Handel’s Messiah is not just for Christmas—it’s for Easter too (just kidding). Messiah, of course, is a masterpiece for all seasons, and for all persons, really. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this greatly familiar and loved work is underrated. Few truly appreciate how good it is. Handel thought it a bolt from the blue (to put it in secular terms), and it’s hard to argue with him. Messiah is hackneyed, you might complain. But I always say—about all such pieces—“It’s not its fault that it’s hackneyed.” There is no cause to penalize a piece for the attachment of others to it, and the determination of the world’s musicians, high and low, to play it.

The New York Philharmonic duly provided Handel’s oratorio at Christmas. The performances took place, not in Avery Fisher Hall, but at the Riverside Church, where William Sloan Coffin used to celebrate the Viet Cong and other Christly causes. Certainly the Philharmonic offered an attractive Messiah lineup. Leading the performances was Sir Neville Marriner, than whom it is hard to do better in this kind of thing (although the orchestra’s principal guest conductor, Sir Colin Davis, is also a superb Messiah man). The soloists included David Daniels, the countertenor—how often do you hear one of those in this work?—and Elizabeth Futral, the so- prano.

But the soloist I was most looking forward to hearing was Richard Croft, the tenor, making his New York Philharmonic debut. His last name may be familiar to you: Richard is brother to Dwayne Croft, the baritone frequently heard at the Metropolitan Opera. Richard first came to my attention in a Washington, D.C., production of Handel’s opera Semele. He gave the creamiest, silkiest, smoothest “Where’er you walk” I had ever heard—or have heard since.

It is the tenor, of course, who has the first big aria in Messiah, and the first aria at all. It is “Comfort ye” (followed by the quicker “Ev’ry valley shall be exalted”). Croft’s first phrase was—there is no other way to describe it—comforting. As he continued, he was just as I had remembered him: sensitive, accurate, and smooth almost beyond belief. He employed rather more rubato (or rhythmic and interpretive license) than I would have liked in this aria, but he gave a Class A rendition. And that, unfortunately, was the highlight of the night—unfortunately, because the oratorio had barely begun.

I am reminded of a story a friend and fellow music critic likes to tell: When he was about five years old, his uncle took him to a performance of The Flying Dutchman, at the old Met. After the overture—which would be so impressive to a child, and others—he turned to the boy and said, “It’s all downhill from here.”

Sir Neville was not as his most inspired. You could have been forgiven for thinking that he was punching a clock, or collecting a paycheck. Not only could he have done better, his forces—which included the Westminster Symphonic Choir, the New York Philharmonic’s regular partner—could also have been more responsive to him. There was little joy or feeling in such choruses as “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion” and “For unto us a child is born.” And technically, the performance, overall, was no prize either. “And he shall purify” was out of sync, and “All we like sheep” was so much choral mush.

It would be wrong to demand that all of these performers—conductor, soloists, orchestra members, chorus members—believe what they are singing (or playing). But they could at least summon up a little musical life.

On the night I attended, David Daniels had called in sick, so the contralto, Anna Larsson, took the bits that had been assigned to him. Sadly, her sound was fuzzy, muffled, and diffuse. Often she could not be heard clearly, especially on her lower notes. Sometimes she sang as though being smothered by a pillow. We can perhaps shift some of the blame to the hall, or rather, church. But neither did Larsson give her arias much character or lift.

The soprano and the bass were better, the former being Elizabeth Futral—whom I have described as a heroic coloratura—and the latter being Nathan Berg. Futral is clean, authoritative, and smart, and her “Rejoice greatly” had some Handelian flair. Berg is a substantial singer, who actually seemed to have thought about the music before him. When he delivered “For, behold, darkness shall cover the earth,” the words actually had meaning.

But meaningful moments were scarce on this evening. I cannot help feeling that Neville Marriner was disappointed, too, for he is a great man of music, whose standards have been high throughout his astonishingly prolific career. He undoubtedly knows failure—or, in this case, near failure—when he hears it. Even when he is presiding over it.

New Year’s Eve? I’m glad you asked. The Philharmonic put on an all-Gershwin concert, a merry, rousing affair. Under its former director, Kurt Masur, the orchestra had the habit of performing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. But Lorin Maazel is at the helm now, and he needed his own New Year’s Eve shtick. Besides which, Maazel had begun his tenure—in September—with the playing of the Ninth, a big statement, always. Moreover, he has been associated with Gershwin throughout his career. It was not until 1975, believe it or not, that Porgy and Bess was recorded complete. And the man who did it was Lorin Maazel.

He opened his concert with the Cuban Overture, which was originally titled just plain Rumba. This is one of the outstanding “Hispanic” pieces in the American repertory, a cousin of El salón México by Copland and even of stretches of Bernstein’s West Side Story. Maazel brought to this work his customary vim. This was, simply, an infectious and bracing performance—its rhythms idiomatic, its phrasing beautiful. It seemed clear that, on this night, the Philharmonic was the swingingest band in America (with apologies to Guy Lombardo, or his successors).

Then came An American in Paris, Gershwin’s ingenious tone poem (or, as he himself dubbed it, “rhapsodic ballet”). Maazel’s account was extremely tightly controlled, but it was not controlled unwisely. The slinky section was very slinky, the big, gorgeous, blooming section was big, gorgeous, and blooming—everything was just right. And perhaps best of all, Maazel gives no hint that he feels himself slumming when conducting this music. He gives it his all, as he would in, say, a Mahler symphony. This might seem axiomatic, not even worth mentioning: but it is not true, sorry to say, of all conductors. Not by a long shot.

After intermission, the Philharmonic presented about 45 minutes of Porgy and Bess. These were excerpts, naturally, nicely strung together. Participating were three soloists: Indra Thomas, a soprano; Willard White, the well-known bass-baritone from Jamaica; and Lawrence Brownlee, a tenor (indeed, a tenore di grazia, fit for any number of nimble Donizetti roles). Serving as the chorus was the Ebony Ecumenical Ensemble, a local group. Our “mini-opera” had its ups and downs: but I will mention, specifically, only an up. The chorus “Oh, I Can’t Sit Down” was so exuberant and delightsome, one found it hard, indeed, to stay seated.

After Sportin’ Life had signaled that there was “a boat dat’s leavin’,” Maazel and his band offered two encores: The Stars and Stripes Forever, high-steppin’, and, inevitably, “Auld Lang Syne,” sung contentedly by the audience. About the Sousa march, I like to recall what is, for me, the most endearing thing Leonard Bernstein ever said. He said, “I’d give five years of my life to have written that.” Smart man (in that instance). But how many years would one give for Porgy and Bess?

In the weeks that followed, the Philharmonic offered several interesting programs, including one that featured the pianist Leif Ove Andsnes. This is, as you might have gathered, one of the most ballyhooed pianists on the scene today. I have not joined in this ballyhooing—having heard some dubious performances—but, in his outing with Lorin Maazel’s orchestra, Andsnes earned his kudos.

As a Norwegian, Andsnes might be expected to play the Grieg Concerto, and that is indeed what he presented with the Philharmonic. This is, of course, an easy piece to make ridiculous—all you have to do is play it ridiculously. But if you treat it with dignity and seriousness, the true excellence of the piece will emerge. That is exactly what happened under Mr. Andsnes’s hands. He brought an almost Classical discipline to the piece, taming its excesses, limiting—even removing—all bombast, and making each section cohere. From beginning to end, the pianist was resolutely unsentimental. I do not say that his reading was without beauty—it had plenty. But it had an iron that made the Griegian beauty all the more beautiful, and palatable. If Andsnes played like this consistently, I, with everyone else, would ballyhoo away.

The month of January also brought a Philharmonic debut: that of Julia Fischer, a nineteen-year-old violinist from Germany. Her concerto was the Sibelius, and she handled it creditably. Miss Fischer is a poised and mature young lady. She has a fine technique, and confidence to spare. Her sound is fairly undistinguished, but it is serviceable. And she played the Sibelius rather neutrally. That is, she injected no special character, gave the work no particular impulse. Her performance was correct without being involving or powerful. One might have asked for more grit, more blood, more heart—but at least Miss Fischer refrained from emoting. And, obviously, she has the room to grow.

Before leaving the subject of the New York Philharmonic, I might make a general comment or two about Lorin Maazel, who has passed the halfway mark in his opening season. This is a conductor of whom I have long been critical, for relatively common reasons. (These might be subsumed under the single word “micromanagement.”) But his virtues are shiningly apparent at Avery Fisher Hall. His recent readings of such works as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, and Stravinsky’s Petrushka confirm a few things: His performances tend to be taut and polished, and they are usually quite brisk. Maazel’s refusal to allow music to drag or sag is something to applaud. Conductors are notorious for slowing down as they grow old—that is, for indulging in slow tempos, which try to pass, in certain cases, for profundity. But Maazel will have none of it. He insists that the music not merely trot but breathe. This makes for a much more pleasurable experience night after night. Such works as the Fifth may be harmed by overfamiliarity; but they are positively killed by an unwanted slowness.

And Maazel has a related virtue: an avoidance of the routine; an immunity to clock-punching. He seems wired—charged up—every time he steps onto the podium. Whether we approve of his conducting or not, we can see that he is engaged and interested and doing (we may presume) his utmost. He may tire at some point—but that prospect now seems happily dim.

I will move on to opera shortly, but I would like to submit one more word on a matter orchestral: Leon Botstein repeatedly does interesting things with the American Symphony Orchestra, of which he is director. Botstein, of course, is one of New York’s great polymaths, the president of Bard College and a wide-ranging scholar, as well as a musician. His specialty seems to be the programming of neglected works that are well worth hearing. It is for this reason that I have described him, in the past, as “an invaluable musical citizen.”

A recent concert of the ASO was devoted to two works of Bruckner: the Mass No. 3 in F minor and the Symphony No. 1. This was a rare chance to hear either of these pieces. The mass has a following of admirers, those who think that it belongs to the pantheon of such choral works. These people have a point. In this mass, one hears some Bach, and some Beethoven—but one hears, primarily, the distinctive Brucknerian voice. If I were asked to describe this work in a single sentence, I’d say, “Imagine that the composer of the Bruckner symphonies had written a mass.” Voilà.

As for the Symphony No. 1, it finds Bruckner at the very beginning of his glorious symphonic career, just as the designation suggests. We tend to start listening to the Bruckner symphonies with the Third. (We tend to do the same with the Beethoven symphonies, for that matter.) But the First should not be shoved into a corner. It is authentic Bruckner, and we should care that the composer himself—who was famously self-critical—was very fond of this opus.

Leon Botstein led both the mass and the symphony competently, but the quality of the performances mattered less than the opportunity merely to hear these works. A valuable musical citizen, yes.

In recent weeks, the Metropolitan Opera has had many successes, or partial successes: an Elektra with Deborah Voigt even more radiant than usual; a Carmen with the beguiling Denyce Graves; a Don Giovanni with the suave Russian Dmitri Hvorostovsky; and a typically frothy and grin-making Die Fledermaus—just in time for New Year’s Eve. But the most extraordinary production was that of Poulenc’s great opera, Les Dialogues des Carmélites.

For several months now, I have been quipping that 2002–03 is a bad season for the makers of the French Revolution—certainly at the Met. Early on, the company staged Andrea Chénier, Giordano’s opera of Revolutionary betrayal and cruelty. And then came Les Dialogues. Liberty, equality, and fraternity, my derrière.

Dialogues, of course, concerns the Carmelite nuns at Compiègne, murdered by guillotine in July 1794. Part of the power of this opera lies in the fact that it is based on a true story. The roles in Dialogues are difficult to sing. There are not many tunes here. Instead, the opera is full of recitative-like lines, the music hewing closely to the text (and vice versa). It is a “through opera” through and through, if you’ll forgive me. Unfortunately, one seldom hears a truly correct and penetrating performance of Les Dialogues. It requires a slew of exceptional singers and a smart, sensitive conductor.

I happened to see two of the Met’s performances, the first with the “second” cast and the second with the “first.” The standout in that first performance was Emily Pulley, a Texan, taking the role of Blanche de la Force (who will become Blanche of the Agony of Christ). She is a winning soprano, who filled the house with light whenever she opened her mouth. She had color, flexibility, and beauty. This woman has obviously been well trained, her voice floating on a solid platform of breath. In all, she simply put on a clinic of lyrical singing, and, as a bonus, she was utterly believable as Blanche.

In the pit for the first performance—as he would be for the second one—was James Conlon. He is a New Yorker who has had something of a French career; he is now principal conductor of the Paris Opera. Conlon did not do Poulenc’s score justice on that first night. His conducting was more dutiful and workaday than enchanting or gripping. Sure, the run-up to the guillotine had some power, but that is practically inevitable. Technically, the orchestra was a shambles—or as close to a shambles as the Met players ever get.

“What a difference a day makes,” as the old song goes. For this second performance—which was the last of the run, on a Saturday afternoon, broadcast to the world over radio—Conlon seemed transformed. It was a question of night and day. The conductor was firing on all cylinders, interpretively—alert, acute, nuanced, commanding—and the orchestra was firing along with him. This reinforces the old lesson that a musician should not be judged on one performance; and that “the human factor,” as I believe Graham Greene put it, must always be considered. One simply gets out of bed differently.

The “first” cast was as impressive a one as the Met is likely to field this season. It, indeed, met the requirement of a slew of exceptional singers. Taking the part of Blanche was another top-notch American soprano, Patricia Racette. She has a lovely, liquid, adaptable voice, and oodles of technique. In addition, every word she sang seemed freighted with meaning, each thought and musical phrase relating to the next, and to the one before it.

In the crucial and formidable role of the First Prioress was Felicity Palmer. She delivered nothing less than a tour de force. Where to begin? With this, perhaps: She is a composed, incisive, and searing singer. She is able to act with her voice, and with the more usual resources too. The initial exchange between her and Racette—between the Prioress and Blanche—was startlingly lifelike. What I mean by that is that it was true to life, outside an opera, somehow. As the first act continued, Palmer sang with great dignity and wisdom. Her death scene was a model of how to carry out these difficult pages: It was both musical and harrowing. It is extremely hard to strike a balance, between the histrionic and the unreasonably subdued. Felicity Palmer sensed exactly what to do.

Singing Constance was the soprano Heidi Grant Murphy. Regular readers may recall that I hailed her in these pages for a recital she gave several seasons ago. That remains one of the most accomplished vocal recitals in memory. Murphy is one of the finest light, high sopranos now working. In Les Dialogues, her singing was, as usual, gleaming, often gossamer, and easy. She conveyed the essence of her character, Constance, who is sincere and ebullient and also slightly worldly.

Alongside these women were Stephanie Blythe, as Mother Marie, and Christine Goerke, as the Second Prioress. Blythe is possessed of a huge voice, whose power is almost disturbing. She usually knows what to do with it. And Christine Goerke contributed assured and intelligent singing, not least in her big aria—the one big aria in the opera—“Mes filles, voilà que s’achève.” I should acknowledge, too, one of the few men on stage: the tenor Matthew Polenzani. He is sweet-voiced and free, consistently pleasant to listen to. James Levine is paying him the high honor of accompanying him in his Carnegie Hall recital debut next season.

And so we are faced with Francis Poulenc’s achievement, Les Dialogues des Carmélites. This achievement is of course musical and dramatic. But it is also one of piety and solidarity with a group of women murdered in cold blood by a totalitarian movement and regime that presaged the even more large-scale violence of the worst century of all: the twentieth. A bad season for the boys of ’89 indeed. Good.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 21 Number 6, on page 54
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