James MacMillan, born in 1959, is a Scottish composer of religious conviction. In 2008, he completed his Piano Concerto No. 3, which has a subtitle: “The Mysteries of Light.” It was premiered in Minneapolis, with Jean-Yves Thibaudet at the keyboard.
In his own words (as they say in courtroom dramas), MacMillan explains that his concerto “attempts to revive the ancient practice of writing music based on the structure of the Rosary.” In 2002, John Paul II introduced the Luminous Mysteries, and “these are the basis of the five sections” of the concerto. MacMillan cautions, however, that the music “is in no way geared towards liturgy,” nor is it “devotional in any accepted, traditional sense.” Rather, “each image or event becomes the springboard for a subjective reflection . . .”
We’re talking, in short, about a piano concerto—though a concerto with an impetus and a plan.
It was performed at the New York Philharmonic, with the original pianist, Thibaudet, serving as soloist. On the podium was another Frenchman, Stéphane Denève. Before giving the downbeat, Denève gave a little lecture about the concerto, with Thibaudet supplying musical examples. The audience was in music-appreciation class. What was in the program notes was repeated on the stage. To my sense, this took the air out of the hall, as such lectures usually do. But other people don’t seem to mind.
In his opening movement, MacMillan uses plainchant. He also uses plenty of percussion, in the modern style. There is a touch of jazz, too, which is again modern. Also, there are those familiar magical sounds: bells, chimes, and the like. The pianist had better be a virtuoso, for MacMillan gives him cascades of notes.
The second movement has some dancing that smacks of the British Isles. A reel? A jig? This made me smile a bit, because this second movement is meant to depict, or suggest, the wedding at Cana. There was nothing Israelite about this dancing (to my ears). I also thought I heard some Prokofiev along the way—specifically, the composer’s own Piano Concerto No. 3. (Remember, this is MacMillan’s third one.)
In later movements, there are more of those magical sounds. There is tinkling, twinkling. I sometimes say that a composer “sprinkles fairy dust” on a work. At times, MacMillan’s concerto is cinematic, Disneyesque. The plainchant recurs. There is a fair amount of doodling and noodling. Mainly, in my opinion, this is interesting, and mainly, in my opinion, it all coheres.
Though only twenty-five minutes, the concerto felt a little long to me. Does it have a “heavenly length,” as would befit a religious concerto? I’m not sure. I look forward to hearing the concerto again. What is beyond doubt is that James MacMillan is a serious composer who loves music and has important things to say. He does not write frivolously—except when frivolity is called for!—and he writes well.
As for Thibaudet, he played with his usual fluidity and dexterity. Also his attention to color. He used sheet music, which puzzled me slightly. During the lecture-demonstration, he mentioned that he was performing the concerto for the twenty-seventh time. I often wonder why musicians don’t pay living composers the compliment of memorizing their music. But it is not a big issue.
Jamie Barton, a mezzo-soprano from Rome, Georgia, sang a recital in Zankel Hall. She was accompanied by Bradley Moore, an excellent pianist. Their program was varied, to put it mildly. The program had five different sections in five different languages. And, blessedly, there was no theme. There was simply an assortment of music, intelligently chosen and attractively put together. One of the items was a new work—a brand-new work, having its world premiere.
When Barton appeared, the audience gave her a long and loud ovation. They expected something good—and they got it. The evening began with songs by Turina, his Homenaje a Lope de Vega. Barton tackled the songs with gusto. She showed a killer chest voice and a free top (i.e., an unhindered upper register). She is obviously someone who enjoys singing and enjoys music. This may seem like nothing—or like something to take for granted—but it counts for a lot.
The lid was way up on the piano, and you would not have wanted to miss Moore. As usual, he was smart and stylish. He has a sense of balance, and a sense of the musical line. His Turina was idiomatic. I believe the late, great Spaniard Alicia de Larrocha would have smiled and approved.
Next came three songs by Chausson. The first, “Le colibri,” was slightly labored and unflowing. Now and then in these songs, Barton had trouble sustaining a middle or low note through to the end of a phrase. She kind of ran out of gas. But this was a peccadillo. Barton has generally a plush voice with an edge. As she sang, I was reminded of two older American mezzos, Marilyn Horne and Stephanie Blythe.
To close the first half was a Schubert set. One thing I admire about Barton is that she remembers that the songs are songs—music. She does not get bogged down in words or poetry. She does not intellectualize the music. She sings! One of the songs was the very, very familiar—the iconic—“Gretchen am Spinn-rade.” Can you hear this song again? You can, from such performers as Barton and Moore. It seemed almost new (and it was interesting to hear it in C minor, rather than its customary D minor). Barton was at her best anytime the music called for plushness and regality.
If she was guilty of anything in this first half, it was a little sameness. A little interpretive or stylistic monotony. But Leontyne Price and other greats have been accused of the same, so Jamie Barton is at a minimum in good company.
The new work, which began the second half, is by Jake Heggie, the American born in 1961. It is called The Work at Hand, and it is in three sections. The words are by the late Laura Morefield. This is one of those works that describe death by cancer. Heggie has composed two versions of it: one for voice, cello, and piano, and one for voice, cello, and orchestra. We heard the former, of course. Joining Barton and Moore onstage was Anne Martindale Williams, the principal cello of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
Heggie’s piece is angry and rhapsodic. It is (naturally) full of lamentation. There is chromatic wailing. There is anguish and anxiety. Eventually, there is elegy. Some of the music is “easy listening,” but none of it is trite. And Heggie has crafted the piece with skill, for the three instruments (counting the voice). The Work at Hand is moving—and not just because the subject is automatically moving.
From a technical point of view, Barton was not perfect in this piece. She had a faulty onset or two. But musically and vocally, she was unimpeachable. She sang clearly, straightforwardly, and feelingly. Like Marilyn Horne, for one, she is adept at singing in English (which not all native speakers are, strangely enough). At one point in the piece, she turned on oratorio-like solidity and power. This was highly effective. Playing the cello, Williams was a second singer. She played, or sang, searingly. Pardon the cliché, but it is the right word.
Let me make a confession, for the purpose of praising Heggie: I have never disliked his music, finding it competent and pleasant, at a minimum—but I have sometimes found it innocuous. A little empty or unnourishing. In any case, The Work at Hand is substantial and powerful, a signal achievement.
Barton and Moore closed their printed program with Dvo?ák’s Gypsy Songs, which were spirited, soulful, and winning. Frankly, I stopped reviewing, mentally, and sat back and listened. Between songs, a man said to his wife, “That’s a good pianist.” He certainly is. This makes a big difference in a voice recital.
Called back for an encore, Barton announced that she was going to sing her favorite hymn: “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” arranged by Jay Ivey. She sang it with utter sincerity. Odd as this may sound, I believe it took some courage to sing a hymn—and talk about it—in front of a New York audience (which is presumably secular, and apt to snicker at hymns). Not content with that, Barton sang a spiritual, “Ride On, King Jesus,” also arranged by Ivey. (Price used to close recitals with the arrangement by Hall Johnson.) She ended with a big ol’ glorious high note on the name “Jesus.”
Like you, possibly, I have heard voice recitals my entire life—many hundreds. Thanks to the music, the singing, the playing, and the overall spirit, this was one of the best.
Behzod Abduraimov gave a program in Weill Recital Hall. He is the young pianist—born in 1990—from Uzbekistan. His program was a virtuosic one, beginning with the four ballades of Chopin. For years now, I have knocked the “completeness craze.” Things are played in sets, even when they are not intended to be played that way. In recent years, lots of pianists have played the four ballades, one after the other. It is getting so that to play one ballade seems almost wrong—which is absurd.
Anyway, Abduraimov is an endearing young man. He takes the stage almost apologetically. At the keyboard, he hunches his shoulders, which, in mere mortals, results in tightness. Not just a shoulder-huncher, he is a lip-biter. And a head-shaker. And a nose-breather. Sometimes, he sings, not just with his fingers, but with his voice, Gould-style.
To play Chopin’s ballades, a pianist needs to be both a technician and a poet. Both an athlete and a bard. Abduraimov qualifies. In the main, his playing was sensible and sure. Ballades Nos. 2 and 4 have similar beginnings. They should be played smoothly, glassily—almost magically. From Abduraimov, these beginnings were not quite right. In the codas of the four ballades, Abduraimov was a little tight and constrained. (Too much hunching?) But he was generally satisfying, and in the final ballade he showed fire, which was exciting.
The ballades took up the first half of the recital. The second half began with two impromptus of Schubert—the one in G-flat major, which is like a song, and universally beloved, and the one in E flat, which features tripping triplets. I’ll never forget the way Horowitz played the G-flat major. I heard him do it when he was old and I was young. The Impromptu in E flat, I think of as Murray Perahia’s encore: it has been his first encore for decades.
The Impromptu in G flat should be limpid, glassy, and somewhat otherworldly. It was not like that from Abduraimov. But the E-flat was thoroughly admirable: bold, lyrical, and committed.
Last on the program was Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, which very few can pull off. You need to be a wizard—both with your fingers and, in a way, with your imagination. Abduraimov pulled the piece off. The second movement, “Le gibet,” was not his best. It failed to tantalize. But the last movement, the famous (or infamous) “Scarbo,” was phenomenal.
Abduraimov played one encore, a piece closely associated with Horowitz: Scriabin’s Etude in C-sharp minor, Op. 2, No. 1. I don’t believe that the young man understands the etude’s structure or thread. But he is a gifted and brilliant fellow, whom it will be a pleasure to hear for years to come, and whom it has been a pleasure to hear for several years already.
Alan Gilbert, the music director of the New York Philharmonic, will step down from his post after the 2016–17 season. So the question is, Who will succeed him? Or, maybe better, Who should succeed him? I have a shortlist of about five. On it is Sakari Oramo, the Finnish conductor. I have been pushing him for years. He is not exactly under a bushel: today, he is the chief conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. But I have always felt he should have an inarguably major podium.
He guested the New York Philharmonic, devoting the first half of the concert to his home composer, Sibelius. The opening work was a relative rarity: The Oceanides, a tone poem from 1914. Oramo was just like Sibelius, and just like the piece: composed, balanced, and sure. Listening to this performance, you might have thought, “How can it be otherwise?”
After the tone poem came the violin concerto. The soloist was Frank Peter Zimmermann—who made some unusual sounds at the beginning of the concerto. They were not quite of this world. And they were right. As the first movement progressed, Zimmermann’s technique was not immaculate. Some of his intonation was iffy; sometimes his sound “spread,” unduly. But he was always interesting and often compelling. He played much of the first movement with a cold fury. Oramo conducted in a manner compact yet free, which is exactly what is needed.
The second movement, the slow movement, was not exemplary. Zimmermann was short on beauty. The music can be much more aching. But he was good enough. Oramo was very good, breathing beautifully. He began the final movement with the tempo giusto, which is not easy, for many, to arrive at. Zimmermann was alive, with a focused sound. And this movement had the impact it should.
The audience was wild in its appreciation, and Zimmermann provided an encore: Bach, the last movement of his Sonata in A minor. The concerto had been very good. But it had not prepared me for how well Zimmermann would play his Bach. The Bach was controlled, fleet, and beautiful. And thrilling, actually. Zimmermann had complete mastery over the piece (though he did not smother it). And he was loud. The violin filled Avery Fisher Hall, an acoustically unfriendly place, everyone says.
There was a symphony after intermission, the Brahms Second. Oramo was elegant, natural, and musical. There was some bad playing, however. The horns were shaky, and many entrances, from everyone, were botched. The conductor may well have been responsible for this latter problem. But it did little harm to the overall performance, which was an example of honest music-making—music-making free of artifice (and at the same time not bland).
Furthermore, Oramo seems an amiable sort. Between movements, there was applause, and Oramo did not pull a Riccardo Muti: he did not glare, shush, or rebuke. He smiled, warmly.
Next door at Alice Tully Hall, Joshua Bell played a recital. He is an American violinist, as you know, and he was partnered by a British pianist, Sam Haywood. Their program consisted of sonatas by Beethoven, Grieg, and Brahms, plus the Rhapsody No. 1 of Bartók. The first of their encores was a (transcription of a) Chopin nocturne. Bell said, “My apologies to the pianists out there . . .”
I could review his recital in detail, and would enjoy it very much. I could speak of the violinist’s intensity, and lyricism, and structural sense, and precision, and musical instinct, and versatility. This was a stupendous recital. But I have reviewed Bell many times, and perhaps I could confine myself to a general statement. It occurs to me that Bell is in the unusual position of being quite famous, for a classical musician, and at the same time underrated. Celebrity can obscure a musician’s worth, funnily enough. It is my impression that some people regard Bell as a pretty boy with a nose for publicity. He may be that—but he is also a wonderful, sometimes flawless, sometimes great violinist. On this particular night, Bell was totally alive, and he made you feel more alive, as you sat in your seat. He reminded you why you loved music in the first place. This is a considerable gift.
All was not harmonious in the seats, however. Late in the recital, two patrons had an altercation. (I could explain.) There were harsh words exchanged—including one starting with F—and I thought it might come to blows. One man said to the other—we were attending a violin recital, remember—“Don’t be a rube at the symphony!” I loved that. There’s nothing like the sophistication of the New York concert scene.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 33 Number 8, on page 63
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