The Brentano String Quartet began its concert in Zankel Hall with a joke—with Haydn’s String Quartet in E flat, Op. 33, No. 2, nicknamed “Joke.” This is because the composer teases the audience with several false endings. The glory of this work, I think, is the slow movement, marked Largo e sostenuto. It is beautiful, and our ensemble played it that way, with the four lines lovingly knitted together. The joking at the end was well-timed, though I found it a little sober. The audience disagreed, apparently, as they virtually exploded in mirth and appreciation.
So, the concert had begun nicely, but its momentum was quickly stopped when a composer came out onstage to talk. He said he liked an audience to meet him, to see what a “playful, mischievous spirit” he is. He discussed the piece of his about to be played, repeating what was in our program notes. I believe he talked for about ten minutes. I sort of forgot we were at a concert, and that we had heard a Haydn string quartet. The world is full of yak-yak; concerts used to be a refuge from it. Now musicians insist on talking, though music can talk just as well, or better.
The composer was Steven Mackey, an American born in 1956. His piece was One Red Rose, commissioned by three organizations, including Carnegie Hall, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. “In the most abstract terms,” says Mackey in his program notes, “this piece explores the dialectic between the personal and the public.” There was a difference between Mrs. Kennedy’s public composure, as she went about her remaining duties, and the agony within. The piece is called One Red Rose because a Secret Service agent found such a flower, blood-soaked, in the limo. It had come from a bouquet given to the First Lady.
Mackey’s work is in three movements, each with two sections or more. The work begins simple and pop-like, except for the dissonances. It is by turns menacing, playful, sweetly rocking. The players slap at their instruments in distress. There is angry, emotional sawing. The work ends with some power—that is, some musical inspiration—and this power is of an affirmative nature. You might even say the ending is happy. I could see what the composer means by a “dialectic between the personal and the public.” Yet a work without words means nothing, even if it means very specific things in a composer’s head, or a listener’s. A composer can get specific with something like “Happy Birthday,” however, or a national anthem—and Mackey indeed includes a snatch of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
I have been churlish about this composer’s talking—as about all musicians’ talking—and I was not taken with his piece on first hearing. But Mackey seems like a swell guy—he looks like a rocker—and he is no doubt sincere. One Red Rose seems to mean a lot to him. And the audience gave it a standing ovation.
The next night, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam arrived at Carnegie Hall for two concerts. They were led by their chief conductor, the excellent Mariss Jansons. Their first concert had a soloist, Leonidas Kavakos, also excellent. He is a violinist (as well as a conductor). And he too looks like a rocker, with shoulder-length hair. His concerto was the Bartók Second. This is a quite difficult work, but Kavakos played it as though he had not a care in the world. Everything was easy for him. Plus, everything was beautiful—Romantic, warm, lush. Seldom will you hear Bartók more beautiful (and we tend to think of him as a cerebral modernist). I have heard Kavakos play many times, and he has always been good—usually very good—but I had never had the thought, “He’s a great violinist.” I did on this night.
After intermission, Jansons led the Concertgebouw in Mahler’s First Symphony (“Titan”). Needless to say, it was ably conducted and well executed. I must say, however, that it did not move, thrill, or throttle me, as this music can and should. But it did others, as evidenced by their long, tumultuous applause. Seeing as I’m talking about the audience, let me say that some members applauded between movements, both of the concerto and of the symphony. This was not especially annoying. The shushing of them by others—harsh, petty, self-righteous shushing—was.
The Concertgebouw began its second concert with a Strauss tone poem, Death and Transfiguration. Ideally, this work will end a program, for obvious reasons—but people often place it elsewhere. Jansons shaped it nicely, and the orchestra played it beautifully. As before, this is needless to say. But the big question is, “Was the work transcendental?” To me, it was not. The following work was. This was Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7, and Jansons had his forces clicking in it. The music was logical, inexorable, and sublime. It had its healing properties. In my view, the Finale was a touch fast—Bruckner warns “nicht schnell”—but Jansons was within reason, and he showed himself to be what I have often described him as: “great-souled.” I suppose that makes him a mahatma. (Bruckner too.)
When the Amsterdammers cleared out, some Stockholmers came in—the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra. They were conducted by their chief, Sakari Oramo. As he says, he is not Japanese, no matter what his name sounds like: He’s a Finn. And he is one of the best young conductors in the world. I have said this for years, and I now see he’s in his mid-forties. It is time, I suppose, to drop the “young”; he is still one of the best. At Carnegie Hall, he put on a variety show: a modern piece; some songs, sung by a soprano; a popular Romantic violin concerto; and a Sibelius symphony.
The OOMP—that is to say, the Obligatory Opening Modern Piece—was a piece designed to be an OOMP. According to our program notes, “Open Mind is an introductory piece, an overture for orchestra. The title refers to the fact that the work is meant to be a short opening piece in a concert program . . .” I, for one, was delighted by this explicitness. Open Mind is by Rolf Martinsson, a Swedish composer born in 1956, the same year as Steven Mackey. OOMP or not, this piece is worthy and beautiful. It begins exuberant and then becomes tingly. It is Disneyesque in quality. Then there is calm, as in a slow movement. The brass get a little jazzy, and a little bluesy. The exuberance returns, and the piece ends with fairy dust. Contemporary composers like to do this: sprinkle fairy dust on their music, via bells and so on. Oramo conducted his Martinsson with superb attention and control.
As for the songs, they were by Grieg and Stenhammar, and they were sung by Elin Rombo, another Swede. She sang them correctly and, above all, lovingly. She did no straining whatsoever: She went up for her high notes as a violinist would, not as a singer so often does, tightly and riskily. Throughout the songs, she was a model of poise and elasticity.
The violin concerto was the Bruch (the G-minor, of course), and it was played by Ray Chen, a hotshot born in Taiwan, reared in Australia, and trained here in America. He made too small a sound in the beginning, and his intonation was shaky. But he soon settled down, playing the first movement with interpretive daring, though not with interpretive arrogance or nonsense. In the Adagio, he was nicely tender. Oramo began the Finale with wonderful, shivering anticipation. In this movement, Chen again suffered some poor intonation, but his spirit was right, and the music was fast and happy in his hands. He seemed pleased to be playing the Bruch—and that counts for a lot. If you consider it a schlocky embarrassment, you do neither it nor yourself any good.
That Sibelius symphony was the Second, in D major. I could give you a blow-by-blow, but the bottom line is this: Oramo was masterly. His musicianship was well-nigh impeccable. I have long thought he should have a bigger career, a bigger podium. There are pipsqueaks on some of our major podiums, and this guy’s in Stockholm? But maybe he thinks he’s doing great, and maybe Stockholm does too—and maybe he is.
In my November chronicle, I wrote about a Carmen at the Metropolitan Opera. A performance months later offered some new cast members, prominently the tenor singing Don José. He is Nikolai Schukoff, an Austrian, not to be confused with Neil Shicoff, the veteran American tenor. On the night I heard him, Schukoff was rough-and-ready. But he was not without nuance. On at least one high note, Schukoff sang what I’m fairly sure was a falsetto, and it was quite pretty. At the end of the Flower Song, he sang a genuine piano, on that high B flat. It was not pretty, but it was there, and genuine. I would like to make a complaint about the beginning of the aria: Schukoff started singing the first letter, the “L” in “La,” about an hour before it was time. This sort of telegraphing is common, and baneful.
A word about Dwayne Croft, too, please: The veteran baritone was Escamillo, and he was very satisfying. The part seemed a bit low for him, but he sang with aliveness and potency—an unforced potency. And then there was his beautiful voice, of course. So versatile, so dependable, and so unhyped is this singer, you can take him for granted. That is unfortunate.
I noticed something when the King’s Singers took the stage of Zankel Hall. David Hurley, the countertenor, is one of the oldest. Two seconds ago, he was the youngest one—taking over from a singer named Jeremy Jackman. Actually, it was in 1990. Hurley writes in his bio, “It seems incredible to me that I have been a member of The King’s Singers for twenty-two years. I don’t know where the time has gone.” Members of the group come and go, but the group, the brand, remains, decade after decade.
On this night, they sang an appealing mixture of music, covering almost five centuries. One item was a relatively new piece, composed by Joby Talbot, a Briton born in 1971. This is not a “British” piece, however: Called “León,” and pulled from a larger work called Path of Miracles, it is about the Camino Francés, the famous pilgrimage over the Pyrenees. Talbot describes “León” as a “Lux aeterna.” It is in C minor, and minimalistic, and it is supposed to be mesmerizing, I think. To a degree, it is. It is certainly very pretty and sincere. Somehow, it ends in a heavenly D major.
And how did the King’s Singers sing? I was able to hear only the first half of their program, but, in this half, they did not sing like themselves: They were dry in sound, uncertain of pitch, and unmeshing. This is not the King’s Singers. The magic was not there. I like to think it returned after I had gone.
The Met staged Parsifal, and there was applause at the beginning. I mention this because sometimes the conductor simply appears, to begin this opera. He has crept into the pit under cover of darkness. In the stillness, he begins this semi-sacred work. I like it this way. The Met’s conductor on this occasion, Daniele Gatti, did it another way. He had a very good night, although Act I was questionable. Gatti conducted a little too carefully, a little preciously. Notes were placed, rather as knives, forks, and spoons are placed. They did not unfold naturally, without fuss or ceremony. But Act II was superb. (This act has more blood and less ethereality.) So was Act III, in which we entered “Wagner time,” that state of mind from which normal, human time is absent. The orchestra played extremely well, with the woodwind section shining.
It is hard to see how a cast of Parsifal today could be better than the one the Met assembled. This is a man-heavy opera—almost as man-heavy as Billy Budd—and the men of the Met Chorus did themselves proud. They made themselves heard, virilely, but never bellowed. Parsifal is not just a festival of men’s voices but a festival of low voices. In the roles of Gurnemanz, Amfortas, and Klingsor, the Met had René Pape, Peter Mattei, and Evgeny Nikitin. The tenor, who has the title role, was Jonas Kaufmann. He sang beautifully and intelligently, though his voice may be a little small for the part. The notes Wagner assigns his middle voice were hard on him. And though he has a beautiful instrument, that instrument is a little contained. Kaufmann reminds me of a trumpeter—a splendid trumpeter—who has inadvertently left his mute in.
There is a woman in this opera, and she is Kundry. Taking this part was Katarina Dalayman, the Swedish soprano. What I said about Leonidas Kavakos, above, I will say about Dalayman: She has always been good, usually very good. But since hearing her Brünnhilde last season and her Kundry this season, I believe she is actually great.
The Met’s production was a new one, made by François Girard, the Canadian director. I did not particularly understand the first act. The men were in white dress shirts, and they held chairs upside down, and they engaged in those odd, synchronized hand movements popular with directors today. Women in black dresses stood to one side with their backs turned. I had no doubt that all this made perfect sense to Girard, and to all those who had heard his explanations. But the rest of us? Act II was fascinating to look at and congruent with the opera. As for Act III, I did not understand why it had to be so ugly—given the rejuvenation that Wagner writes. But Girard is a man to be taken seriously. And, throughout the opera, there was an interesting shifting sky.
The New York Philharmonic had an OOMP, but not really, because this work was a little long for an OOMP—almost twenty minutes. It was Phantasmata, a triptych written by Christopher Rouse in the 1980s. (Rouse is an American born in 1949.) The title, he explains in program notes, “comes from the writings of the great physician and occultist Paracelsus, who refers to phantasmata as ‘hallucinations created by thought.’” The first movement is an “evestrum.” And an evestrum is “Paracelsus’s name for the astral body.” There is something 1980s about this work, something Shirley MacLaine. The second movement employs crystal goblets. My language has a mocking tone, I know, but listen: This 1980s stuff—and the Paracelsian stuff—is rich material for music. That second movement is called “The Infernal Machine.” The third is “Bump,” a “nightmare conga,” says Rouse, or “a gala Boston Pops performance in Hell.” Rouse is an excellent writer about music, an awkward subject to write about.
His evestrum is nicely, quietly trippy. “The Infernal Machine” is appropriately exciting and busy—very busy, like a million modern pieces (but more exciting). “Bump” is noisy and amazing. But, as with heavy metal, the shock wears off, and it becomes maybe a little dull. Rouse milks the madness for a long time. But I enjoyed hearing Phantasmata, and I enjoy that Rouse enjoys music. He composes like a man who likes music. “What a dumb thing to say!” you might protest. “Don’t they all?” No, actually, not really. Alan Gilbert did the conducting, and I will say about him what I said about Sakari Oramo, with his Rolf Martinsson piece: He conducted with superb attention and control.
That night—the Philharmonic concert was in the morning—the Philadelphia Orchestra played in Carnegie Hall. Their OOMP was by Gabriela Lena Frank, a Berkeley-born composer in her early forties. Her piece is Concertino Cusqueño, that second word referring to Cusco, the city in Peru. Our program notes told us the following about the piece: “Frank imaginatively blends her South American heritage with a love for the music of the twentieth-century English composer Benjamin Britten.” We were also told that “Frank possesses a unique ability to capture sound in its original environment”—unique? She herself was quoted as saying, “I’ve long been fascinated by my multicultural heritage.” That is a statement perfectly emblematic of the modern American.
Concertino Cusqueño is, among other things, an example of musical tourism. Famous examples include El Salón México and the Cuban Overture (Copland and Gershwin). Frank has composers in addition to Britten lurking in her concertino, I think: I believe I heard the ascending bells that conclude the first movement of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. I will say this for the piece, something I have said of other pieces discussed in this chronicle: It is sincere. You and I could mock it, but Frank is the one who had the nerve and, yes, ability to put pen to manuscript paper—or whatever they’re composing on these days—and she has composed sincerely. May she prosper.
In opera, there is such a thing as luxury casting: putting a first-rate singer in a minor role. In song recitals, there must be such a thing as luxury accompanying: having a starry concert pianist at the keyboard. Magdalena Kožená sang a recital in Carnegie Hall in the company of Yefim Bronfman. In Salzburg a few summers ago, she sang a recital with Mitsuko Uchida. Jean-Yves Thibaudet is another pianist who likes to accompany singers: Renée Fleming, for example, and Angelika Kirchschlager.
Kožená and Bronfman complemented each other splendidly. Each is intelligent, musical, versatile, and experienced. Each displayed what you might call “seriousness of purpose.” They were not grim or overly earnest. They simply adhered to a high standard. Sitting in the audience, you never had a technical worry about either one of them. You had scarcely an interpretive worry either. These were two of the best, collaborating harmoniously (by all evidence).
Among songs and cycles by Mussorgsky, Ravel, Rachmaninoff, and Bartók, there was a set by Marc-André Dalbavie, a Frenchman born in 1961. This set is Three Melodies on a Poem of Ezra Pound. The first “melody” starts out, in the piano, like an off-key “Summertime.” (Maybe only an American would notice this.) The second is fast and Debussyan. All three are sensitive and intimate, the products of a refined sensibility. Dalbavie has an ear for song, which is to say, for matching syllable and note, thought and note, etc.
Let me record that Kožená did not sing a note off-key all night long. She was an intonation machine. This is not the be-all, end-all in singing—plenty of singers give pleasure while missing the center of the note. But if you can be in the center, all the better. As for the Kožená-Bronfman collaboration, I wish it could be represented on an album, or three.
About a week later, the Vienna Philharmonic began a stand at Carnegie Hall. They were conducted by their countryman Franz Welser-Möst (whose big job in America is in Cleveland). At the beginning of their first concert, they did something only the VPO would do, I think: They played the Poet and Peasant Overture. It takes supreme self-confidence to program this piece—a self-confidence that excludes worry about fashion. Franz von Suppé’s gift to posterity is very old-fashioned. It is also marvelous. Welser-Möst and the VPO botched the entrance—the opening chord—but all was well thereafter. They are an elegant machine, the VPO.
A veteran Strauss tenor, Herbert Lippert, came out to sing Strauss songs. Tenors sometimes do this, with orchestra. Peter Anders did so with Furtwängler. Lippert was effortful, but he was game.
The concert closed with Dvorák’s Symphony No. 7, which gave me a memory—another memory from Salzburg. In 2008, Welser-Möst came with his Cleveland Orchestra, and they were in the pit for Dvo?ák’s opera Rusalka. This did not sit well with the resident orchestra, the VPO. One of them was quoted as grumbling, “We have more Czech grandmothers in our orchestra than they do in theirs.” He meant there were more grandsons of Czechs in the Viennese orchestra than in Cleveland’s. The Americans said, “Don’t be so sure.” In any case, the VPO was good in Dvo?ák’s Seventh, and Welser-Möst was good too. Perfectly competent. The music can do more for you, however—certainly for me.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 31 Number 8, on page 57
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