On last night at the New York Philharmonic.
A woman in the lobby at David Geffen Hall seemed lost and confused. A security guard said to her, “Are you going to the Kelli O’Hara concert?” She was.
An interesting way to describe the New York Philharmonic concert last night! But O’Hara, the great Broadway star, was indeed the orchestra’s guest soloist.
The concert began, however, with a new work by Philip Glass, arguably the most famous classical composer in the world, if you don’t count John Williams, of movie fame (which you should). I blinked at the calendar: is he really eighty-two years old? Glass, this bad-boy and cool kid of the classical-music scene? He is.
The new work is called King Lear Overture. Overture? Where’s the rest of the opera? Coming, possibly. This is what Glass hints at in a program note. He wrote the incidental music for a recent Broadway production of King Lear. This endeavor inspired the overture—although the overture is separate from the incidental music.
Clear as mud? Or as Glass?
The overture has Philip Glass written all over it. It would remind you of many other Glass works, very much including the Violin Concerto No. 2, a.k.a. The American Four Seasons. The music is unrelenting—in perpetual motion. It is also very American. Jazz-inflected, for example. And for a minute or two, I thought of John Philip Sousa, I swear. March King meets minimalist? I also heard a suggestion of the Wild West, with horse hooves. After about ten minutes, the overture ends with a downward chromatic wallop.
A question: Does the music put you in mind of the Lear story at all? Well, that’s the trick of “program music” (music meant to depict something definite or concrete): the title plants the idea in your head. Yet even knowing the title, I did not think for a second of Lear (and didn’t care).
I look forward to hearing this work again—a Glass hit.
Jaap van Zweden, the Philharmonic’s music director, handled the new piece with his usual concentration and energy. One outstanding player in the orchestra was Christopher Martin, the principal trumpet—who gave us songful beauty.
Speaking of songful beauty: Kelli O’Hara came out to sing the Barber work, Knoxville: Summer of 1915. This is not her first foray into classical music. Indeed, two seasons ago, she was in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Così fan tutte. In my chronicle for the magazine, I wrote,
The great surprise of this production . . . was Kelli O’Hara in the role of Despina. O’Hara is maybe the greatest Broadway star of her age. And here she was in an opera, singing a role that is heavy on recitatives. In fact, Despina does relatively little singing—real singing, apart from recitative. When O’Hara had a chance to sing, I was delighted. Yet she handled her recitatives well too—with accurate pitch, for example. And her Italian was genuine Italian. . . .
Finally, here is the big question: If you had no idea—if you knew nothing about Kelli O’Hara, this great, world-famous star of the musical theater—would you think she was an opera singer? A real, full-time opera singer? I think the answer is yes.
Before O’Hara began Knoxville last night, I made a rule for myself: No fair thinking of Steber, Price (Leontyne, not Margaret), Upshaw, Murphy (Heidi Grant), or any other great singer of this work. Keep your mind wide open for Kelli.
First, the negative. She was a little slight-voiced for this work, and the orchestra sometimes covered her (not her fault). She sang some straight tones—vibrato-less ones—that were inapt. She was a bit monochromatic. Knoxville calls for different colors. She did some scooping, i.e., some sliding into notes from below (not that this is unheard of from classical singers—see the great Upshaw). And I could not really understand the words.
But, but, but: O’Hara was sincere, natural, and very American—suited to the work. I enjoyed her in it. On to “Ain’t it a pretty night?” I say! (This is the aria from Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, and it belongs in a category with Knoxville.)
After intermission, Van Zweden conducted the Philharmonic in Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet—Suite No. 1 and Suite No. 2 from that ballet. As expected, Van Zweden was incredibly disciplined. Bracing. Intense. Even Toscanini or Solti would have said to him, “Dude, relax!” I hope he never does. This was conducting, and playing, on a knife’s edge. The score had all the excitement, pomp, mirth, and pathos it needs. One thing was lacking, I thought: a certain lushness.
According to legend, George Szell once said to his orchestra (the Cleveland): “Like the Philadelphia Orchestra!” In other words, more cream, more lushness.
Romeo and Juliet is, in addition to a ballet, a kind of concerto for orchestra. Many principals have a chance to shine. I could name ten from last night, but will name just one: Robert Langevin, the flute. Prokofiev would have said, “Yes, that’s what I want.” I will sneak in a mention, too, of the low brass in “The Death of Tybalt”—loud, overwhelming, without blaring.
Under Jaap van Zweden, the New York Philharmonic is a virtuosic machine, and a highly musical one. The applause after Romeo was brief and somewhat lackluster. The performance deserved an ovation into the night—followed by an encore, a repeat of, maybe, “The Death of Tybalt.” Or, switching gears but sticking with the same composer, the March from The Love for Three Oranges? The Amoroso from Cinderella?
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