Glenn Dicterow, the concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic, is celebrating his twenty-fifth anniversary: He joined the Philharmonic in 1980. He performs as soloist with his orchestra at least once a season, making him, surely, the most frequent violin soloist with that orchestra. He appears more than Perlman, more than Zukerman, more than Mutter. Whether this is a contractual matter, we are free to speculate.
His anniversary was marked with a subscription concert featuring Aaron Jay Kernis’s Lament and Prayer. The American composer—now forty-five—wrote this piece in 1995, on a commission for the violinist Pamela Frank by the Minnesota Orchestra. It was an interesting choice for the Dicterow anniversary: not the Beethoven Concerto, or the Brahms, or the Tchaikovsky, but this Kernis work. It was a good choice, too.
First, however, the Philharmonic and its music director, Lorin Maazel, had some other business to take care of: They opened the concert with Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande Suite, Op. 80. P&M was in the New York air, as across Lincoln Center’s plaza, the Met was about to do Debussy’s opera. I can’t say that Schoenberg’s symphonic poem was programmed in this period, but we have had that rather a lot lately, in New York. Maeterlinck’s play—written in 1892—has legs, whether we see it or not. It lives in music.
Fauré’s suite was co-orchestrated by Charles Koechlin, composer of some lasting songs (e.g., “Si tu le veux”). It is a lovely and moving work, and Maazel was lovely and moving in it. He is underrated, really, as a French conductor, and some of his best performances in New York have been in that repertory: I think of a Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, for example.
Maazel wasted no time getting into the drama—Maeterlinck’s, Fauré’s. He immediately placed the listener in another realm. But the playing he drew from the orchestra was not wispy or falsely dreamy. It had a welcome solidity about it. The first movement—the Prelude—built compellingly. The entire orchestra was precise and responsive, and Carter Brey, particularly, contributed a smashing cello solo. In the middle of this movement, a piece of paper—probably a ticket—fluttered down near the stage from a high balcony. That lent a feeling of French ethereality (despite Maazel’s solidity).
The second movement—that Spinning Song—was natural, almost nonchalant, and beautifully unmannered. (Remember that Maazel has been knocked—including by me—for being mannered.) In the Sicilienne, Maazel reminded us that he is one of the great non-dawdlers of all time, and this little piece benefited greatly from that non-dawdling. (Neither was it hurried.) The final movement—the Death of Melisande —was poignant in its understatement. It could not have been poignant if Maazel had tried, consciously, for poignancy. He led with a very steady pulse, exuding nobility.
At the end of the movement—and the suite—he imparted a sense of continuity, then at once dismounted the podium, to let the audience react. I could not help thinking of Christoph Eschenbach, the music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, who had recently been in town (Carnegie Hall). At the end of certain pieces, he holds his hands in the air for a very, very long time, to ward off applause. I have always considered this a cheap stunt: If the audience is so transported as to be unable to applaud, they won’t. The conductor should not create an artificial atmosphere, with those ostentatiously suspended hands.
Take another conductor, James Levine: In this same period, he led the Met Orchestra in Mahler’s Lied von der Erde (also in Carnegie Hall). At its close—when “Der Abschied” was finished—no one could move, no one could clap, people could hardly breathe. Levine didn’t have his hands in the air; he just sat there (he does not stand up when he conducts anymore). No trickery for conductors such as Levine, and Maazel (not that the latter, in particular, is averse to a little showmanship—but it is a purer, musical showmanship, if you will).
At any rate, Maazel gave us a wonderful Pelléas et Mélisande Suite, and then it was time for Dicterow, and the Kernis. This composer is sometimes called a “neo-Romantic,” and whether the label is just or not, he is not under the spell of the Modernists, nor is he intimidated by them. That alone is remarkable. Kernis has written an explanatory note concerning Lament and Prayer. It reads, in part, “Lament and Prayer marks the end of a series … of works motivated by my reaction to war and suffering, to genocide, especially in terms of the Holocaust … ” This piece occasionally—just occasionally—succumbs to treacle, but it is a touching, sometimes powerful, piece, and Glenn Dicterow did it full justice.
Like any other Philharmonic-goer, I have heard Dicterow play many, many times, and sometimes he is excellent, sometimes he is just okay. (Of how many of us is this not true?) I had never heard him play so well as in the Kernis. He was extremely well prepared, and that preparation seemed to include a mental readiness. I have not heard Pamela Frank play this work, but I can’t imagine its having a better advocate than Dicterow. His sound was lean and rich at the same time, and he gave the music an insistence, without emoting. He was virtuosic—very accurate—but never showy.
The tone he employed when he got to the Prayer section is hard to describe: pure and sad; tinged with hopefulness—that is the best I can do. In any case, it was the right tone. As he continued this prayer, he was by turns earthy and transcendent, as required. I have said that I can’t imagine a more persuasive advocate than Dicterow—but I would still relish the opportunity to hear Itzhak Perlman in Lament and Prayer. Lorin Maazel, I should add, made a splendid collaborator.
The second half of the concert was given over to the first symphony of a great symphonist, Jean Sibelius. This is the Symphony in E minor, Op. 39, and it is a challenge to conduct: Many conductors leave it episodic, slightly confusing. Lorin Maazel, however—to borrow language from the 2000 presidential campaign—is a uniter, not a divider. He knows how to unite big, sprawling, unruly works, and he made the Sibelius as cohesive as can be.
In the first movement, he applied a Beethoven-like strength, which this music bore very well. And sonically, I can’t remember hearing the Philharmonic more impressive. Sound, as you know, is not a Philharmonic specialty. It might have been on this occasion. Sibelius’s second movement was stylish and forward-moving. Fortissimos were tremendous, but never harsh. The third movement—the Scherzo—had clarity, bite, and bounce. At one point, the orchestra scrambled to stay together, and did not quite succeed, but they ended smartly. And in the Finale, Maazel put on a clinic of phrasing—breathing—getting as much life out of the score as possible.
I have sat through many a performance of the Sibelius First—we all have; I have heard many a recording—we all have. I have never heard better.
Which, I see, is a theme of my review here. It was a concert that good.
The chief anniversary boys in 2005 seem to be two—and both are English: Thomas Tallis (born—probably—in 1505) and Sir Michael Tippett (1905–1998). We will be hearing a lot of them before New Year’s Day, and have already, really.
Tallis was the first of the great triumvirate of English composers, which also includes his student William Byrd and Henry Purcell (born about 150 years after Tallis). From the death of Purcell, English music was strangely quiet, until about 1900, when Elgar et al. got going. But what a beginning! Tallis is one of the fathers of music: a master of craft, a recipient of much inspiration. Personally and professionally, he was what today we would call a survivor. He worked under Henry VIII, Edward VI, “Bloody Mary,” and Elizabeth I, shifting as necessary—and, boy, was it necessary— without losing his essential self.
The composer was celebrated with a concert in the rotunda of Columbia University’s Low Library, given by the Vox Vocal Ensemble. This is a group founded by its conductor, George Steel, in 1992, for the purpose of performing sixteenth-century music and twentieth-century music. (The other centuries can fend for themselves.) The group’s concert reflected the totality of Tallis’s career, gliding between Latin and English, for example.
Vox consists of about twenty members, including women (blessedly). On this evening, they were modest, lovely, balanced, and clean. They were also on pitch, which is gratifying in this exposed music—more than gratifying, necessary. To their credit, they were not too retiring, not too precious. The music had flesh, as well as angel’s wings. The singers were not perfect, technically, but their imperfections were slight. In all, they made the most of Tallis’s music, which is achingly beautiful—almost Romantic—in spots, and then stately, or austere, or elegant, or even (glancingly) dissonant. Tallis’s writing usually gives you the impression that all is well with heaven and earth.
I will cite one detail, illustrative of the virtue of this group: One Tallis hymn begins, “O nata lux de lumine” (“O light born of light”)—and their singing reflected exactly that.
Travel with me, now, from New York to Davos, Switzerland, site of the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum. Every year, this days-long conference culminates in some cultural event—last year, for instance, we had Valery Gergiev and the Kirov Orchestra, doing far, far from their best, to put it mildly. This year, we had some more Russians, these from the Bolshoi Theater: a bit of opera, a bit of ballet. The day before, a major Russian politician —though, alas, not in power—told me that, given the state of affairs back home, all that Russia had to offer Davos was its culture. Other Russians, however, stoutly disagreed.
The program was headlined “The Best of the Bolshoi,” and if this was their best —perhaps the Russians should have concentrated on finance. In the operatic portion, we had a pickup orchestra, of about ten, and three singers: Badri Maisuradze, a tenor from Tbilisi; Elena Zelenskaya, a soprano from Baku; and Vladimir Matorin, a bass from Moscow. They sang three arias or songs each, taking turns (tenor-soprano-bass, repeated twice). The “orchestra” had a miserable time: These players seemed not to have rehearsed, and they usually sounded sickly, but they persevered.
And for ambassadors of Russian culture, our singers certainly sang a lot of Italian opera. The tenor did Canio’s aria from Pagliacci (he was dressed that way, sort of, with a suggestive scarf down his middle), “E lucevan le stelle” from Tosca, and “Nessun dorma” from Turandot. He has a lovely natural instrument, but little technique—at least little that one could detect on this night. Worse, he is full of exaggerations, muggings, and interpolations, singing like a parody of Caruso—or like a Warner Brothers cartoon. And the man’s Italian … is not Italian.
La Zelenskaya is a real diva, with diva airs, and a diva walk. Her singing did not entitle her to it, though. Hers is a heavily draped voice, which would benefit greatly from a little lightening. In “Vissi d’arte” (Tosca), she was repeatedly and woefully flat, and her Italian was about on par with the tenor’s. Her “Pace, pace” (La Forza del Destino) was slow and mannered, and—I must say again—like a parody. She was far more at home in Lisa’s aria from Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame, which bordered on moving.
The show was stolen by the bass, Mr. Matorin, who looked like—sorry—a parody of a Russian bass: beard and all. He did sing (nothing but) Russian music, including items closely associated with his great predecessor, Chaliapin. One of these was Mussorgsky’s Song of the Flea, in which Matorin laughed along devilishly. (This is supposed to be Mephistopheles singing; if a bass has his mouth open, chances are he’s the devil.) Matorin could have been more subtle, but he was determined to hold nothing back. At the conclusion of his last number, he milked the applause for a very, very long time—so long that, by the time he exited the stage, the applause had petered out.
The Bolshoi Theater put its better foot forward in the ballet portion of the evening, which availed itself of recorded music. A wild card in this presentation was the Tarantella (or Grande Tarantelle) by Louis Moreau Gottschalk (choreographed by Balanchine). Yes, a good ol’ Louisiana composer, danced to by the Bolshoi, at a tony international gathering in the Swiss Alps—that’s globalism, bucko.
The Cleveland Orchestra traveled to Carnegie Hall for no fewer than four concerts. Their conductor was their music director, Franz Welser-Möst, and their soloist was Radu Lupu. He played all five Beethoven piano concertos (two on one night). The Cleveland played an assortment of orchestral music, including symphonies by Schubert, Shostakovich, and Dutilleux, and a new piece by Harrison Birtwistle. I wish to focus on a concert that featured Roy Harris’s Symphony No. 3 (his big hit).
First, however, a word about Lupu, who opened this evening with Beethoven’s Concerto in B flat. Lupu is about to be sixty, and he has long had the reputation of being a cerebral, probing pianist, specially connected to the central literature. Alfred Brendel enjoys much the same reputation. Whether it is earned, in either case, we might argue about. In any event, Lupu was far better in the B-flat concerto than he had been in the C-major, the night before. Then, he was a curious mixture of care and indifference, often failing to lay a glove on Beethoven’s score. He was like that in the first movement of the B-flat: listless, mousy, blasé. This glorious movement—Allegro con brio—lacked a sparkle. He played beautifully in the Largo, however, and the Rondo acquired some of the sparkle missing before.
As for the Harris, it was good to have it and Aaron Jay Kernis’s piece so close together. When it comes to modern music—recent music, let’s say (although, shudder to think, the Harris Third is almost seventy years old now)—we have had a surfeit of the accepted types: serialist, minimalist, arrogantly experimental. What the establishment wants is music it calls “challenging,” which can be a euphemism for “impossible to enjoy, appreciate, or admire.” Anything that Elliott Carter writes will receive a hearing. (And much of his oeuvre deserves it.) But it occurred to me, not long ago, that I had never heard a Piston symphony in concert. At first, I thought this could not be so: In a lifetime of concertgoing, never a Piston symphony? But I could not remember an instance. And at least two of those symphonies are dear to me.
I could rant on, but my main point is: It was a treat to have the Harris, amidst the Carter, Berio, and Boulez. I know a distinguished music critic for whom the Third Symphony is the antidote for heartache; I have another friend who swears by Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique. Psychology aside, the Harris is an open, confident, soaring, ultra-American symphony, and it was given a decent reading by Welser-Möst and the Cleveland, though much more could have been done with it. Two seasons ago, we had a performance by Maazel and the New York Philharmonic, and that was a showstopper: engaged, involving, uplifting. Maazel seemed lit by the music. Welser-Möst, on the other hand, was rather decorous—as he had been, believe it or not, in Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11, “The Year 1905.”
Forget the performance criticism, however: Thanks for the Harris. And please, Herr Welser-Möst: A little Piston?
We began with Fauré’s suite from his incidental music to Pelléas et Mélisande, and we will conclude with Debussy’s opera, finished four years after the Fauré. This is sometimes called the French Parsifal, and James Levine is a master of it. He is a master of the German Parsifal too (needless to say). He has been criticized for slow tempos in both operas—but on the afternoon I heard Pelléas, his tempos were not sluggish, or even especially slow. They were true and right. This conductor was guided by some internal compass, which may be the logic of the score. In this opera, you enter a dream world, or ideally you do. As in Parsifal, time is suspended, and you are simply in the thrall of the piece. Levine made this happen, and from the beginning, too—you took no time surrendering yourself.
In the part of Golaud was the veteran Belgian bass José van Dam, who brought all his authority. We heard the rough beauty of his voice, we saw the dignity of his bearing (though Golaud loses it, of course, badly). His sung French is exemplary, and he is dependable in all other ways as well. Mélisande was the Swedish mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter, who was as we have come to expect: radiant, accurate, convincing. Her voice blended nicely with the orchestra, in fact becoming one of its instruments (one of its solo instruments, to be sure). And it’s astonishing how easily her soft, almost whispered singing carries. She might as well be in your living room with a spinet, as in the Metropolitan Opera House with Levine’s orchestra.
An Italian bass, Roberto Scandiuzzi, had the part of Arkel, and he produced a simply gorgeous sound. The British mezzo Felicity Palmer was a commanding Geneviève, as she is a commanding First Prioress (in Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites), and as she is a commanding everything else she essays. The tenor—Pelléas—was an American, William Burden, who is fresh, relaxed: not dissimilar to Matthew Polenzani, a favorite at the Met. Burden had trouble being heard in the lower register, but this was a minor problem.
The production was Jonathan Miller’s from 1995, swirling, dark (literally), and serviceable. The performance on this afternoon was “dedicated to the memory of Victoria de los Angeles,” who died in January. She was a splendid Mélisande—but if we start eulogizing Victoria, we’ll be here till next Tuesday.
One final thought: P&M is a lulling, entrancing opera, that may just close your eyes. I remarked to a friend at an intermission that the performance was being broadcast, over the radio. She said, “That sounds dangerous—people may drive off the road.” A consideration.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 7, on page 50
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