At the New York Philharmonic, a new piano concerto by Timo Andres was performed. Andres is an American, born in 1985, and he is a pianist as well as a composer. He did not play his own concerto, however—Jonathan Biss did.
In our program notes, Andres was quoted as having said this to the press: “Being a composer is no good on its own. You need this sort of other person or other skill to be able to give life to the music. I feel like the separation of those things is just this really weird disconnect that exists in the classical-music world. But I feel as of late we’re sort of seeing that reversing. A lot more of my peers and people of my generation are doing both.”
I thought of Ned Rorem, a senior American composer, whom I interviewed about fifteen years ago, around the time of his eightieth birthday. In the eyes of the general public, he said, “the performer is more important than the composer,” and “the performer almost always performs music of the past.” The split between performer and composer occurred in the early twentieth century. Before that, they tended to be one. Think of Liszt, Chopin, Paganini, Rachmaninoff, and many others. “Then the managers came in,” said Rorem, “and money got involved, and now the general public has no notion of what it is we composers do.” Rorem uttered a memorable lamentation: “We’re a despised minority. Actually, we’re not even that, because we don’t even exist, and to be despised, you have to exist.”
The split between performer and composer occurred in the early twentieth century.
He is perhaps cheered by Timo Andres and other performing composers (or composing performers).
Andres has now written three concertos for piano and chamber orchestra, the latest of which was heard at the Philharmonic. It has a title: The Blind Banister. This is a quotation from the late Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, in his “Schubertiana” (a poem about music, as you might gather). The poet refers to a “blind banister that finds its way in the darkness.” Andres based his concerto—if “based” is the word—on a piano concerto by Beethoven: that in B flat. In the composer’s words, “I started writing my own cadenza to Beethoven’s concerto, and ended up devouring it from the inside out.”
Andres can give you a precise, detailed analysis of his concerto—the inside story, so to speak. I will tell you a bit of what I heard, which may be thought of as the “outside story.”
The first of the three movements is headed “Sliding Scale.” It’s true to its name. That scale slides and slides. Andres is working a motive, or an idea. I thought of the piano stylings of Keith Jarrett or Chick Corea. The writing is spare and unvirtuosic. Vibes emit from the orchestra, which is pleasant. The music turns New Agey or psychedelic. Then it gets aggressive. I must say, I found the recurring downwardness—that sliding scale—wearisome.
As is so common today, the three movements are played without interruption. I’m afraid I’m not exactly sure when one ended and the next began. The second movement is headed “Ringing Weights—Cadenza” and the third “Coda. Teneramente.” In the second movement (I believe), there is clarity and merriment. And the cadenza is markedly improvisatory, as cadenzas should be. The final movement struck me as a kind of cooldown. And the word Teneramente (Tenderly) is right—although the work ends with a flash, a flourish.
I have a feeling that the concerto is more sensible and enjoyable in its composer’s head than it can be to a listener, an outsider. But what is clear is the composer’s love of music, and talent for it.
After intermission, Jonathan Biss and the Philharmonic, conducted by Courtney Lewis, a Brit, performed that Beethoven concerto: the one in B flat. By rights, it should have come first, I think, as the earlier piece. And then one should have heard the new work that takes off from it. But probably, orchestra planners worried that some portion of the audience would not return after intermission for a new work.
At the 92nd Street Y, Alisa Weilerstein played the Bach Cello Suites. All of them (all six of them). Why? Because they’re there, probably. I doubt that Bach ever intended the suites to be played together, one after another. But the music world has long been in the grip of a completeness craze—that’s why pianists play the four Chopin Ballades together, for example. You know what I think would be neat? A cello recital that began with one Bach suite and ended with another. I have never seen such programming.
But a cellist may feel the need to prove his manhood by playing the six suites, all in a row. Besides which, it’s kind of fun. In any event, if you wanted to hear someone perform this feat—this stunt?—you could do worse, much worse, than to hear Alisa Weilerstein.
She was born in 1982, and so was Han-Na Chang. In the early and mid 2000s, I often said (ignoring the language cops), Isn’t it strange and wondrous that two of the best instrumentalists in all the world are girl cellists? Chang gave up the cello, essentially. She now conducts. But Weilerstein is still at her instrument, to the gratification of her fans.
At the 92nd Street Y, her recital was divided in twos—i.e., two suites, then intermission; two suites, then intermission; two suites, then go home. And the suites were played in order, 1 through 6. About the playing of the first two suites—that in G major and that in D minor—I will make some general remarks.
You have to make a thousand decisions when playing this music, not all of them conscious. There is the question of sound: rich, rounded, and baritonal? Thinner and purer? A growl? How much growl? What about tempos? What about rubato (license with time)? I could quibble with some of Weilerstein’s decisions in the first two suites—I thought she got a little cute in some of the dances, overemphasizing their rhythms—but she was sovereign: sovereign in mind, hands, and soul. I thought very little about technique, taking it for granted. I did think of this: Weilerstein was playing in tune. That does not seem so important until someone plays out of tune. Also, she was unafraid in this music. She was not treating the suites as though they were precious historical objects, but rather letting them have their proper life.
Here is a minor matter: Weilerstein applied a sensible amount of space between movements. I might go so far as to say that the spaces are part of the music. They are certainly part of a performance’s effect.
And here is a confession: I have never much liked the Suite No. 2, in D minor. Let me rephrase that: I have loved it less than its companions. And Weilerstein gave me a new appreciation of it, particularly the Sarabande, which, in her hands, was not so much a dance as a beautiful, slow song.
Earlier in the week, I had interviewed George Walker, an American composer born in 1922. He said that he twice had the opportunity to hear Feuermann (Emanuel Feuermann, the great cellist who died in 1942 at thirty-nine). After the first two suites at the Y, I thought I was quite lucky to be hearing Weilerstein.
Let me pause for a sartorial note, which will serve the reporting function of a review. The cellist was dressed in rocker-like fashion, in an orange top with black-leather pants. A lady in the front row said, “I love her shoes.”
The third suite—the one in C major—is the favorite of many people. Weilerstein did many good things in it, needless to say. But some passages were slightly mannered. And some movements were cleaner than others. In the next suite (E flat), she had trouble. The final movement, the Gigue, was a wreck. Weilerstein seemed to be suffering from some hand-cramping. Was the marathon beginning to be too much? Was the mountain becoming arduous to scale? I was worried about the final third of the recital, the last two suites.
The first of them—No. 5 in C minor—was reassuring. Weilerstein seemed to have made a recovery, playing the suite, all of it, with composure. In the final suite—the monumental D-major—she endured some struggle. Intonation went awry. I had the impression that the cellist was sort of getting through it, with the finish line in sight.
The music world has long been in the grip of a completeness craze.
I left the hall with a little sadness, and even a touch of disgust, wondering why cellists feel they have to pull this stunt: the six Bach suites in one sitting. It is so unnecessary. And if Weilerstein did it again, would I go? Oh, sure.
The music world loves an anniversary—it’s practically the organizing principle of the business. (I have often spoken of “anniversaryitis,” sometimes petulantly.) Music also loves a gala, and that is particularly true of the opera world. The Metropolitan Opera staged a gala in honor of its fifty years at Lincoln Center. The inaugural season—1966–67—opened with a new opera, Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra, with Leontyne Price singing Cleopatra. At the beginning of the 1991–92 season, the Met staged a twenty-fifth–anniversary gala. In 1983, there was a splendid gala, marking the centennial of the company. And I loved a gala in 1996: honoring twenty-five years of the music director, James Levine (who is now the music director emeritus).
This most recent gala was a very interesting and rewarding five hours of music (including intermission). Some of the singing, playing, and conducting was mediocre: ill prepared, uninspired. I thought of the phrase “good enough for government work.” There could be a companion phrase, “good enough for gala work.” But some of the singing, playing, and conducting rose to great heights.
The Met offered a cavalcade of stars, and a mix of ages. Some of the singers were veteran, such as Plácido Domingo. Some of them were young, such as Pretty Yende (a South African soprano). Some of them were in their golden prime, such as Vittorio Grigolo (the Italian tenor). Also, there was a mix of music: arias, duets, and ensembles from various genres. I must not neglect the production—the sets, costumes, etc. It was all overseen by Julian Crouch, a British director, and it was superb: relatively simple but not spare, and consistently imaginative and tasteful.
Throughout the evening, there were videos—talking heads and the like—touching on aspects of Lincoln Center history. There was President Eisenhower, speaking at the groundbreaking ceremony in 1959, utterly appropriate and charismatic. I grinned when he, grinningly, grasped the hand of Risë Stevens, the mezzo-soprano.
The music world loves an anniversary—it’s practically the organizing principle of the business.
The lion’s share of the conducting at the gala was done by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who is to become the music director in 2020. Some of his conducting was terrible. I’m thinking of “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” from Porgy and Bess, which was killed—destroyed—by ritards and hesitations. It was an unidiomatic, appalling ordeal. Superb, however, was the Entrance of the Guests music from Tannhäuser. In this, the capo-to-be demonstrated real authority.
A blow-by-blow account of the gala would take many pages, so I will give you some tastes—highlights, rather than lowlights or medium lights.
It was a good night for tenors. In a pair of arias, Grigolo was golden of voice, even if some of his interpreting was suspect. Matthew Polenzani sang the duet from Les Troyens—“Nuit d’ivresse”—with Susan Graham, the mezzo-soprano. In my experience, tenors are disappointing in this duet: either they can handle the sweet parts and not the strong, or vice versa. Polenzani handled both. Joseph Calleja sang “Che gelida manina” from La bohème, splendidly. He was a little monochromatic in it—unvaried—but what a chrome, so to speak.
A bass, René Pape, gave his famous portrayal of Boris (Godunov) (the Mad Scene). Another bass, James Morris, was compelling as the Grand Inquisitor (from Don Carlo). A baritone, Mariusz Kwiecie?, was smart and suave as Malatesta (Don Pasquale). And Željko Lu?i? was very good—gripping, actually—as Iago. I have heard him many times over the years and have usually found him adequate. Not on this night: he was fantastic.
So was Joyce DiDonato, the mezzo-soprano, who sang arias from Werther and Semiramide. In the former, she was accompanied, hauntingly, by a saxophone, played by Lino Gomez. Another mezzo, El?na Garan?a, sang “Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix,” from Samson and Delilah. She sang it smokily and satisfyingly. And she gave me a memory.
At the 1983 gala, Marilyn Horne sang this aria. Seated behind her, and the other performers, were many retired stars of the Met, including Risë Stevens—who had been a famous Delilah. After she sang the aria, Horne went over and embraced her.
At the recent gala, a young mezzo, Isabel Leonard, and a young tenor, Ben Bliss, sang music from a fairly new opera, The Tempest, by Thomas Adès. Their singing was unimpeachable: beautiful, accurate, and feeling. It was probably the freshest, and possibly the most correct, singing of the night. Now I would like to walk down Memory Lane once more.
In the 1999–2000 season, the Met staged Julius Caesar, by Handel. Act I ends with a masterly E-minor duet, “Son nata a lagrimar.” Singing it were Stephanie Blythe, mezzo-soprano, and David Daniels, countertenor. In the pit was John Nelson. Some time later—several years?—I saw Nelson on an airplane. Referring to the duet, I said, “Maestro, I think that was the most electric moment I ever experienced in a theater.” He said, “Me too.”
Blythe and Daniels were back for this duet in the gala. Was it electric? No, but it was fine, just fine.
Conducting the final portion of the gala was James Levine. He led, among other things, music from Verdi’s Lombardi, in which Angela Meade and Michael Fabiano shone. She is a soprano, he a tenor. She sang hugely, and beautifully, and movingly. Then there was Anna Netrebko, who sang from Macbeth and Madama Butterfly. If ever there was an opera animal, it is Donna Anna (Netrebko) . . .
Renée Fleming was, of course, featured. And she proved eminently featurable. She sang the Countess’s aria, “Porgi, amor,” from The Marriage of Figaro. She made her career on this role, and other Mozart roles. In an interview years ago, she told me that when she gave Mozart up, she did so with great relief: because he is so hard, so demanding, to sing. And here she was again, in “Porgi, amor.” I myself don’t care for the approach of notes from below. But Renée Fleming knows what she is doing—and she sang the aria with Flemingesque control, intelligence, and beauty.
Then she sang music from Thaïs, with an assist from Plácido Domingo. Levine was in the pit. These three have performed together many, many times over many, many years. Would this be the last?
My favorite moment of the evening came on one of those videos: when Leontyne Price spoke about her opening night as Cleopatra. She has recently turned ninety. And she sang the opening lines from Cleopatra’s aria “Give me my robe, put on my crown.” She sang them well, too—in her traditional, instantly recognizable, inimitable fashion. Then she stopped, saying, “I can’t remember the words.” I wish I had been there to feed them to her: “I have immortal longings in me.”
Actually, the best moment of the evening came when the general manager, Peter Gelb, announced a surprise: an appearance by Dmitri Hvorostovsky, the great Russian baritone. He has been fighting a brain tumor. But there he was, bravely singing Rigoletto’s aria “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata.” The pathos packed into this moment was extreme.
We are lucky to have lived in the time of Fleming.
Back to Renée Fleming—who, at the Met, sang her last Marschallins. (The Marschallin is a soprano role in Strauss’s Rosenkavalier, and has long been one of Fleming’s calling cards.) Were they her last appearances at the Met, and indeed in opera? From now on, is it nothing but concerts and assorted projects, until retirement? This is unclear.
Strauss was in love with the soprano voice, and he certainly would have loved Renée Fleming. In her last Marschallins, she showed that there is plenty of voice left: high, low, and in between. Fleming sang with economy and wisdom. She sang “within herself,” to borrow a phrase from sports. The Marschallin is a touching role, and Fleming was touching in it. It is also an autumnal role, and this is apparently an autumnal time in the diva’s career. The Marschallin ends her part in the opera with a resigned sigh: “Ja, ja.” This took on extra poignancy when Renée sang it.
She is one of the greatest singers we have ever known. The aforementioned composer George Walker heard not only Feuermann but Rachmaninoff and a slew of other greats. He was lucky. But we are lucky to have lived in the time of Fleming (as he has too, come to think of it).
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 10, on page 58
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