights of culture and criticism have an instinctive anxiety about religion.” And, “The modernist hierarchy is still so powerful in places such as German radio stations and German and French New Music festivals that it acts like a politburo.” Many musicians say these things (believe me). But they say them in whispers, to confidants. To say them publicly is extraordinary.
MacMillan’s violin concerto is in three movements, marked Dance, Song, and Song and Dance. I will relate the briefest of impressions. The first movement, that Dance, is vehement, fierce, warlike. It does not skimp on the percussion. The second movement is a song indeed—sprinkled with fairy dust, courtesy of some chimes, or chime-like instruments. At various points, the work seems very Scottish: as though it could accompany Braveheart (the 1995 Mel Gibson movie). The last movement, that Song and Dance, is unusual, not to say eccentric. Orchestra members do some chanting in German. The music has much anger, and a hint—I swear—of doo-wah. Toward the end, there is an amplified female voice. All of this seems raw and personal—also unknowable. The composer knows exactly what he’s doing. It’s all in his head. Whether it is communicated to a listener—an outsider—is something else. The soloist in this Carnegie Hall performance was Vadim Repin, the Russian violinist. He is, in fact, the dedicatee of the work. We can assume that he played it as the composer wants.
After intermission, Dutoit led the orchestra in Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony—a stirring piece, after ten hearings, a hundred hearings, a thousand hearings . . . Shortly before he left the music directorship of the New York Philharmonic, I did an interview with Lorin Maazel. I asked him about conducting very familiar music. Take Tchaikovsky’s Fifth: Was it still glorious and thrilling to him? He said, “It’s as glorious and thrilling as the day it was written.” And “if you become jaded because of overexposure, the problem is yours, not the composer’s.” The symphony has a very prominent clarinet part, and the Philadelphia Orchestra has a very prominent clarinetist: Ricardo Morales, who used to work in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. It was a privilege to hear Morales, night after night, in the opera pit. I was looking forward to hearing him in the Tchaikovsky: and he did his part splendidly. Also coming through was Jennifer Montone, the principal horn.
Very much coming through was Charles Dutoit. By the evidence, he does not regard this symphony as cheap or worn out. In his hands, it was fresh, alive, insinuating, robust—a knockout. The first two movements were unimpeachable. In my view, the third, that waltz, could have been a little swirlier, frothier. It was a little boxy and stiff. The finale was somewhat boxy too, without that impression of flying it can convey. But Dutoit, on the whole, was magnificent. I got to thinking I had underrated him. And, from first note to last, the Philadelphia Orchestra gave us a soundbath—in addition to ample virtuosity. I had the feeling I was listening to a great orchestra. I had not had that feeling, with the “Fabulous Philadelphians,” as we used to know them, in some time.
In the Metropolitan Museum, Nicholas Angelich gave a recital. He is an American pianist, who had much of his training in France. He opened his recital with a beloved Bach-Busoni piece, “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland.” It has been a recital-opener for generations, as well as an encore. A pianist should avoid plodding and thumping in it, and Angelich largely did. He exhibited one bad habit: the habit of inserting little pauses before top notes (top or cresting or climactic notes in phrases). This gets tiresome in a hurry. Generally, he let the piece proceed in its holy way. He did probably as much pedaling as you can do without overpedaling.
He continued his recital with untranscribed Bach, the English Suite in A minor. He really laid into the Prelude, rendering it in a clattering, insistent, almost percussive way. This was unorthodox, and maybe a little coarse, but interesting. Throughout the suite, he showed understanding and care. All of Bach’s voices, inner and outer, were heard. The A-major Bourée had its angelic quality. But I will point out another habit, and not a good one: the habit of making little surges in sound. Angelich did this a lot. And, like the pauses before top notes, the surges grow tiresome, quickly.
Angelich played two sets of Chopin: three nocturnes and four études. He played them with clarity, reason, sensitivity. Personally, I don’t think extended rubato—looseness with time—is desirable at the beginning of a nocturne. I think relative straightness is desirable, leaving room for rubato later. Angelich disagrees. Sometimes, he played with a lack of cantabile, a lack of singing—a phrase or note would lie dead on the keyboard. Sometimes you could have asked for more panache, more flair. I am picking on this pianist. But he is a commendable one, with good fingers and a good head. He did some really spiffy playing—for instance, in the “Aeolian Harp” étude, which was wonderfully floaty. Also, you sense that Angelich is a serious musician. There is a seriousness of purpose about his playing. And I will add a footnote: He bows deep, as musicians used to. A nice old-fashioned touch.
Carnegie Hall put on another night of MacMillan—in fact, a night of MacMillan only. Three pieces of his were performed in Zankel Hall. The concert began at 7:30—sort of. What began at 7:30 was a tête-à-tête onstage, between a Carnegie official and the composer. This was unadvertised, as far as I know. The music did not begin until 8:00. You were stuck in a pre-concert talk until then, whether you wanted one or not. Everyone is doing this, as you know: The performance of modern music is practically verboten without talk. Even traditional classical music is increasingly accompanied by, or preceded by, talk. Now, MacMillan is a very good talker. And it is a pleasure to listen to his Scottish English: very musical. But talking about composition, or other aspects of music, can deaden a musical evening, in my view. Can kill it dead, right from the beginning. Moreover, MacMillan said nothing that could not have been learned from the program notes.
Would you like a sample of how composers talk, some of them? In this period, the New York Philharmonic performed a piece by Erkki-Sven Tüür, an Estonian. The program booklet included these words of his:
Why vectorial? An important role in voice leading is played by the position on the “blueprint” of the various directions and “curves.” I perceive them as vectors, which are defined by intervals (which are in turn indicated by a sequence of numbers). In any case, what one hears (especially in the harmonies) is very different from the “meta-linguistic” work of the past decade.
That does not exactly make the heart—or most hearts—leap for music. By contrast, in this same period, a Carnegie Hall booklet featured an interview with James Taylor, the folk-rock-pop legend. He said, “A trick that I seem to have used over and over again is to juxtapose a cheerful musical style with a grave or heavy lyrical content. These things are so beyond description and analysis. It’s just that people really do come through when they sing.” I smiled at the wisdom and humility of that.
The first work on the MacMillan program was a piano sonata, written in 1985. It includes certain sound clusters, and is quasi-Impressionistic. I also found it Scriabinesque. I believe it is too long, for the materials it works with, but this is not a frivolous piece, or a waste of a piece. (How’s that for high praise, huh?) After the sonata, five suited men came out to move the piano and set up a few music stands and chairs. As they did this, I was guessing at the cost—not low, I wager. We then heard MacMillan’s Horn Quintet, composed in 2007. It contains what I think of as some MacMillan hallmarks: playfulness, ferocity, sharpness of rhythm. Along the way, a drunken waltz appears. And at the end, the hornist walks offstage, still playing. I thought this was a little gimmicky. But then I remembered, “Well, Mahler has plenty of brass play offstage.”
To conclude the evening was a song cycle with chamber ensemble: Raising Sparks (1997). The texts are by Michael Symmons Roberts, drawing on an eighteenth-century Hasidic rabbi and mystic, Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl. A creation story is being told. The songs are often disturbing—“challenging,” to use a cliché—which I think the composer intends. At times, I thought, “This is worthy of attention.” At other times, I thought, “What dreadful dreck. How do they get away with it?” No matter what I think, or what others think, there is life in this man—in James MacMillan. I think that accounts for his popularity around the world. There is someone at home inside, a questing mind, and a beating heart. About every composer, you can’t be sure.
Until last season, the Metropolitan Opera had never staged Rossini’s Armida. The company staged it for one of its star sopranos, Renée Fleming. And the Met brought back Armida this season—Fleming, too. The opera requires a formidable soprano in the title role, of course. It also requires six—count ’em, six—tenors. And not just any tenors, but Rossini tenors. Another Rossini opera, Otello—not to be confused with Verdi’s—requires six too. But I will now say something that readers, I’m afraid, have heard me say over and over: The most important person in most any opera performance is the conductor. Not a singer, but the man in the pit, leading it all. On him, an evening often rises or falls. He is “the straw that stirs the drink,” to borrow from Reggie Jackson. And the night I attended the Met’s Armida this season, Maestro Riccardo Frizza was not at his best. The overture was feeble. And much of the subsequent conducting was flaccid—not intolerable, not incompetent, but limp. Frizza will have, and has had, better nights.
The tenors in this opera battle with their high B’s, C’s, and D’s, as well as with their swords. Leading the pack as Rinaldo was Lawrence Brownlee, who started capably and finished fantastically. He can execute passagework with almost eerie smoothness. And La Renée? It is not given to every lush Strauss singer, which she is, to have a bel canto and coloratura gift, too. Fleming takes advantage of all her gifts. Like von Otter, she is a gobbler of all music, or much music. As Armida, she was exemplary in her breathing and exemplary in her rhythm. She sometimes imparts a touch of jazz, no matter what she is singing. (Lorin Maazel is another musician who does this.) At the end, when it really counted, Fleming poured on voice. Taking her bows, she was all charged up, as if knowing it had gone well: It had.
The production, you may remember, is the responsibility of Mary Zimmerman. And her Armida is jokey, campy, a little Dr.
Seussy. I like a lot about it. It gives you plenty to look at, whatever its suitability to the story. But to the slo-mo swordplay, I am not quite reconciled. Maybe on a third visit?
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 29 Number 8, on page 55
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