It was possibly the musical event of the season. There was a mob outside Carnegie Hall, and scalpers were everywhere. The occasion was the seventy-fifth birthday of Philip Glass. He and John Adams, his junior by ten years, are probably the two most famous classical composers in the world (if you don’t count John Williams, of movie fame). Inside Carnegie Hall were many composers, there to honor, and listen to, Glass. I spotted Aaron Jay Kernis, for example. Glass himself sat in the center of the front row of the center box, perfectly positioned to receive the adulation that came his way.
The concert featured the U.S. premiere of Glass’s Symphony No. 9. Doing the honors was the American Composers Orchestra, conducted by Dennis Russell Davies. Now, nine can be a tricky number for composers. Beethoven wrote nine symphonies, as you know. So did Schubert, Dvorák, Bruckner, Mahler, and Vaughan Williams (though, with some of these guys, it depends on how you count). Does a ninth symphony spell finis? In Glass’s case, not to worry, because the program notes said he has “others already on the way.”
Glass’s No. 9 begins with what I think of as this composer’s version of the Alberti bass. It keeps going and going. How the players can keep their sanity and limbs, I’m not sure. The first movement is full of pep. The second movement, which I took to be the centerpiece of the symphony, offers what you might think of as the song version of Philip Glass music. The third and final movement, like most of the symphony at large, is loud, unrelenting, pretty, and cinematic. Loud, yes. Frankly, my ears hurt, and I don’t mean that in some figurative sense.
I have called the music cinematic, and I think this symphony may be more a movie score than a piece to be played by an orchestra on a stage. To me, it seems music meant to accompany something—even yourself, as you clean up around the house. It did nothing like sustain my interest, although others, I can tell you, were enthralled and thrilled. There are people who have been enthralled and thrilled by Philip Glass his entire career. I respect many of them. And I respect Glass too, of course. But I’m afraid I regard him as basically a bright and talented fellow who hit on a neat trick—minimalism—and milked it way past its expiration date.
But let me now say what I and others have said about the minimalists for many years: In the long night of dogmatic atonality, they lit a candle for something else.
Speaking of minimalism, the American Composers Orchestra began its concert with a 2002 work by Arvo Pärt, one of the “holy minimalists”—one of the minimalists inspired by religion. This was Lamentate, a work that certainly sounds that way. It is intelligent, well crafted, and honest, as any Pärt work would be. But the thing about these pieces—all the minimalist pieces: They either hypnotize you or not. The drug takes effect or it doesn’t. And if you are awake, rather than hypnotized or drugged, you are bored out of your mind. I am a Pärt admirer from way back, but Lamentate did not speak to me, not on this night. Perhaps on another?
The night after this concert, Susan Graham came into Carnegie Hall, for a recital. She is the now-veteran mezzo-soprano from Midland, Texas. She was accompanied by Malcolm Martineau, the ubiquitous and excellent British pianist. They played a mixed program, by which I mean mixed in repertoire: from Purcell to Broadway. Thank the stars for a mixed program, without some musicological agenda, without some contrived theme. These agendas and themes are beloved of scholars, administrators, and critics; by others, not so much.
To be sure, the Graham recital had a theme, though a faint one: “the inner worlds of four great, tragic women in literature.” I am quoting the evening’s program notes. Those notes also said the recital would begin with “the most tragic mother of all: the Virgin Mary.” Really? Maybe I don’t understand the word “tragic.” Or the Virgin Mary. In any case, Graham sang a wonderfully mixed program—she put on a variety show—and if a theme made certain people feel better, fine.
What she began with was Purcell’s “Tell Me, Some Pitying Angel,” or “The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation.” Here she did possibly her best singing of the whole night. She was warm and feeling, as she usually is. But she was also correct and clean. She sang the final lines of the piece with extraordinary intensity. She moved on to Berlioz, his Ophelia song, “La mort d’Ophélie.” Graham is something of a French specialist, and we must beware those known as specialists: They can be precious, mannered, or otherwise flawed. But Graham sang her Berlioz very well.
Next came six songs, by six different composers, having to do with Goethe’s Mignon. Graham was best in another French song, Duparc’s “Romance de Mignon.” I would go so far as to say she was exemplary. She was less good in the Tchaikovsky song known in English as “None but the Lonely Heart,” which did not lift off. Wolf’s “Kennst du das Land,” in my view, should have some bite and severity. Some stringency. In Graham’s rendering, they were absent. She favored softer, wetter emotions, which is a legitimate choice.
After intermission, she sang a rarity, Lady Macbeth, by Joseph Horovitz, a British composer born in 1926. (He is not to be confused with Joseph Horowitz, the American writer about music.) I don’t say this is an undiscovered masterpiece, but it was nice to hear it, especially when so skillfully sung by Graham. We then had a Poulenc set: Fiançailles pour rire, in which Graham was predictably delicious. I have a complaint, however: I myself like “Fleurs” pristine, almost Classical. Graham was broader, more indulgent.
In novelty songs by Porter and Sondheim, she was something like perfect. Her timing is superb, her flair abundant. Will she have a cabaret career, à la Farrell or McNair? One of her encores was what she announced as her “favorite song”: Hahn’s “A Chloris,” that neo-Baroque beauty. And here I risk sounding like a broken record: I think this song should be practically metronomic. Its power lies in its pulse, inexorable. Graham and Martineau were loosey-goosey, depriving the song of its full power.
I could pick for many paragraphs at this recital, but the bottom line is this: It was a fabulous recital by one of our best singers. Those present were lucky to be there.
Standing before the New York Philharmonic was Zubin Mehta, its music director from 1978 to 1991. He was famous long before he ever came to the Philharmonic: He was on the cover of Time magazine in 1968. There are people in the New York Philharmonic now who weren’t born when Mehta started with that orchestra; there are people in it who were barely born when he left. Yet Mehta is still youthful and glamorous—grayer, paunchier, but still youthful and glamorous. He can also turn in some seriously good conducting.
In his recent guest stint with his old orchestra, he conducted maybe the mightiest symphony of them all: the Bruckner Eighth (in the 1955 Nowak edition, if you’re keeping score at home). Mehta has lived with this symphony for a long time. Age and experience aren’t everything, heaven knows, but they do count for something. This is especially true in big, big pieces such as Bruckner 8. Mehta clearly understands the architecture of the work. And he knows that it is both Classical and Romantic. His account was disciplined though amply spacious. It was intelligent from first to last. There wasn’t a bar that was screwy or wrong. The orchestra was sometimes ragged, but the overall musicality put errors in the shade.
Here is a single detail: The Scherzo, in Mehta’s hands, was springy without being fast. It made me think that other conductors rush in this movement.
Bruckner’s Eighth can be a “religious experience,” as they say. This performance was not really that (I felt). It was more this-worldly, let’s say. But, boy, was it solid. Leaving the hall, I could not quite think how Mehta had conducted this symphony. He had simply delivered it without noticeable interpretation. By the way, a fellow critic of mine made an interesting remark before the concert began. He said, “We’re always hearing Bruckner and Mahler. Don’t concert administrators know there are other nineteenth-century symphonists?” An offbeat criticism, and a just one.
A subsequent Philharmonic concert featured Lang Lang, serving as soloist in Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 2. You seldom hear this concerto, mainly because it’s so hard. Not long ago, I made the same comment in these pages about another piano concerto no. 2, Prokofiev’s. These two composers, Bartók and Prokofiev, did not write piano music that they themselves did not play. Each had a ton of technique, in addition to other gifts.
I will make a criticism of Lang Lang that I have made of him in the Bartók Second, and other concertos, before: He has a tendency to slap at the keyboard. He has a tendency to play on the surface of the keyboard rather than digging in for real fortissimos and heft. This wizard of a young man has a strange inability to generate volume, always has. I know a pianist who mocks him as “Bang Bang.” Not true. When he’s being careless, he’s more like “Slap Slap.” In any event, Lang Lang handled Bartók’s Second with ease, smarts, and delight. He is unquestionably good at generating dance-like fury, which this music contains. Often, he was a kid having a ball, and causing the audience to do so as well. Adding to the performance was Alan Gilbert, the conductor, who demonstrated the necessary precision and vigor.
Oddly, Lang Lang used sheet music, complete with page-turner, and this I had not seen him do before. Was he suddenly untrusting of his memory, in a piece that has for years been in his repertoire? Whatever the case, the sheet music did not seem to confine him. And if it did, maybe that wasn’t for the worse: The young man is sometimes too free, too unconfined, for his own good.
This concert had begun with an OOMP, an obligatory opening modern piece. Actually, this particular piece was maybe a little too long to be an OOMP: A proper, traditional OOMP is about eight minutes, and this piece is double that. It is Feria, a mid-Nineties work by Magnus Lindberg, the Finn who is the Philharmonic’s composer-in-residence. The word feria, he explained in program notes, is “Spanish for an outdoor festival or fair.” His piece is indeed festive—and jaunty, and jazzy, and boisterous. He uses loads of percussion, in the modern fashion: Today’s music has more pots and pans than Williams-Sonoma. He exploits the rest of the orchestra too, throwing at you everything but the kitchen sink (and the kitchen sink may be part of the percussion). The piece can seem an orchestral assault. It descends for a bit into an undistinguishable din.
In due course, there is a calming, and we get some woozy flutters—another hallmark of modern music. Some fairy dust is sprinkled by the percussion (another hallmark). The piece again turns loud, gargantuan, and gay, ending with some snappy hammer blows. The best that can be said for Feria is that it resembles some contemporary Respighi spectacular. A creditable piece, it makes some serious and interesting noise for its sixteen or so minutes.
Thomas Hampson, the American baritone, gave a recital in a most unusual venue: the Charles Engelhard Court in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Very pretty place. But if there is a worse venue for a recital, I have never been in it. Everything was echo-y and indistinct. Hampson sounded like he was singing in a toilet bowl. The ear adjusted, bringing things more into focus, but I still felt unable to assess the pianist, Vlad Iftinca (what a wonderful name). The acoustical distortions were too great.
Hampson sang a program of American song—the American Wing, get it?—and it was a mixture of well-known songs and obscure ones. One composer on the program was living: Michael Daugherty, born in 1954. Just before the recital began, a fellow critic quipped, “What, no Rufus?” (a reference to Rufus Wainwright, who has been much in vogue in New York). You may wonder whether there was a hidden gem on the program. I was impressed by “Look Down, Fair Moon,” by Charles Naginski (1909–40). Incidentally, one of the better-known songs was Copland’s treatment of “The Dodger,” which deals with a shifty politician, among others. I once heard Samuel Ramey sing it in a different venue within this museum. Rudolph Giuliani was sitting in one of the front rows. After the song, Ramey said, “Sorry, Mayor,” to which Giuliani made a gesture that said, “No problem.”
Thomas Hampson was in fine shape, as he can be expected to be. The low notes weren’t really there, but the middle notes were, and so were the top ones. Plus, Hampson still boasts a sweet little head voice. For my money, Barber’s “Nocturne” should have been more rhapsodic, but maybe I need to get over Leontyne. “Danny Deever” (Walter Dam-
rosch) was startlingly operatic, and all the more compelling for that. In everything he sang, Hampson was natural and idiomatic.
He did some talking to the audience, as is his wont (and almost every performer’s wont). Near the end of his recital, he announced that we had reached the part of the program devoted to songs about “mavericks”—at least that is our traditional label. But “I lost my taste for the word,” said Hampson, with a knowing smile. Apparently, he was alluding to the Republican presidential ticket in 2008. Many in the crowd chuckled appreciatively. Hampson cannot go wrong with an audience on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. “Aren’t we all superior!” said those chuckles. “No mouth-breathers or knuckle-draggers here!” You could have cut the smugness in the atmosphere with a knife.
At any rate, Hampson delivered a thoughtful, musical, and enjoyable recital. I might have included a spiritual or two, had I been the singer, but no program can have everything. And if the term didn’t gag me, I’d call Hampson a national treasure.
Back at the Philharmonic, Frank Peter Zimmermann played Beethoven’s Violin
Concerto. Zimmermann is a violinist’s violinist—the way Alicia de Larrocha was a pianist’s pianist, and George Burns, for that matter, a comedian’s comedian. What does that mean? It means that the person is a consummate pro, to use another cliché. He is a model of musicianship (in the case of musicians), someone admired and looked up to by his peers. In the Beethoven, Zimmermann was accompanied by the music director, Alan Gilbert. Both of them were garbed in the now-traditional black Mao suit.
The concerto began unpromisingly—the “wind choir” was late after the opening timpani beats. But very little went wrong thereafter. Gilbert showed strength, finesse, energy, and understanding. In short, this was musical maturity. And the same words apply to Zimmermann. As with Mehta and the Bruckner Eighth, these men did not so much interpret the Beethoven Concerto as present it. Theirs was a “conventional” reading, but that’s not to say it was a pedestrian or humdrum one—only that it was a right one.
Zimmermann muffed some notes here and there, and his intonation wasn’t always perfect. But the errors merely reminded you, “It’s not a studio recording, you know.” His tone was both masculine and feminine, as we might have said in the bad old days. When he did something daring—something unconventional—it wasn’t show-offy or willful, but rather artistic (whether successful or not). From his bow, the middle movement, Larghetto, was sweet without being syrupy. It was no-nonsense, but still infused with love (pardon the expression). I had a peculiar thought: “This is how Janet Baker would have sung this movement, if the music were for voice.” The closing Rondo had the happy propulsion of Beethoven.
When it was over, the violinists in the orchestra put down their instruments and clapped with their hands, a high tribute.
We have now seen Robert Lepage’s Götterdämmerung, the last installment of his Ring cycle at the Metropolitan Opera. Of course, Götterdämmerung, with the rest of The Ring, is Wagner’s, not Lepage’s. But the French-Canadian director has put his stamp on these works in his production. I say “these works,” but The Ring, really, is one work, one piece of music, one music drama, from the rolling E-flat-major chord at the beginning of Das Rheingold to the Immolation Scene of Götterdämmerung. Appropriately, Lepage’s production is unified too. The stage in each installment is dominated by his “machine,” a collection of planks that go this way and that. Sometimes they are seesaws. Sometimes they act as a screen on which videos are shown. Sometimes they make too much noise, as they go through their motions.
In my eyes, Götterdämmerung is the most successful of the installments, and not by a little. It is beautiful, tasteful, and moving. Its colors are beguiling. It is also the simplest of the installments, I think. Lepage does not detract from Götterdämmerung, or step on it: He supports it.
The most important person in any Ring, or any Wagner opera, is the conductor, and for the Götterdämmerung I attended, Fabio Luisi was in the pit. The Prologue and most of Act I were serviceable but not commendable. The conducting was fast and hard, without much grandeur or wonder. Also, some of the playing was sloppy, particularly in its attacks. But Luisi hit a stride as the opera wore on. I, for one audience member, was able to enter “Wagner time,” in which the rest of the world kind of takes a break. It is the composer’s genius that makes Wagner time possible, yes. But the conductor helps.
So does the cast, which on this night ranged from honorable to magnificent. Let me say quickly that Katarina Dalayman, the Swedish soprano, is the best Brünnhilde I have heard. Since it’s true, I feel obliged to say it, though I gulp a little as I do. I have heard many Brünnhildes more heralded than she. But I have heard none who so matched my idea of Brünnhilde. Dalayman was warm and radiant, as well as steely. She had the necessary Valkyrie power and stamina, but so much more, too. Here was a soprano who was not “singing Brünnhilde”; she was just singing. Do you know what I mean? I might add that I had never heard the Immolation Scene so prayerful. It was practically a different piece.
Our Siegfried, Stephen Gould, had a shaky beginning, but he was game and eager, and he gained control later on. Hans-Peter König, the Hagen, displayed many gifts: a huge, glowing voice; a canny stage presence; a beautiful German. Iain Paterson was an unusually lyrical and affecting Gunther. Wendy Bryn Harmer was a dauntless Gutrune, whetting your appetite for her future Brünnhilde. The Alberich of Eric Owens, I have knocked throughout the cycle. It has not been truly an Alberich—more like a junior Wotan. In this Götterdämmerung, however, Owens was truly an Alberich. Waltraud Meier gave a lesson in the singing of Waltraute, her near-namesake. The Norns were good and the Rhine Maidens were very, very good. From the men of the Met chorus, you could ask for no more.
I went to the opera house that night with some reluctance. I had seen Lepage’s first three installments, and, while I wasn’t hostile to them, I was unenamored of them. I was tired of Luisi’s conducting—so often competent but undistinguished. The Met’s Wagner casts had been spotty. What a surprise, to love this Götterdämmerung: and to have the greatness of the work—this installment and the cycle it completes—confirmed.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 Number 7, on page 56
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