The New York Philharmonic played a program that began with Respighi’s Church Windows and ended with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. In between came a new piece. So, after the Respighi, the conductor and the composer trooped out with microphones. It was time for music-appreciation class. It was time for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood at the Philharmonic.
The conductor was the orchestra’s music director, Alan Gilbert, and the composer was Magnus Lindberg, the Finn born in 1958. Gilbert did something nice. He said, in effect, “I don’t know what we’re doing out here, because Magnus’s music needs no introduction, explanation, or hand-holding.” But that’s exactly what it got. Gilbert said that the new piece’s harmonies related to the other two pieces on the program: the Respighi and the Stravinsky. I almost laughed out loud. I’ve been hearing that kind of thing all my life. You can stretch anything to relate to anything. If the first piece had been by Lully and the last by Ligeti, Gilbert or someone else would have said the same thing.
And it’s true: Music does relate to other music. It’s just that sometimes this relationship is stretched and other times it’s clear and obvious.
For his part, Lindberg said that his new piece included the old and the new, the traditional and the modern. He seemed to me to be apologizing for his nods to tradition. He seemed to be conscious of musical fashion. Was he worried that there were academics in the audience, ready to pounce on him? Or critics ready to do the same?
In any event, music-appreciation class went on for ten minutes or so, and it was dull. I believe Mister Rogers himself would have said, “Come on, guys: no need to condescend.”
The piece was Lindberg’s Violin Concerto No. 2, and it had had its premiere the month before in London, in a performance conducted by Jaap van Zweden—who has now been announced as the next music director of the New York Philharmonic. The soloist at the premiere was the work’s dedicatee, Frank Peter Zimmermann. He was the soloist in New York as well. The concerto is in three movements, which are marked simply “First Movement,” “Second Movement,” and “Third Movement.” They are played without pause.
The violin begins by itself, and is soon in perpetual-motion mode. The music, as in so many Lindberg pieces, gives off a shimmer. It’s sprinkled with fairy dust. Parts of the first movement, I found both beautiful and interesting. The music is restless, searching—but is it going anywhere? There is an element of “sound design” here. The second movement is “lushly Romantic,” to use an old phrase. It is a descendant of the Goldmark or Korngold violin concerto. There is a cadenza, and I had a question about it: is it bona fide music or so much technical filler? Before the concerto is through, the soloist enjoys a duet with the concertmaster. The work ends on an ambiguous note.
I too am ambiguous about the concerto, or ambivalent: I admire it. I was also a bit bored by it, thinking it overlong. Although it was far less dull than the talk about it. Let me mention that Zimmermann had not memorized the piece. Are performers incapable of doing this courtesy to new music? But Zimmermann played the concerto very well, and Gilbert conducted it very well. The outgoing music director is a champion of new music, and a notably good exponent of it. Composers should be grateful to him, and I suspect they are.
You can go through your whole life—even a concertgoing life—without ever hearing an oboe recital. Just about the only opportunity is in a music school, where you might hear a graduation recital or the like. In Weill Recital Hall, an oboe recital was staged. It was given by Ramón Ortega Quero, who is the principal player in the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. His bio, published in our program, did not include his nationality. Bios tend not to give biographical information but rather PR plaudits (“is recognized around the world as one of the most promising musicians of his generation”). I discovered online that Quero is Spanish. Accompanied by Hisako Kawamura, a Japanese-born pianist, he played a recital dominated by transcriptions—such is the lot of instrumentalists outside of pianists, violinists, and cellists. For instance, he played two fantasies on opera. One of those fantasies was by Antonio Pasculli, a Sicilian who lived from 1842 to 1924. He was known as “the Paganini of the oboe.” There’s a “Paganini” for every instrument, isn’t there? Quero played Pasculli’s fantasy on Poliuto, a Donizetti opera. Oboists can thank Schumann, who wrote for their instrument directly: in his Three Romances, Op. 94. Quero played those too.
The oboe is a plangent instrument. “Son nata a lagrimar,” sings an unfortunate in Handel’s Giulio Cesare: “I was born to cry.” So is the oboe. And yet it can do other things, as Quero proved. Let me mention something visual, too: In a recital, you can see the oboe. The instrument is much harder to see in an orchestra. Attending a recital, you can see that the instrument is clearly a horn (woodwind or not). “My horn,” oboists and clarinetists are apt to call their instrument. They point that thing right at you.
Ramón Ortega Quero plays his horn skillfully, of course—but he was not without problems. These included interrupted phonation, iffy intonation, and squeaks. He sometimes had to work very hard. A wind instrument involves effort, probably more than others. In any case, Quero’s virtues overwhelmed any problems. He seems to have a gift ascribed to Dmitri Hvorostovsky, the Russian baritone, by Renée Fleming, his American colleague: a third lung. He can play forever without breathing (noticeably). He was circularity personified. In Pasculli’s Poliuto fantasy, he was adept in both cavatina and cabaletta. His passagework was impressive. He provided an example of what I might call “tasteful showmanship.” I feel like I’m reviewing an opera singer—Joyce DiDonato?
Here is a slightly rude question: The oboe is an important sound, and an important instrument, in an orchestra. You would not want to do without it in, say, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (first movement). But do you want to hear it all night long, as soloist? Is the oboe more of a complementary instrument than a soloistic one? Possibly, yes.
In Carnegie Hall, the Cleveland Orchestra began with a new piece, or a newish one: premiered in 2013. It has just won a big award, the Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition. Though the piece began the Cleveland concert, I could not call it an OOMP: an obligatory opening modern piece. It’s too long for that. Rather, at thirty minutes, it occupied the first half of the program, which is a rare privilege for a new work. (Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony, which takes an hour, occupied the second half.) The new work is a song-cycle by Hans Abrahamsen, a Dane born in 1952. Its title is let me tell you. Small letters have been popular in musical titles for a long time now.
For a text, the work has seven poems by Paul Griffiths, which are adapted, as I understand it, from his novel of 2008, also called let me tell you. Novel and poems alike use only the 481 words allotted to Ophelia in Hamlet. The first poem goes, “My words may be poor/ but they will have to do.” They do.
Abrahamsen’s cycle is for soprano and orchestra, and he wrote it with a particular soprano in mind: Barbara Hannigan, who was the soloist with the Cleveland Orchestra in Carnegie Hall. She is a high, high soprano, with a taste for musical adventure. Not only is she a singer, she’s a conductor, and she has been known to do both at the same time. At this concert, however, the Clevelanders were conducted by their music director, Franz Welser-Möst.
Abrahamsen calls for a large orchestra in let me tell you, but he tends to use just a small portion of it at any given time. The songs have a chamber quality (as songs might well have). Immediately, a listener is drawn in. The first song is soft, otherworldly, ancient-seeming. Faraway. Soon there is a tick-tock, creating suspense. I believe it comes from a marimba. This cycle is full of percussion, especially soft percussion, as modern works tend to be. The songs, as they progress, are wispy, Ophelia-like. I thought of Strauss’s three Ophelia-Lieder. Indeed, I believe Abrahamsen has learned a lot from Strauss, that vocal and orchestral master.
Hannigan was a wonder to hear. Much of the time, she was not singing, as we understand singing, but issuing funny pulses, squiggles, and throbs. Her concentration is fierce and her technical control phenomenal. She is the kind who can sing a soft high C from a standing start. What I mean is, there is no preceding note to push off from. The soft high C simply comes from nowhere—is pinged.
The song-cycle takes its time, though maybe not too much time. One poem goes, “There was a time, I remember, when we had no music,/ a time when there was no time for music,/ and what is music if not time—.” By about the fourth of the seven songs, I thought I had had enough. I had had enough of pretty mysticism and wooziness. But the work was rescued, for me, by the fifth song, which is fast and fidgety, a kind of scherzo. Then the music settles back into its trance, or hoped-for trance. This is the kind of work that hopes a spell is cast. There is a New Age, psychedelic aspect. The music is generally gentle and beautiful (unconventionally beautiful).
And it does not try to be cool. It does not try to impress composers and critics, or so it seems to me. Hans Abrahamsen strikes me as a guy who goes his own way. And though let me tell you is not what you’d call a crowd-pleaser, it really pleased the crowd at Carnegie Hall. They brought Abrahamsen, Paul Griffiths, and the performers back time after time, as though Lang Lang had just played a Liszt paraphrase or something.
Finally, let me note the ongoing, never-ending attraction of Hamlet—which Paul Johnson anoints the greatest work of art.
I have described Barbara Hannigan as a musical adventurer. So is Marc-André Hamelin, the Canadian pianist. (Hannigan is Canadian too, incidentally.) He likes to program offbeat pieces, especially from the era of super-virtuosic Romanticism. For instance, he’ll throw the Piano Symphony of Charles-Valentin Alkan at you. Recently in Carnegie Hall, he threw a little piece by Busoni at us. It comes from Busoni’s collection An die Jugend, and it is the “Giga, bolero e variazione.” Gigues, of course, are associated with Bach. Boleros are associated with Ravel (or at least one is). But the Busoni piece is a “study after Mozart.” It is playful, fleet, ingenious, brief, and delightful. It’s a bit of a novelty, yes, but well worth knowing. And who else would show it to you but Hamelin?
He is also the kind of performer who rolls his own, meaning that he composes his own music (just as the virtuosi of yore did). In Carnegie Hall, he played his Pavane Variée, a treatment of “Belle qui tiens ma vie” by Thoinot Arbeau, a sixteenth-century Frenchman. Hamelin first heard this song, or pavane, from the mouths of the King’s Singers. His variations on it have a French accent, appropriately. But they are varied in style: Impressionistic, Scriabinesque, modernist, Alkanesque—i.e., oceanically Romantic. We also hear a touch of jazz, or of Burt Bacharach. And no matter what the variation, you still have a sense, however faint, of Arbeau’s melody.
I wonder: Will other pianists play Hamelin’s Pavane Variée? Or will it live and die with him? I suspect that other pianists will play it—as Hamelin is now playing Busoni’s playing with Mozart.
At the end of his program, Hamelin played three encores. The middle was Earl Wild’s treatment of “Liza,” the Gershwin song. And a finger-bender it is. I have a story from Stuart Isacoff, the writer and piano scholar. He once said to Wild, “I’m learning your ‘Liza.’ ” Wild said, “It’s hard, you know.” Stuart knew.
A concert of the New York Philharmonic began with the Beethoven Violin Concerto. Have you ever heard the timpanist crescendo on the opening notes? I hadn’t either. But I believe this one did. Normally those notes are utterly even. Anyway, it was ear-catching. On the podium was a guest, Juanjo Mena. And the soloist was James Ehnes (a Canadian, by the way, making this an unusually Canadian chronicle). Ehnes played the first movement well, with an outstanding cadenza. Mena conducted really well: with precision, majesty, and warmth. Those are qualities that the Beethoven concerto sorely needs. The middle movement was nicely judged, by all parties. It was melting without being sweety-sweet. It was delicate but not emasculated. As for the Rondo, it was a little sober, for my taste—without enough rondo-like mirth. But once more, Ehnes shone in the cadenza. The concerto ended with a ritard, which I strongly dislike, but my plea in this respect, as in others, falls on deaf ears.
For a rapturous crowd, Ehnes played an encore. It was the final movement, the Presto, of Bach’s Sonata in G minor. It was very well played, of course. But it seemed to me more of an exercise than music. Was this the violinist’s fault? Or is that the way the Presto sounds, when it’s divorced from the work it’s meant to complete? I lean toward the former. But I’m sure I speak for all or most listeners when I say that Ehnes can play the Presto for me whenever he wants.
After intermission, Maestro Mena conducted a Bruckner symphony—one of the least played, and least loved, of them, the Sixth. Mena knows the score well. In fact, he conducted without one. The first movement was very assured, but I have some complaints: that it was too fast, too loud, and too athletic, without the desired grandeur or inevitability. Still, Mena had a case. And he got from the Philharmonic something amazing in the second movement: a genuine Bruckner sound. To add to the satisfaction, the orchestra’s entrances were unusually precise. The Sixth may never be high in the affections of the world, but it is a Bruckner symphony, and thus great, and Mena and the Philharmonic did it justice. I have one comment to make on the Finale: It was obviously written by a man drunk on Tristan und Isolde. Of course, they all were, and are.
Let’s end at the Metropolitan Opera, where Sondra Radvanovsky, the American soprano, continued her tour through Donizetti’s queens. There are three of them, and this one was the title character of Maria Stuarda, or Mary Stuart. Yet this opera has a second queen, and she is Mary’s persecutor and executioner, Elizabeth. On this evening, as before at the Met, she was sung by Elza van den Heever, the South African soprano. Van den Heever was confident, accurate, and imperious. In fact, her Elizabeth may have been too shrewish and crazed.
Van den Heever is a powerful enough soprano, but, paired with Radvanovsky, she seemed small. Radvanovsky is a Verdian of a Donizettian. It is as though Leonora—either one, from Trovatore or Forza del destino, or Leonore from Fidelio, for that matter—had stepped in as Mary with all the bel canto refinement necessary (or most of it). Radvanovsky was in superb form. Her intonation was secure. She rolled out her carpet of sound, which, though specked with fuzz, or rasps, was beautiful. Notes above the staff were bang-on. And she acted poignantly, not resorting to histrionics.
This was a crackling night at the opera, an example of thrilling bel canto, and part of the credit—much of it—goes to the conductor, Riccardo Frizza. He knew what he was doing. He was compact and stylish. He didn’t drag or rush. He judged rubato unerringly. In short, he allowed the opera to make its impact. And what a marvelous opera it is, filled with interesting, beautiful, and moving music. Donizetti is an underrated composer. The reason, possibly, is that he has been too often poorly performed. Performed with kid gloves, for example. I left the Met on this night impressed with Sondra, Elza, and the rest—but I left especially impressed with the indispensable man of the whole affair, the composer.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 34 Number 7, on page 45
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