The season opened with its usual ruffles and flourishes, and the big story was the Metropolitan Opera—you’ve never heard so much hype. Not in classical music. The Three Tenors extravaganzas were sedate by comparison. Peter Gelb has taken over the job of general manager from Joseph Volpe. The latter ran the house from 1990 to this year. Gelb has come from Sony Classical. The current line is that Volpe was conservative, stodgy, and unimaginative, while Gelb is fresh, daring, outside-the-boxy. Yeah, whatever.

Gelb canceled the gala that was scheduled to begin the season, in favor of a production by Anthony Minghella of Madama Butterfly, borrowed from the English National Opera. Minghella is famous as a film director, responsible for such movies as The English Patient, Cold Mountain, and The Talented Mr. Ripley. Madama Butterfly is his maiden opera. In an interview with The New York Times, he said, “I don’t want to produce ‘grand opera,’ but the opposite.” Well, swell. If the Met is going to cease being the home of grand opera, it might as well close its doors. The whole world produces the opposite of grand opera, in its crappy little theaters; it does not need to capture the Met, too.

Opening Night was preceded by a massive PR campaign. And on the night itself, movie stars prowled the aisles, which was nice. A little glam never hurt anyone.

And what of Minghella’s production? Parts of it are beautiful and smart; other parts are gimmicky and distracting. The Love Duet is accompanied by ooh-ah stage effects, when Puccini’s music ought to have pride of place. In fact, it is Puccini accompanying Minghella. The oddest part of the show is Butterfly’s little boy, Sorrow, who is not a little boy at all, but a puppet—and a bizarre-looking one at that. From my seat, he/it looked like Yoda, the creature from Star Wars. What’s more, the puppet is carried around by a team of handlers—or whatever the word is—draped in black, including masks.

Okay, that’s the production. And a performance—the music-making—is more important than a production. Unfortunately, Opening Night’s was bad. This was shocking, because the Met’s music director, James Levine, was in the pit. He did not conduct Butterfly like he cares for it much. He was often cold, blunt, or indifferent, when the score cries for beauty, sensitivity, rapture. Levine seemed disengaged from the work, and often impatient with it. I will repeat that this is shocking, for Levine can adapt to anything. And he has certainly proven his worth as a Puccini conductor: You will never hear a more arresting Tosca.

A Chilean soprano, Cristina Gallardo-Domâs, had a hard time singing Butterfly, although she acted well. And the Pinkerton, Marcello Giordani, was in rough voice, straining and sometimes bellowing. There was barely any tenderness or bloom in the Love Duet at all. Giordani is a better tenor than that. Maria Zifchak was adequate as Suzuki, and Dwayne Croft was satisfactory as Sharpless. He always is, Croft—a real reliable.

Subsequent evenings at the Met were just fine, even great. Which was strange, because they were planned in the bad old days, when no good happened, and dour conservatism reigned.

Across the Lincoln Center plaza at Avery Fisher Hall, Lorin Maazel began his fifth season as music director of the New York Philharmonic. His opening program offered staples: Mozart and Beethoven. It began with the latter’s “Egmont” Overture, which was bracingly good: taut, suspenseful, powerful. When Maazel is on as a Beethoven conductor, watch out.

Then came Mozart’s Concerto in E flat for Two Pianos, which he wrote for two of his favorite pianists. I am speaking of himself and his sister Nannerl. And, like a good brother, he apportioned the parts equally. Playing with Maazel were two famous pianists: Yefim Bronfman and Emanuel Ax. And, gosh, were they bad; Maazel and the Philharmonic were no better. All involved were stiff, severe, charmless. Absent was any Mozartean wit or grace. It might have been a visit to the dentist’s office.

Music is so strange, or rather, musical performance is. After intermission, Maazel conducted the “Eroica” Symphony, and it was willful, awkward—unsuccessful. Same composer as the “Egmont,” and the same key, too. Vastly different results.

In the ensuing weeks, Maazel was up and down, as expected. But let’s consider some ups. Parts of a Firebird Suite were thrilling. And a reading of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, while unconventional—Maazelian— was magnificent. At its end, you were drained, virtually overcome. One of Maazel’s best concerts was an all-French evening, which included Ravel’s short opera L’Enfant et les sortilèges. Maazel is a celebrated conductor of this work, having made a classic recording of it. In Avery Fisher Hall, his understanding and élan were a joy to behold.

At about this time, Maazel also conducted Mahler’s Symphony No. 4. This is that composer’s “Mozart symphony,” or “Classical symphony,” and Maazel treated it with little fuss. He injected no nonsense. The slow movement, in particular, was beautifully shaped, and it deserved it: Mahler himself thought that he had written nothing better. The soprano in the fourth movement, outlining “a child’s view of heaven,” was Heidi Grant Murphy—the soprano of choice, in this work. It is no surprise that conductors choose her. Her voice is pure, and her technique is solid. Also, she is a smart musician. But the main thing is that a radiant goodness exudes from her. And that’s what the music has, too: radiant goodness.

Carnegie Hall opened with the Cleveland Orchestra, under its music director, Franz Welser-Möst. They came in for three concerts, the first of which was to have two soloists: the bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff and the pianist Leif Ove Andsnes. But, that morning, Quasthoff called in sick, and he was replaced by Dorothea Röschmann, the soprano who was singing Ilia in Mozart’s Idomeneo at the Met. In the Carnegie opener, she did well—if not her (supreme) best—singing two arias from The Marriage of Figaro.

As for Andsnes, he, too, performed Mozart: the Piano Concerto No. 17 in G major, K. 453. There is a world of good about this pianist, and I have hailed it many times: He is brainy, poised, and very, very clean. He has gobs of technique, and, at the same time, he’s an enemy of excess. Andsnes is an exemplary pianist, in many ways. But his K. 453 was maddening. It was terribly polite, terribly demure, terribly correct—and really dull. I thought of a little girl in a pink dress with poofy sleeves, pleasing teacher (and not a very musical one at that).

Now, that image is ridiculously harsh, and excessive. A critic, too, should be an enemy of excess! But Mozart’s concerto has far more life, pleasure, and soul than Andsnes, or Maestro Welser-Möst, was willing to bring out.

The conductor opened this concert with Franz von Suppé’s Light Cavalry Overture, which was good to see programmed: The light repertoire—meaning, the serious light repertoire—has been slighted in recent years. It seems that orchestras are embarrassed to avail themselves of this literature, delightful and important as it is. When was the last time you heard the Polka from Schwanda the Bagpiper, or the Russian Easter Festival Overture, for that matter? And Welser-Möst closed his concert with Strauss: not Richard, but Johann Strauss, Jr. We heard a waltz, a polka (speaking of those), and the Fledermaus overture. Not every program need have a Bruckner symphony.

But the Cleveland Orchestra’s third concert at Carnegie did, in fact, have a Bruckner symphony. It was one of his best, and one of the greatest of all symphonies: the Fifth. But first, Welser-Möst conducted a piece by Messiaen.

This was “Un sourire,” written for the two-hundredth anniversary of Mozart’s death in 1991. We are now nearing the end of the year that marks the two-hundred-fiftieth anniversary of Mozart’s birth. You see how music is dogged by anniversaryitis. The title of this Messiaen work—“A Smile”—reflects the composer’s view of Mozart as always smiling, no matter what. The piece doesn’t sound much like Mozart, but it’s not supposed to, necessarily. It sounds like Messiaen, with his bird calls, soft percussion, and so on. The Cleveland Orchestra played “Un sourire” with delicacy, transparency, and balance. Welser-Möst built the piece interestingly. And a kind of tranquility descended on Carnegie Hall—which, I feel sure, Messiaen would have appreciated.

Then Thomas Quasthoff took the stage, to sing three concert arias of Mozart. Yes, he was feeling better, Quasthoff was, although he was not in his best voice (for whatever reason): He was a little rough, and sloppier in his execution than he normally is. I might say, too, that Italian is not his best language: For one thing, the vowels were a little warm, rounded, and Germanic. But, as you know, he has loads of talent, and he gave the arias—particularly “Rivolgete a lui lo sguardo”—great, Quasthoffian character.

Because the audience applauded ad infinitum, Quasthoff provided an encore: “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Quasthoff loves spirituals, and makes great use of them, especially at encore time. Moreover, he ends his latest CD—a compilation of sacred arias—with “Swing Low …” On this night, he tried to sing it with extra down-home flavor, and made a hash of it: misjudging phrases, notes, and effects. But he showed an enormous—enormous—vocal range, with a high A at the top and a low D at the bottom. That, my friends, is phenomenal. When he was through, of course, the audience went nutso.

Let me tell you a quick story, which I’m 99 percent sure is true. A famous singer was performing in Jerusalem, with the Israel Philharmonic. She and the orchestra were out of encores, so the conductor suggested, “Just go out and sing a spiritual, unaccompanied.” She did—and, in front of that Jerusalem audience, she intoned “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” The applause, I understand, was a little tepid and confused.

And how about Bruckner’s Symphony No. 5? Franz Welser-Möst led a respectable account, if not a gripping or transcendent one. The Cleveland Orchestra produced a wonderful sound, most of the way through—its outpourings in the slow movement were especially satisfying. There were many bobbles in the orchestra, but not ruinous ones. Mainly, the Fifth could have used more crispness, more spine, more rigor. In the last movement particularly, Welser-Möst might have applied more heart or drama. For me, there was too little struggle in this Fifth, and too little exaltation. The conductor was curiously relaxed, as if he were a California surfer dude, instead of an Austrian maestro.

Since I mentioned sound, above, I might say a further, more general word: In the space of a few days, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Boston Symphony, and the Philadelphia Orchestra appeared in Carnegie Hall. Was there a significant difference—or any difference—in the sounds of these bands? Specifically, does the “Philadelphia Sound” still exist? I don’t believe so. Not really. With every passing year, orchestras get less individual and more international—even interchangeable. The top orchestras are, in a sense, one now. If we desire the old variety, we’ll have to turn to our LPs, or CDs, or whatever the latest happens to be …

Back to the opera for a moment—not the Metropolitan Opera, but New York City Opera, which opened with Handel’s Semele. The stars of that show were the soprano Elizabeth Futral and the mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux, who is Alaska-born. How exotic is that? What followed Semele was a Carmen, starring Rinat Shaham, the Israeli mezzo. How exotic is it to write “Israeli mezzo”? “Israeli violinist” is natural, but “Israeli mezzo” is positively freaky—and Miss Shaham is a marvelous performer, as I have noted before. She made a delicious Carmen, in every way: musically, theatrically, physically. If the Met doesn’t schedule her, it is blind, deaf, or both.

In these first weeks, City Opera staged a gala, which was introduced by Beverly Sills. The beloved soprano made her career with this company, and she stuck up for it vigorously. “City Opera,” she insisted, “is not the other opera company at Lincoln Center.” That is the sort of thing one ought to say at a gala. And Miss Sills is one of the most splendid talkers in all of music, or American life. She told several charming stories, one of which related that her mother had made one of her first costumes. That was in the days, Miss Sills pointed out, before union rules made such things impossible. A lot of things were possible before modern union rules: like recordings, radio broadcasts, reasonable ticket prices …

A few highlights from this gala: Two veterans, the soprano Carol Vaness and the tenor Vinson Cole, sang a duet from Don Giovanni. Each was in fine form, with Vaness imperious, characteristically. And who conducted this duet? A real veteran, Julius Rudel, who worked for City Opera in its very first year: 1943. It was a pleasure to see him, and he acquitted himself well. City Opera music director George Manahan conducted most of the concert, but Maestro Rudel made two appearances (the other with Samuel Ramey).

It wouldn’t be a gala without the duet from The Pearl Fishers, and City Opera presented two young singers in it: the tenor James Valenti and the baritone Brian Mulligan. They put over the duet adequately, if not with perfect refinement. Neither would it be a gala without the Trio from Der Rosenkavalier, which was sung by Pamela Armstrong, Erin Morley, and Beth Clayton. The last two went on to sing the opera’s closing duet, “Ist ein Traum.” All performed ably. In a bow to Broadway, Judy Kaye came on to sing “Send in the Clowns” (from Sondheim’s A Little Night Music). She did so with admirable directness and dignity.

And Sam Ramey? He sang “Ecco il mondo” from an opera he helped to make famous, really: Boito’s Mefistofele. Ramey, though frayed, retains his authority, presence, and musical ruggedness. The peak of the evening, probably, was Lauren Flanigan’s “Una macchia è qui tuttora” from Macbeth. She is simply a model singing actress, and she proved it even in a gala concert: That was Lady Macbeth on the stage, without question.

You may ask whether the gala ended with “Make Our Garden Grow” from Bernstein’s Candide. That is an obvious ending for a gala in an American house. No, it ended with a similar ensemble: “The Promise of Living” from Copland’s Tender Land. That’ll do, too.

I have said that Julius Rudel is a veteran conductor—born 1921—and Stanislaw Skrowaczewski is of a similar vintage: born 1923. The famed Polish conductor has had a rich career, and he is best known in America for his leadership of the Minnesota Orchestra, during the 1960s and ’70s. Skrowaczewski is also a composer, as any musician worth his salt had to be, once upon a time. In fact, Skrowaczewski studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Someone, someday, should draw up a list of people who did not study with Nadia Boulanger.

The Juilliard School was wise to begin its performance season with Skrowaczewski: He led the student orchestra in a program of Brahms, Saint-Saëns, and … Skrowaczewski. The man looks terrific, by the way, a classic handsome Pole: wiry, craggy, a mane of pure white hair. He wears prominent old-style glasses, as his colleague Otto Klemperer used to sport. On the podium, he is spry and alert, conducting from the shoulders.

The concert began with his Music at Night, adapted in 1960 from a ballet he wrote in 1949 (Ugo et Parisina). The work is, indeed, night-like, now spooky, now stormy, now alluring, now serene. The score seems to be telling us something—relating a drama—but we can’t be sure what. Skrowaczewski uses the whole orchestra—instruments both central and fringe—and he uses it well. He was obviously paying attention, under Madame Boulanger. And Skrowaczewski, as conductor, was utterly engaged by the music, causing his players to be engaged as well. But isn’t this the conductor’s job? Don’t they all do that, especially when conducting their own music? No, actually. Have you ever seen clips of Richard Strauss?

Have one more veteran conductor, though not so veteran as the previous two: Bernard Haitink, born in 1929. At Avery Fisher Hall, he led the London Symphony Orchestra in Beethoven symphonies—all nine of them, over five concerts. I attended the concert that included only one symphony: the Ninth. Isn’t it amazing how, every time you hear it, the piece still seems wonderfully strange? If it lives a thousand years—and it will live as long as music—the Ninth will never seem normal.

Haitink is in excellent shape, fighting trim, and at this stage of the game he looks like Norman Podhoretz, the great writer. These Beethoven concerts received near-universal raves. But the Ninth was not so rave-worthy—an odd man out, maybe. The first movement, to be sure, was superb. Haitink made it taut, clear, and arresting. We were evidently in for a memorable account. But the Scherzo was a surprise: sloppy, hurried, and borderline indifferent. The intensity and sweep of the first movement were gone. And the slow movement should have been far warmer, more soulful, and more yearning. Haitink did very little savoring, or even enjoying. Again, he kind of hurried through. One reads that the “period” people have influenced him, and it showed.

The last movement had its moments—its thrills—but it, too, was sloppy and suspect. The vocal soloists were no help. Gerald Finley—a fine baritone—had a miserable outing, flatting all over the place. The tenor, John Mac Master, was decent early on, but then struggled, and flatted. The soprano, Twyla Robinson, was steady, but sounded thin and shrill. And the mezzo-soprano? Well, one can barely hear her in the Ninth. In fact, the mezzo in the Ninth has one of the most thankless jobs in music—or one of the best, depending: You get paid without really having to deliver. (In any case, Haitink’s mezzo was Karen Cargill.)

The London Symphony Chorus was a pleasure to hear—it better have been, because London to New York is a long way to go for fifteen minutes’ work. And Beethoven’s Ninth was a pleasure to hear—all-conquering, as always.

A Message from the Editors

Your donation sustains our efforts to inspire joyous rediscoveries.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 25 Number 3, on page 49
Copyright © 2023 The New Criterion |

Popular Right Now