A few minutes after noon on a Friday, the New York Philharmonic started Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. The horns were loud, stumbling, and off pitch. (Loud was good.) Soon the pianist came in with his chords—and they were exemplary. As I’ve remarked before in these pages, it’s no easy thing to play chords, correctly: Even some of the top pianists don’t. Chords must be together (unless the composer means to break them). They also must be in balance. Anyway, the pianist on this occasion knows how to play chords, and practically everything else: He’s Yefim Bronfman.

In the first movement, he was solid and fluid, “vertical” and “horizontal,” monumental and graceful. Tchaikovsky demands various qualities in this music. Passagework was not mere filler; it had musical purpose. Bronfman was guilty of some dryness, and even a little pounding. But his playing on the whole was as exemplary as his chords. In the cadenza, he displayed a Mozart sensibility—then he played his octaves demonically. When the first movement ended, the audience erupted in cheers, as any red-blooded audience would. Bronfman, as a good musical citizen, stood up and bowed.

Children, there was a time when audiences were expected to applaud between movements (in certain cases) and performers, naturally, accepted this applause with a bow. Only in our era has applause been frowned on and shushed. Only in our era have musicians stared sullenly ahead or turned around and glared (à la Muti). Bronfman is a throwback of a musician, in many ways. He is conscious of musical history. I believe I have seen only two pianists stand up and bow between movements: him and Earl Wild, the virtuoso born in 1915. (He died at the beginning of 2010, at ninety-four.) Generally, it is wrong to applaud between songs in a cycle, or after a movement that ends quietly or contemplatively. But after, say, the first movement of Gershwin’s Concerto in F, or the first movement of this Tchaikovsky piano concerto, or of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto? Let ’er rip, I say. And pay no mind to the shushers and glarers.

In Bronfman’s hands, the beginning of the second movement was a D-flat-major berceuse. The Prestissimo section of this movement was all Mendelssohnian lightness, fleetness, and delicacy. Bronfman was at his most amazing here. But the finale was a bit of a letdown: It was straight-ahead, dutiful, bordering on grim. The pianist sort of pounded it home. This music ought to have a little jazz, although it may take an American like me to say that. In any event, the music ought to have a marked and merry folk quality.

Yet this was a satisfying and memorable performance, with the Philharmonic and its conductor, Alan Gilbert, doing their part. Gilbert was especially good at conveying Tchaikovsky’s bloom. And the performance confirmed that this concerto is really a masterpiece, hackneyed though it may be. I was going to call it a “Romantic masterpiece.” But there is no need for a qualifier.

The concert was a bit of a pops concert, a term I don’t use with denigration, obviously. It began with Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso, which was clean and correct, mild and moderate. It had a deficiency of fizz or flair. This was by no means a poor reading, simply, and unfortunately, an innocuous one. The Ravel was followed by Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances, from West Side Story. There is some good classical music from that pen, such as the Serenade for violin and orchestra (and the clarinet sonata, an early work). But I have my doubts that much of Bernstein’s classical music will last. What will no doubt last forever—till the end of musical time—is West Side Story. Gilbert and the orchestra played the dances with energy, and there were moments of flair: as when Robert Langevin soloed on his flute.

“This is Lenny’s orchestra,” people say of the Philharmonic. (“Lenny” refers to Leonard Bernstein.) I’m afraid this is a conceit. Bernstein conducted this orchestra forty, fifty, sixty years ago, and the New York Philharmonic does not have a kinship with Bernstein that the San Francisco Symphony, say, does not. You also hear that the Philharmonic is a “Mahler orchestra,” which is another conceit, I’m afraid. Mahler himself had a brief tenure in New York more than a hundred years ago. Since that time, the orchestra has had some very good Mahler conductors (Barbirolli and Walter, for two). But, with a few exceptions, all the top orchestras today are international orchestras, whose personnel is more or less interchangeable. What matters, chiefly, is the man (or woman) standing on the podium: the conductor. I don’t say that this is a bad thing. It may well be a good thing. It’s just so.

At the Metropolitan Opera, James Levine conducted Mozart’s Così fan tutte. This may seem an unremarkable thing to say: Levine has conducted Mozart operas, and other operas, at the Met for as long as most people can remember. But many feared that we would never see him conduct again. He had been absent from the Met since the end of the 2010–11 season, with a host of health problems. Last May, he had a comeback concert at Carnegie Hall—he acquitted himself bravely and honorably. He was scheduled to conduct three operas at the Met in the 2013–14 season, but, even after the Carnegie appearance, many were skeptical. And here he was, giving the downbeat for the overture to Così fan tutte.

The overture began badly (on the night I attended, let me be clear: Levine conducted a string of Cosìs). It began with disunity, not at all a Levine trait. The rest of the overture was a little ragged as well. But, as the opera continued, there were Levine-like moments and stretches. What does it mean to be Levine-like? In Mozart and other music, it means to be compact, measured, confident, disciplined yet free, sculpted but not choked. It means to have a certain bounce. And it means to have a sense of “just rightness,” as I’ve written a thousand times: rightness in tempo, phrasing, and overall musical effect. By the end of Act I, everything was Levine-like, not just moments and stretches. The maestro was definitely back.

Speaking of things I’ve said a thousand times: The Afro of James Levine, floating above a pit, with light filtering through it, is the most reassuring sight in opera.

There are six singers in Così fan tutte, and I will touch on just one: Matthew Polenzani, the tenor singing Ferrando. In the first part of the opera, he sang imperfectly—which may seem an odd thing to say: Who sings perfectly? Well, Polenzani does, on many occasions. And he indeed demonstrated perfection in this Così. He once told me in an interview that he would never graduate from Mozart roles, as tenors tend to do: He would sing them for as long as companies asked him. This is fortunate for Mozart and Mozart devotees.

To return to the pit, Levine and the orchestra ended much, much better than they began. They ended with glorious, “just right”
C-major vitality. This sort of music is prominent in Bach, and then it continues with Mozart, and Beethoven (think of the last movement of the Fifth), and Brahms (the last movement of the First) . . . Not since Szell has anyone conducted music of this kind, not to mention other kinds, so well as Levine. And it was under that maestro that Levine apprenticed, long ago in Cleveland.

A British composer, Mark-Anthony Turn-age, had a big month in New York. First, City Opera staged his opera Anna Nicole (which is about the late and unfortunate American tabloid personality Anna Nicole Smith). That was the last thing this company did, before it went under, after seventy years in business. Then the Philharmonic played a new work of his, Frieze. It is a four-movement work, lasting about twenty-five minutes, meant to “respond in some way” to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. (I have borrowed language from the program notes.) The title is a little misleading, I think. The music is not static. You could well imagine a Frieze by, say, Morton Feldman. But Turnage takes his title from a Klimt work, the Beethoven Frieze.

The concert began with a disheartening sight (to me): Out came the conductor, Gilbert, and the composer with microphones. We were going to have a pre-concert talk. Thus was the evening deadened, right off the bat. Turnage made me smile when he said he was loath to repeat what was already in the program notes. He made me smile again when he responded to a concluding question from Gilbert. That question was, “Any last word for us?” Turnage said, “Just listen.”

His first movement is marked “Hushed and expansive”—and the music sounds exactly that way. It also sounds like much other music composed today. You have some spookiness, some sci-fi touches, some jungle noises, lots of soft percussion. There is also struggle in this music, making me think of a Michelangelo figure, trying to get out of the rock. Turnage employs open fifths, which are Beethovenesque. But, frankly, they reminded me of quintessential American music: Copland, Harris, and the rest. An open fifth, used in a certain way, is an American signature.

The second movement, “With veiled menace,” is quite American: jazzy, Bernsteinian. Also, it is notably well orchestrated. The last two movements are labeled only with metronome markings. The first of them has, I swear, a Bernsteinian touch at the beginning: a suggestion of “Somewhere.” Later, there is a very nice woozy, Ravelian dance. And, so help me, I thought I heard a little of The Moldau. The last movement is spooky, playful, and competent—but I’m not sure it’s anything special. It struck me as a little dull and unvaried. On first hearing, I thought that Frieze deserved a better finale. But this is a listenable work, from first to last, and that should not be interpreted as faint praise: Listenability is no curse.

Alan Gilbert is a friend of new music, not just in his championing of it but in his conducting of it: As here, he conducts with care, clarity, and integrity. After intermission came the work to which Frieze responds: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, still strange and wondrous, after all this time. I was touched to read, in the program notes, that Beethoven is Turnage’s favorite composer. Of how many contemporary composers is it true? I regard it as a credit to Turnage.

At the Met, Riccardo Frizza conducted the overture to Norma (Bellini, as you know). There was nothing wrong with the overture: except that it was polite, bland, and without its dramatic anticipation. The overture suggested, “Norma will be blah tonight.” And it was. Soon, James Morris, portraying Oroveso, was laying out a carpet of bass sound. It is an impressive carpet, though it may wobble now. As with his fellow bass Samuel Ramey, Morris remains noble, wobbling or not. Further impressive were the men of the Met chorus, who sang with precision and robustness. Pity they could not have sung an entire concert.

Also robust—very—was Aleksandrs Antonenko, the tenor in the role of Pollione. But he sang with effort, and not very much artistry. Kate Aldrich, the excellent mezzo from Maine, was Adalgisa. She performed competently, but she seemed underpowered for the role. Her sound was too cushioned, without the desired aliveness. Much of Adalgisa’s music was tepid, like the performance at large.

Doing the honors as Norma was Sondra Radvanovsky, best known as the Met’s go-to Verdi soprano. She is also a Bellini soprano, certainly a Norma. She had the requisite power and lyricism. And she was in basic technical command. Over the years, I’ve said, “The story of Radvanovsky is simple: When she sings in tune, she’s world-beating. When she doesn’t, she’s rather average.” Isn’t something like this true of everyone? No, actually. Somehow, the Radvanovsky instrument undergoes a big change in character when it falls off pitch. Frederica von Stade could sing flat on you, but the voice remained its beautiful, glowing self. Radvanovsky was not terribly flat on this night. But she was often “a little low,” as they say. The voice was fuzzier, less distinctive, than it is at its best. Still, Radvanovsky was brave and admirable in this difficult, exposed music. Her soft singing and her diminuendos were real—not fake, as they often are from singers. She sang “Casta diva” on her knees, which amazed me: I doubted I could stay on my knees that long, much less sing “Casta diva” while on them.

But enough praise, back to censure: The color of this evening was gray. One grew—I grew—tired of listening to people sing out of tune. They all did, really. The orchestra was uncrisp. Nothing was outright bad, but not enough was outright good. It’s curious how a mediocre performance can be more wearing than a bad one. You sit there being killed by okayness.

The other week, I found myself writing, “It’s hard enough being a music critic without being a shrink as well.” I was writing about Valery Gergiev, who had conducted Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin at the Met. He is mercuriality itself, up one day, down the next. He seems to have an electric switch: Sometimes it’s turned to “On,” sometimes it stays stubbornly on “Off.” Why? Who knows? Does he? At Carnegie Hall, in an all-Stravinsky program, he was fabulously on. The electricity flowed freely. He was leading his Mariinsky Orchestra (St. Petersburg) in three ballet scores: The Firebird, Pétrouchka, and The Rite of Spring. These scores are meant to be danced to, not merely played in concert, certainly in their complete forms (and I would say this is notably true of Pétrouchka). But Gergiev and the Mariinsky more than held interest. In The Firebird, the conductor was at his most wizardly. He was spreading that voodoo he somehow knows how to summon. I muttered to myself, “He’s making Stoki look staid.”

Before giving the downbeat, he was treated to shouts from the balcony (I believe). A man was protesting Russia’s “anti-gay propaganda law,” as it’s known in news reports. Gergiev is a friend and backer of Putin. The protest went on for a minute or two. Gergiev waited it out, almost frozen. Then he began The Firebird, evidently unrattled, possibly motivated. Even his detractors must admit that he showed unusual mental discipline. He ended the evening with an encore, not Stravinsky, but Verdi, whose two hundredth birthday (to the day) it was: the overture to La forza del destino. It was brisk, musical, and thoroughly Verdian.

In addition to Manhattan, the Mariinsky played three college campuses in the extended environs of the city: Princeton, Cornell, and SUNY–Purchase. In these concerts, the orchestra was conducted by Ignat Solzhenitsyn, who is also a pianist. He is a superb musician, in all the ways that add up to superbness. He has the leadership skills necessary to conducting. (He is also, by the way, the middle son of the great man, who had three.) I am a friend of Solzhenitsyn’s, so I have no right to speak of him in music criticism. It’s still true, though.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 32 Number 3, on page 55
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