Yeol Eum Son, a young Korean pianist, began her recital with a blast from the past: Weber’s Invitation to the Dance. It was once a staple, both in the original piano version and in the orchestral version by Berlioz. But then it fell out of favor, deemed too Romantic, not brainy enough—you know how it goes. Son did not play the Invitation in its original form; she did something worse, or better. She played it in the arrangement by Carl Tausig, the nineteenth-century virtuoso. Doubly old-fashioned, even subversive! Not long ago, music’s Stasi would have clapped her in a dungeon. The atmosphere is more relaxed and tolerant today, though not entirely so.
Son played at the International Keyboard Institute & Festival, held each summer at “Mannes College The New School for Music.” That has to be the most awkward name in Christendom. Some of us still refer to the conservatory by its old name, the Mannes School. In any event, the festival presents about two dozen pianists in recital, playing a wide array of repertoire. You never know what you’ll hear. You may hear a Beethoven sonata, yes, but also the Weber-Tausig Invitation. During the regular season, we tend to hear the standard repertoire plus a sprinkling of new works. We seldom hear old works that are nonstandard. This is as it should be, probably, or it’s at least understandable: The standard repertoire is not only great but vast, nearly inexhaustible; and most people think there’s an obligation to program new music. Still, it’s nice to hear old music off the beaten path. When Yeol Eum Son played the Invitation, I thought I was greeting an old friend. (Just to be clear, I’m speaking of the piece, though Miss Son seems agreeable enough.)
How did she play? She played the Invitation in a big, splashy, dare I say manly way. Not that she lacked finesse: Passagework was sparkling; phrasing and pedaling were graceful; a glissando had extra grace. But mainly she was bold and unapologetic. She then turned to a piece by a famous composer, Brahms—though the piece itself is not so famous. This was the Variations on a Theme by Schumann, Op. 9. The piece is early Brahms, but his traits and signatures are there, almost all of them. The overall tone of the piece is sad, surpassingly so. Brahms wrote these variations when Schumann was in crisis. For generations, pianists, scholars, and connoisseurs have loved them; but they have not caught on with general audiences, somehow. There’s no reason Op. 9 should not be a staple. I have always felt the same about Op. 21, No. 1, Brahms’s Variations on an Original Theme in D. Why this should not be standard, I have no idea. At any rate, Son played the Schumann Variations with character and understanding. Her playing was not always neat. For instance, some of her attacks were coarse. But attack she did: She played with relish, making the music highly dramatic, even operatic. At the same time, she was never immature.
We then had a famous piece by a famous composer: the Liebestraum No. 3, by Liszt. To begin, Son did what almost every pianist does in this piece: lay on the E flat, which is really just a pickup, not to be laid on. The weight, if any weight, should go on the next note, a sixth above. Regardless, she played the piece satisfyingly, in a style we could expect, after the first two pieces: big, passionate, stormy. To close the first half of her recital, she played a rarity: the Variations, Op. 41, of Nikolai Kapustin, a Ukrainian-Russian composer and pianist born in 1937. He wrote the Variations in 1984—and it is a jazz piece. Did Orwell imagine that such music would be written behind the Iron Curtain in 1984? He could imagine almost anything. In her playing, Son did the jazz equivalent of “rockin’ out.” There was much joy in her playing, as in the music.
After intermission, she played a staple: Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 8 in B flat. The sonata requires strangeness, spikiness, and lyricism. Son had them. It also requires fingers, and she had those too. In some spots, I believe, she was too aggressive and too jabby. Is it possible to be too aggressive and too jabby in Prokofiev? Sure, you can overdo anything. But Son’s very liveliness was welcome. She always held the attention of the audience, which seems like such a simple thing, but is less common than maybe ought to be the case. Then, with the printed program complete, she played three encores: three transcriptions, all out of left field, and all wonderful.
First came—could it really be? Yes, it was the third movement of Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony, that stirring, march-like movement in G major. I don’t think I had ever heard it on the piano. Later, Joe Patrych, one of New York’s music gurus, told me this was an arrangement by Samuil Feinberg, a Russian composer-pianist who lived from 1890 to 1962. Son played this transcription with great, sprawling energy. Then she started to play Mozart’s Rondo alla turca. And I thought, “Oh, this is a nice change of pace, away from the splashy and virtuosic.” But she soon veered off into jazz, and I knew she was playing Fazil Say’s version of the Rondo. Fazil Say is a Turk. So, Mozart’s idea of Turkish music, jazzed up centuries later by a genuine Turk. Only in America! Joking aside, Say has been in the news lately: facing trial in Turkey for tweeting a couple of uncomplimentary remarks having to do with Islam.
Yeol Eum Son bade farewell on this evening with something American—“Summertime” from the Grand Fantasy on Airs from Porgy and Bess, by that grand fantasist Earl Wild (the American composer-
pianist—an American Tausig or Feinberg—who died two years ago). Son did not quite get the rhythm right, but the effort was appreciated. She gave me a memory: Years ago, Olga Borodina sang an all-Russian recital in Alice Tully Hall. This was when she was first starting out, barely known to American audiences. When her printed program—again, all Russian—was over, she gave two encores. The first was “Ombra mai fu” from Handel’s Serse (an aria known to us in its instrumental version as “Handel’s Largo”). The second was “Summertime.” Chances are, someone had told Borodina this would be a nice offering to an American audience. She sang it as unidiomatically as possible, and you couldn’t understand a word. Still, it was, indeed, a nice offering (and what a voice).
For at least the last ten years, I have spoken of “the Sinofication of music.” We are hearing more and more Chinese musicians, and, of greater significance, more and more Chinese music. In an interview three years ago, I asked Lorin Maazel, the conductor, about the future of classical music. The first words out of his mouth were, “Thank God for China.” There are many who would say “amen” to that. In 2006, the Metropolitan Opera premiered a work it had commissioned: The First Emperor, by Tan Dun. This opera will not long endure, is my guess, for the simple reason that the score is not strong enough. It suffers from dullness. My favorite review, I’m afraid, was a quip from a woman who said, “This opera put me off Chinese food for a week.” But forgetting quips, and forgetting The First Emperor, Tan Dun is a meritorious composer, and so are others from China.
This summer, the Lincoln Center Festival presented Feng Yi Ting, an opera written in 2004 by Guo Wenjing, a composer in his fifties (like Tan Dun). The title means “The Phoenix Pavilion”—meeting place of Diao Chan and Lü Bu. These two are figures from antiquity, from the Han dynasty, specifically. They have lived in legend for all these centuries. I will give a brief synopsis of the story—see if you can follow the bouncing ball. Diao Chan is a great beauty, on the Helen of Troy level. Lü Bu is a general, and the godson of Dong Zhou, a warlord. Diao Chan is the goddaughter of Wang Yun, a government minister. It is Wang Yun’s purpose to drive a wedge between Lü Bu and Dong Zhou—and he does this by promising Diao Chan to both men. In the Phoenix Pavilion, Diao Chan baits Lü Bu into killing his godfather and rival, which he does, in the bloody end. So, this is a very operatic tale. Another of Guo Wenjing’s operas is about Li Bai, a Tang-dynasty poet. For artists in police states, the distant past is often the safest grounds (although ancient tales, of course, can relate to the present). You will not find an opera in China about, say, the Bo Xilai affair. Maybe in fifty years? A hundred?
The production at Lincoln Center was in the care of Atom Egoyan, a Canadian director of Armenian descent, born in Egypt. It is a fascinating production, engaging the eye and mind in various ways, large and small. If you didn’t like the music, you could fall back on the production. But the music is to be liked. Guo Wenjing’s score is both Chinese and Western, and his instrumentation is too. The pipa, the dizi, the sheng—we’ll be hearing a lot more of them. A blend of the East and West doesn’t always work, but, in this composer’s hands, it does. He uses simple materials, by which I mean musical materials—notes, phrases, rests. He is economical but not stingy: He uses just enough to express what he wishes. The opera begins with the orchestra alone, in a relatively long prelude. I should mention that the orchestra is a chamber orchestra: a chamber orchestra for a chamber opera. The music in what I have called a prelude is both pleasant and anxious. It’s also cabaret-like. I thought, “Chinese Weill?” In due course, we get the singers, and their nasty little story. The opera is clear, taut, and suspenseful. Every page drives to the climax (at least in retrospect it does). Feng Yi Ting is a short opera, just forty-five minutes long. I like grand opera as much as the next guy, and could sit through The Ring right now. But a forty-five-minute chamber opera can hit the spot.
There are just the two singers here, portraying Diao Chan and Lü Bu. She is a soprano, he a countertenor. At Lincoln Center, Shen Tiemei was Diao Chan, and Jiang Qihu Lü Bu. A word about her singing—and about Chinese opera in general (be it of the Szechuan variety, the Peking variety, or what have you). To many an ear, Chinese-opera singing can be whining and nasal, like a cat in distress. But the ear adjusts. The style grows on you. You enter its world, its logic, its artistry. I thought of my experience with bel canto. Naturally, I always appreciated the outstanding bits from Lucia di Lammermoor, Norma, and other bel canto masterpieces. But I had a problem with the genre as a whole. For example, why was the music so happy when the words or action was tragic or terrifying? One fine day, however—or fine month or fine year—I understood bel canto. Something clicked. And it all, or most of it, made sense. The same can happen, and quickly, with Chinese opera. Shen Tiemei was compelling as Diao Chan. At her best, she was spellbinding. Her partner, Jiang Qihu, was stalwart.
As I was leaving the theater, I had a particular thought: People speak of “the China bug”—the pull of Chinese culture on them. This culture gets under your skin, they say. I may not have the bug, full blown, but I feel I know what they mean.
Before the Lincoln Center Festival ends, another Lincoln Center festival begins—that is the Mostly Mozart Festival. The first event was a “preview concert,” free to the public. Addressing the audience before the music started, Jane Moss, the festival’s artistic director, said she had a “confession” to make: The preview concert is her favorite event of the festival. Pitching for the festival at large, she said, “You can avoid the Olympics. You can forget about the presidential election. You can forget about global warming.” Later in her remarks, she again mentioned global warming, in connection with Schubert’s “Tragic” Symphony. The issue seemed to weigh on her mind. Soon, she introduced Louis Langrée, who serves as music director of the festival. He complimented the orchestra sitting behind him on all its hard work: the hours of rehearsal, the various concerts. Listening to him, you could get the impression that the orchestra members are volunteers. As far as I know, they are well-paid professionals who would be loath to give up their places.
Langrée, a Frenchman, was appointed music director ten years ago. He was billed as a “period specialist,” which made me wary: You have period specialists and you have musicians. There is all too little crossover between the two groups. But Langrée proved a musician indeed—an excellent and natural musician. He may have studied up on Baroque and Classical music, but he’s no fanatic. His approach to Baroque and Classical music is not much different from, say, Neville Marriner’s. Since taking the job at Mostly Mozart, he has appeared several times at the Met, conducting operas ranging from Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride to Mozart’s Don Giovanni to Puccini’s Bohème. He recently became the chief conductor of the Camerata Salzburg. Starting next season, he will be the music director of a major minor orchestra—I’m not talking about musical keys, but rather about the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (which launched Stokowski, Reiner, and a few others).
The subject of the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra is a somewhat delicate one. The orchestra has never been a threat to the Vienna Philharmonic’s reputation, put it that way. But Langrée, or someone, has raised the standard. And they have long played enthusiastically, diligently, for their chief. On the preview program, there were two works, two symphonies: Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 in D, known as the “Prague,” and the aforementioned “Tragic” Symphony—Schubert’s Symphony No. 4 in C minor. At a concert like this, you can do one of three things. You can listen to the conducting. You can listen to the playing. Or you can listen to the music. Put a little differently, you can concentrate on the conductor and what he is doing with the piece, how he is leading the orchestra. You can concentrate on how the orchestra is executing, or failing to execute. Or you can concentrate on the music as music—on the score, if you will, almost without regard to the performance. Or, of course, you can do some of all three, as probably most people do.
In the “Prague” Symphony, the Mostly Mozart orchestra began almost together. And Langrée handled the opening pages with masterly pacing and drama. The relationship between this music and Don Giovanni is very close, even in key. If you listened to the orchestra, what did you hear? Strings were a little scrappy. Horn entrances were wobbly. Woodwinds were anemic. But they all played alertly, responsively, for Langrée. And in his Mozart, he usually gives you a sense of “just rightness.” This is a phrase I often apply to James Levine, probably the foremost Mozart conductor of our day. When he conducts, you feel there is no interpretation: Everything is natural, unquestionable, inevitable—just right. So it is, often, with Langrée. His Mozart tends to be crisp and bouncy, in the modern style (which the specialists say is the ancient style). But it is not overdone. Again, Langrée is not a fanatic. Musical sense is what governs. Listening to him, I wondered what it would be like to hear his Mozart with, to name this orchestra once more, the Vienna Phil. In the Andante movement of the “Prague,” the Mostly Mozart orchestra could not provide the desired warmth and glow. But, again, they are a plucky and commendable band.
In the Schubert, there was again that sense of “just rightness.” What does this mean, more specifically? I’m talking about such matters as tempo, phrasing, rests, accentuation, note values (i.e., the duration of notes, critically important), and what you might call overall “weight.” Are these things right or not? In Schubert’s first movement, there is a controlled fury, which Langrée conveyed very well. The following Andante was a model Andante: breathing, not dawdling, but not rushing either. The Minuet was wonderful in its staggered, off-kilter rhythm. Crucially, Langrée didn’t overemphasize the rhythm, or even emphasize it. It was simply there. Some conductors conduct as if to say, “Hey, this rhythm is a little different, don’t you see? See how I understand it? Isn’t it cool?” The finale, Allegro, was full of dark fun and games. It had fantastic energy, but truly musical energy, not energy for energy’s sake—not physical, whipped-up energy. Energy emerging naturally from the notes on the page.
The audience clapped and clapped, long and loud, for both symphonies: both between movements and after. Let me admit that I kind of pooh-poohed the idea of a free concert. There’s so much to see and hear in New York, and so much at little or no cost. Did the city really need a free concert? Well, I don’t think I’ve ever heard an audience—a New York audience—more appreciative. I got the feeling that these were not regular concertgoers, and that they were grateful for the chance. The musicians must have loved hearing that big-time applause.
Three nights after the preview concert, paying customers were present for the official opening night—an all-Mozart program (rather than a mostly Mozart one). Langrée began with the overture to La clemenza di Tito. The orchestra sounded much fuller than usual, less scrappy. And, when the overture was over, I was ready for the whole opera. But we next had a piano concerto, the one in D minor, K. 466. The soloist was Nelson Freire, the Brazilian veteran. He played with integrity, sincerity, and seriousness of purpose. That phrase used to appear on student evaluations: “Does Junior display seriousness of purpose?” Sometimes Freire’s playing was blunt, with some accents out of place. And he tended to rush his passagework, especially in the first movement. When the music got moderately difficult, he rushed, just like any nine-year-old student. Kind of charming, actually. The middle movement, Romanze, had the tempo giusto—something not achieved by just any musician. The music was unfussy and aristocratic. And I appreciated the performers’ lack of a ritard at the end: The movement simply ended, matter-of-factly. In the Rondo, Freire was a bit stiff and blocky, as he was elsewhere in the concerto. A certain pliancy was missing. Frankly, the performance as a whole may have been on the dull side—maybe “stolid side” is politer. Still, there was that integrity, an honest musicianship.
After intermission, we had some singing, courtesy of Lawrence Brownlee, the American Rossini tenor. The Mozart he sang was a concert aria, followed by an opera aria: “Misero! o sogno . . . Aura che intorno spiri,” K. 431, then “Un’aura amorosa” from Così fan tutte. (Both arias have an aura, now that I think about it.) I am used to hearing Brownlee in Rossini, high high. In the Mozart, he was somewhat lower, and I had trouble hearing some of the lower notes. But the voice was always creamy and beautiful, as was the singing. It was so creamy, in fact, that I think his Mozart could have used more definition. Finally, I’ll tell you something funny about “Un’aura amorosa”: As Brownlee was singing it, I realized one is used to hearing strain in this aria. The strain adds to the drama of it, in a way—the intensity. From Brownlee, the aria was practically effortless, almost a letdown. Maybe if he had sung it in C instead of A?
To end the concert, the orchestra reprised the “Prague” Symphony, playing it twice as well as before, or at least fifty percent better. Given the name of the festival, this orchestra ought to play Mozart with distinction—and can be proud.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 31 Number 1, on page 57
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