As winter struggled against spring, the New York Philharmonic presented several programs of familiar music—very familiar music. For example, one concert was made up of the “New World” Symphony and the Concerto for Orchestra. Can’t get more basic than that! This is the sort of program that many critics loathe: They roll their eyes, sulk—take it out on the performers, regardless of how they do. You see, critics are in the concert hall or opera house several nights a week, and they come to root against the standard repertory, hoping for departures. A normal person, however, will hear (say) the Concerto for Orchestra only a few times in his life. And presenting organizations program for normal people, not for critics (usually—some programming is strictly critic catnip). Critics just have to grind their teeth, or snooze, while others enjoy.

You have heard me say before that the New York Philharmonic and its music director, Lorin Maazel, are notably good in the most familiar repertory. Maazel brings a freshness, an enthusiasm, and this has an effect on his charges. Take the Dvořák/Bartók concert: The “New World” Symphony showed signs of tiredness—particularly in the Largo, which some sing as “Goin’ Home”—but the Concerto was vivid, virtuosic, and electric. Conductor and orchestra gave the impression they felt privileged to play it. An encore was a similar treat: This was probably the most common orchestral encore of all, Brahms’s Hungarian Dance in G minor. Maazel whipped and milked that thing like you wouldn’t believe. He even stamped his feet, wanting more. During a rest, one woman in the audience—carried away by it all—giggled loudly, and Maazel turned his head in her direction, smiling. In May of last year, I wrote that Maxim Vengerov played a violin transcription of this piece with huge charisma. I believe Maazel outdid him.

I was expecting something likewise admirable from a concert featuring The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Scheherazade. Very familiar music indeed, and pieces that ought to be right up Lorin Maazel’s alley: They’re romantic, pictorial, fascinating. I figured Maazel would lavish his musicality and discipline on them, waking them up. Instead, this was by far the worst concert I have ever heard from him and the Philharmonic, and one of the worst orchestral concerts I can remember hearing, ever. Such a puzzle: Both the Dukas and the Rimsky-Korsakov were sloppy, incoherent, dull. Not even Maazel’s eccentricities could relieve the dullness—and if you’re going to be eccentric, you had better at least be interesting. Maazel and the orchestra performed as their worst critics expect them to. Frankly, they sounded third-rate. I believe Maazel was badly out of sorts, and the players reflected that indisposition.

Also on this concert was a not-familiar work, a new oboe concerto by Ross Edwards, an Australian composer. The Philharmonic’s program notes described him as “one of Australia’s most acclaimed composers.” Wickedly, I thought of a Bill Buckley barb: “Maybe so, but isn’t that on the order of celebrating the tallest building in Wichita, Kansas?” Edwards’s music is said to smack of his homeland: the outback, the aboriginals, all that. He wrote his oboe concerto for Diane Doherty, a fellow Aussie, and it is not your everyday concerto. It is a choreographed one, at least as Doherty performs it. She comes out in a kind of war paint, and dances all over the place. She might be from Cirque du Soleil, or Broadway’s Lion King. The concerto is not uninteresting, although it grows tedious, and its dedicatee played it with skill and aplomb. But should music—certainly an oboe concerto—rely on theatrical aid? I apologize for a fuddy-duddy’s question.

When Lorin Maazel next appeared on the Philharmonic’s podium, it was to celebrate his seventy-fifth birthday. A former child prodigy, Maazel has been conducting nearly all his life, and playing the violin. In recent years, he has done a fair amount of composing. Did you know? You would have known on this occasion. The birthday program consisted entirely of the maestro’s own compositions, the central one of which was his Music for Violoncello and Orchestra, a multi-sectioned semi-concerto written in 1994 at the behest of Mstislav Rostropovich. (Without “Slava,” there would be practically no cello music after about 1955.) The soloist was a young Rostropovich protégé, or at least someone the master admires and champions (not that she needs it anymore): Ha-Nan Chang. She was her usual commanding self. I would be surprised if Lorin Maazel were remembered as a composer—although the cello piece should remain in that repertory, and who knows about his opera, 1984? It will have its premiere at Covent Garden on May 3. What is certain is that he will be remembered as a conductor, thanks to that marvelous invention that came to us at the end of the nineteenth century: the recording.

Approximately a week after the birthday concert, Maazel returned to the podium for a concert beginning with Haydn’s Symphony No. 95 in C minor, one of the best of that prolific composer’s symphonies. Maazel is not known as a Classical conductor—aside from Beethoven—but perhaps he should be. Several weeks before, he had conducted Mozart’s Symphony No. 29 in A, superbly, and so it was with this Haydn.

The first movement was beautifully phrased, appropriate to its key and mood. (Those two things are linked, of course.) The orchestra’s playing was sharply etched, but full, grand, as late Haydn often should be. The second movement, Andante cantabile, was a model of grace, with no dragging. Maazel knew the line, and accorded it tension or give, as desirable. He committed none of the extreme manipulation of which he is capable. The Menuet was strikingly idiomatic. And the Finale was chipper in its C major (which becomes, for a time, a stormy C minor). Haydn packs this music with joy, and that elation was irresistible.

Frankly, I can’t recall ever hearing better Haydn playing from an orchestra. That is a bold thing to say, and perhaps an unsafe one: but why play it safe when truthful opinions are demanded? In this vein, I wish to tell you about a mezzo-soprano. We will have a little opera section later, but let me digress now: The Met’s Don Carlo included a singer (Eboli) making her debut in that house. This was Luciana D’Intino, an Italian who has wide experience in Europe and South America. She is a real Verdi mezzo, an Eboli straight from a fantasy cast. I commented that, though one could easily name ten historic Ebolis off the top of one’s head, I wasn’t sure that I would choose to hear any of them over that night’s Luciana D’Intino. A reckless statement, maybe—but true.

The Philharmonic concert continued with a new work, Wolfgang Rihm’s Two Other Movements, commissioned by the orchestra. Rihm is a German composer who studied with Stockhausen, among others. He wrote a little program note that you may care to sample:

I have been reading in John Updike’s Seek My Face …: “Interviewers and critics are the enemies of mystery, the indeterminacy that gives art life.” … A piece of art should always speak for itself. The artist himself does not know “better” than the recipients of his art who are prepared to devote themselves seriously to it. If they are not ready to do so, no text will be of any help. I do believe in the directness of art. There is nothing to “explain.” However: one can perceive. One can experience.

This is not so much a program note as an anti-program note (and I am not the only critic to have made this observation). Whether we can endorse it or not, it gives us something to think about. I’m not sure I can explain Two Other Movements to you, beginning with the title. The work strikes me as a little formless, although not without merit. It is mysterious, beautifully textured. It owes more to Mahler, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich than to Stockhausen, that’s for sure. At one point, there is a wonderful eruption of snare drums, and the score goes martial for a while. Then it blooms almost into movie music (not a putdown, from me). I fear, however, that it is too long for what it purveys.

As for the Philharmonic’s performance, I doubt Two Other Movements will ever receive a finer one, no matter how long it stays in the repertory—if it enters it at all.

After intermission, another in a parade of young and talented violinists came out: Lisa Batiashvili, born in Soviet Georgia, now resident in Munich. She played the Chausson Poème and Saint-Saëns’s Introduction and Rondo capriccioso. All that was missing was Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole (I exaggerate, of course—a little). Batiashvili was both poised and poetic. She rendered the Chausson with a plainness, or, better, simplicity. She was amply expressive, but she knew that expressiveness lies in the notes. The Saint-Saëns was intelligent as well as enjoyable (or enjoyable because intelligent). The Introduction was stately, paving the way for the Rondo, which was spicy without being vulgar. Technically, Batiashvili was fully assured, not to say faultless. So, there you have it: yet another young violinist, and another first-rate violinist. Complain about conductors, pianists, and (especially) composers all you want, but you have no right to complain about violinists, and it will be that way until Hilary Hahn is about eighty.

Maazel closed the program with one of the most familiar of all pieces—Ravel’s Bolero. Perhaps you agree that this piece still sounds strange and experimental, more than seventy-five years after it was penned, and despite hackneying. Maazel took a brisk tempo, as you would expect from him; I had never heard it so fast (and yet it did not seem rushed). He built the piece cagily. At the key change—there is only one—he took an unusual ritard, or hesitation, which I thought unnecessary: The key change is jarring enough. But he forced another ritard/hesitation when the orchestra returned to the Bolero key, providing a nice symmetry. And Maazel stretched the final measures out a bit gaudily, but thrillingly. This conductor—you shake your head at him, usually grinning.

In the space of twelve days, New York heard three of the most admired string quartets in the world: the Emerson, the Orion, and the Brentano. The first of those has been on a Mendelssohn kick, recording all of that composer’s string quartets, playing them at London’s South Bank Festival—and staging a series at Zankel Hall called “A Vision of Mendelssohn.” It involves all the Mendelssohn string quartets (of course), and other chamber music (such as the Octet), and music thought to have a special relationship to Mendelssohn (e.g., Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 10 in E flat, Op. 74, dubbed “the Harp”). Launching the series, the Emersons gave a quite uneven concert, generally poor in the first half—poor in the way of intonation, sound, feeling. One was entitled to ask, “Could this be the most acclaimed string quartet in the world?” But in the second half, they justified their reputation, playing with customary skill and care, as in two brief pieces of Bach and a Mendelssohn fugue.

Of the three ensembles under discussion, the Orion String Quartet played most impressively, one night at Alice Tully Hall. The Haydn String Quartet in G, Op. 77, No. 1, was superb: tight, musical, exhilarating. The Ravel Quartet, with which the program closed, was hardly less admirable. In between had come one of Schoenberg’s greatest works, and one of the greatest works in all of chamber music: the Quartet No. 2 (which employs a soprano, on this occasion Susan Narucki). You can hear finer accounts of this work, but any decent performance should leave you sort of numb—first throttled, then dazed—which this one did.

The Brentano String Quartet played a curious program (also in Alice Tully Hall). It contained Mozart’s String Quartet in A, K. 464, various Webern works, and a poem by Mark Strand, read by the poet himself. It does not sound all that strange, even given the poem: except that the Brentanos played a movement of the Mozart, then went to some Webern—in the midst of which Strand would read a stanza of his poem, The Webern Variations. And then the quartet would play another movement of the Mozart, followed by some more Webern, and Strand. There was nothing wrong with the Mozart playing, or the Webern playing, or the poem. All were good, in fact. But I question whether the BSQ was wise to mix them in this way. In my view, neither Mozart nor Webern nor this formidable poet was enhanced. Certain people are always looking for something “fresh” in the concert hall, for a new way of hearing or understanding music. But usually new ways verify the “old” way.

Maybe next time the Brentanos can borrow some of Diane Doherty’s war paint?

And now, a night at the opera. The Met brought back The Barber of Seville, a work that, somehow, still sparkles. You may think you can’t bear to see it again: but it quickly sprinkles its fairy dust on you, particularly if the performers are in gear. Chances are, many patrons on this night were there to hear Matthew Polenzani sing Almaviva. Polenzani is a sensation, which is just, because he’s sensational. He was indisposed, however, and so was the Figaro, Franco Vassallo, scheduled to make his Met debut. Polenzani’s absence allowed for another debut: that of Kenneth Tarver, a Detroiter, and a bona fide tenore di grazia. Seldom do you get an opportunity like this: Star falls sick, you become the star. Tarver was competent, if not absolutely starry. He was tight in Act I, which was understandable—but he soon loosened up. Most remarkably, he seemed to be enjoying himself to the hilt. Met debut, Rossini’s masterpiece, that wonderful part—come to think of it, what’s not to enjoy?

Substituting in the title role was Earle Patriarco, a baritone from southern California. He owns a gorgeous instrument, which he pairs with a ready technique. You may recall—if only from cartoons—that Figaro, when singing his famous aria, calls his own name, in imitation of his clients: “Figaro, Figaro, Figaro.” Baritones can improvise here, and Patriarco produced the most astounding falsetto. Rarely do you hear that on the operatic stage. Patriarco is a charismatic fellow, looking somewhat like Wayne Newton, the king of Vegas. He provides clear Italian diction, in recitative and elsewhere (Patriarco, not Newton). You might ask for a subtler, less obvious, suaver Figaro—but Patriarco wins you.

Our Rosina was a Swedish mezzo, Katarina Karnéus, who was not your average Rosina: She is not the least bit Italianate, and she gave the character an unaccustomed dignity and serenity. Absent was much sauciness or coquettishness—this was not Conchita Supervia, for example. But Karnéus was an interesting and likable Rosina. In “Una voce poco fa,” her coloratura was not spectacular, and not always on pitch, but it was acceptable. You can hear a Rosina-ish Rosina any night. This Swede offered a different angle.

Doing his turn as Don Basilio was Ferruccio Furlanetto, who the night before had been King Philip in Verdi’s Don Carlo. Furlanetto’s Philip is pretty much nonpareil, and it was devastating on this occasion. Don Basilio is a much different cat, and Furlanetto handles him well too. So big is his voice, it was almost shocking among the others—but he tripped nicely over Rossini’s notes. You might like to know this, however: I couldn’t help smiling when Furlanetto sang “Piano, piano,” which the character usually sings in a hushed voice. It was huge!

The Dr. Bartolo of Carlos Chausson, a Spanish bass, was a hit—ultra-clever. And a queen of minor roles at the Met is the soprano Claudia Waite. She proves herself excellent in all of them: in The Barber, Berta; in Der Rosenkavalier, Marianne (which she sang in this same period).

Conducting this Barber was Maurizio Benini, who is principal guest conductor in Santiago. He surely did not have his best night at the Met. The overture—that slippery glory—was a mess. It demands accuracy, attentiveness, flair. It received none of those. The sound of the orchestra was feeble, and cohesiveness was nowhere to be found. The horns were atrocious—and they had been impressive in Don Carlo the night before. “What a difference a day makes,” goes the old standard. Maestro Benini showed himself a vigorous—even a wired —guy, but he generated little excitement, for all his moving around.

In the first act, the orchestra continued its offenses. Eventually, however—by about Don Basilio’s aria “La calunnia” (which includes “Piano, piano”!)—it settled down, to the relief of all. Certainly of me.

Visiting Carnegie Hall for two concerts on consecutive nights was the Oslo Philharmonic, André Previn, music director. You didn’t know that André was in Oslo? He took over that post in 2002, and his contract will expire in 2007 (when he will be seventy-eight). This is not the best orchestra of which Previn has been music director—but it is a worthy orchestra, tended from 1979 until André arrived by Mariss Jansons, now leader of the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. (Incidentally, the day after Previn and the Norwegians left Carnegie Hall, Jansons came in for three concerts with the Vienna Philharmonic.)

On Night I, Previn had with him a superstar soloist, the violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, who is also his wife. She played the Previn Concerto, written for her in 2001. She played it magnificently, too. With the orchestra alone, Previn performed Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” and Strauss’s “Alpine Symphony.” The latter can be problematic, a big, blowsy work, hard to manage: but Previn made it almost as coherent and pleasurable as possible.

Night II began with Ravel, his Alborada del gracioso. Previn is a superb French conductor, and an especially superb Ravel conductor, as I have remarked before in these pages. You might say he has a French sensibility, in his conducting, his piano playing, and his composing. Ned Rorem says that a composer is either “German” or “French” (Rorem is “French”); André Previn, according to this division, would certainly be “French.”

Alborada del gracioso was gentle, shimmering, smart. Previn is never dumb; even if you don’t like what he is doing, you can’t argue that it is unintelligent. The orchestra was clear, enabling us to hear every part. Nothing was lost in an Impressionistic blur (although nothing was blunt). But this account—like that of the Debussy the night before—was a little sleepy. Previn seemed tired on the podium, a bit phlegmatic. I was reminded of films showing Richard Strauss conducting, late in the great man’s life.

After the Ravel, chairs were configured so that a piano could be stuck in the front-center of the orchestra, the keyboard facing the back of the stage. Previn conducted himself in the Gershwin Concerto in F. Of course, the piano always faced this way, until Liszt, who gave his audiences a profile, along with technical and musical thrills. Previn is one of the best Gershwin pianists and conductors ever. If you want to feel old (and who does?), consider that Previn’s cut of the Concerto in F is now a Great Recording of the Century (from EMI)—and has been for some time. He made that recording in 1970, with the London Symphony Orchestra.

And how did Previn play the concerto at Carnegie Hall, with the Oslo Philharmonic? Put nicely, he was graceful, tender, Debussyan. You would say that this was an autumnal Concerto in F, if autumnal weren’t such a ridiculous word to apply to that work. In truth, Previn was wispy, sluggish, weak—barely audible in portions. The fire seemed to have gone out. He missed a ton of notes, which would have been okay, except that there was hardly any musical spark to compensate. Perhaps it was too much to conduct and play at the same time. Perhaps it was a conceit, to use a word I once heard Previn apply to a decision by conductors to forgo a score, when performing.

As for the Oslo Philharmonic, it was lamentable in the Gershwin, totally devoid of musical sympathy. As the trumpeter was struggling through the second movement, a very old man behind me said to his nurse—in a stage whisper—“He doesn’t feel it.” Quite so.

After intermission, the mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves swept in for Ravel’s Shéhérazade. Originally scheduled had been Previn’s own work, Honey and Rue, but it was withdrawn, for reasons unannounced. Graves is adept in the French repertoire, and, in this period, she was also singing Dalila at the Met. Fortunately, she breathed life into the second Previn concert. The voice was lovely, although it had a husk on it (we are talking about an impure loveliness). Graves understands Shéhérazade, giving it the right colors, and the right exoticism. In the third song, “L’Indifférent,” she drew you in, made you sort of sit forward in your seat. You were anything but indifferent.

The concert ended with yet more Ravel, his Suite No. 2 from Daphnis and Chloe—and I was not looking forward to hearing it, because Previn had been so feeble. But lo: The suite was beautiful, beautifully conducted, beginning with a wondrous sunrise. The Oslo Philharmonic seemed transformed. Previn shaped the suite unerringly, and by the time the “Danse générale” subsided, we had heard a first-rate performance.

On Night I, when he emerged from the wings, Previn caused some alarm. He was quite slow-moving, perhaps suffering from some temporary infirmity. Also, he has long white hair, reminding me, at least, of the latter-day Stokowski. Could this be the whippersnapper from Hollywood, who set the music world on its ear by attempting everything, and succeeding wildly? Yes, indeed. And Previn will give us more music.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 8, on page 55
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