I realize it’s February, but can you think back to Christmas—to even before Christmas, when the New York Philharmonic presented Handel’s Messiah? They do this every year, in the Riverside Church, way up on the West Side. You may know this church for William Sloane Coffin, Fidel Castro, and the glorification of communism. But it makes a very nice setting for a concert: certainly for an oratorio.

Conducting the Philharmonic’s 2005 Messiah was Richard Hickox, the English maestro who has held a hundred jobs. Currently, he directs the BBC National Orchestra of Wales; Opera Australia; and the City of London Sinfonia (which he founded in 1971). This is in addition to other posts. Hickox is also a versatile conductor, immersing himself in a wide range of music. In the Handel work, he was earnest, professional, dutiful. His was not a Messiah filled with spiritual uplift—and Messiah should really have spiritual uplift—but it was efficient, respectable. Interestingly enough, Hickox conducted this long work without a score. Yes, we all know Messiah—but to conduct it without a score is still impressive (as long as there are no lapses related to dispensing with a score).

Holding their books were the four soloists, beginning with the tenor, Mark Tucker. Why do we begin with him? Because he has the first solo in the oratorio, the ineffable “Comfort ye … ,” leading into “Ev’ry valley … .” Is there more perfect music extant than this? In any case, Tucker is of interesting parentage: “Anglo-Venetian,” as his bio says. And he owns a beautiful voice, though that voice was sadly forced on higher notes. More seriously, he was quite Romantic—quite nineteenth-century—in his interpretations, indulging in pregnant pauses, and unusual ornamentation: not just un-standard ornamentation, which would be fine, but positively weird ornamentation. Nonetheless, he was worth listening to.

The bass-baritone in this quartet—again, we’re going in order—was one of the best such singers in the world: the young Canadian John Relyea, who has distinguished himself in opera, oratorio, and recital alike. His sound was extraordinarily beautiful, and it absolutely shook the rafters—and not only because he sang the words “and I will shake,” repeatedly. As a fellow critic of mine commented, that sound seemed almost too big for the cavernous Riverside Church. And Relyea is musical as well, a thoroughly gratifying singer.

Rather less musical and gratifying was the contralto, an Italian with the interesting name of Sara Mingardo. (It’s also interesting that she’s a contralto, or certainly billed that way: They’re almost as scarce as unicorns, in this mezzo-stuffed age.) Though delivering a wonderful sound at times—darkly glowing—she came off as stiff and uncertain. She could have used more character in her singing. And it was not a good night for her pitch.

Rounding out this quartet was the soprano, Christine Brandes, an American. She is a gutsy and thinking singer—as she proved in a recent concert of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, in which she sang a new work, a song cycle, by Wagner. No, not that Wagner, but Melinda Wagner, an American composer who lives in New Jersey. In Messiah, she suffered from some vocal problems, but her head was obviously in the music. She approached her lines almost operatically: For example, when she sang the recitative “And the angel said unto them, Fear not,” the narrative—“And the angel said unto them”—had one voice, and the angel, in “Fear not,” had another. The angel was virtually a character. This was unconventional, and somewhat startling, but effective.

Brandes is the kind of singer you want to hear, whether you can endorse what she’s doing or not.

Especially pleasing to listen to—and watch—was the chorus, the Westminster Symphonic Choir. Why to watch? Because their faces were often lit with delight. A largely young group, this chorus didn’t know that Messiah is supposed to be old hat, a hackneyed work that you have to provide at Christmas, like fruitcake. They actually enjoyed—exulted in—singing “For unto us a Child is born … ,” “Lift up your heads … ,” etc., and why not? Anyone who doesn’t is perverse, or pitiable (or both). May they never lose their delight over Messiah.

A final word, not related to music-making: Ever since the advent of bottled water, singers have been taking such bottles onto the stage. That’s okay. They often had glasses, alongside or underneath their chairs, before. But they seem to guzzle from these bottles all the time now—it is extremely unsightly, and distracting. I can understand a discreet sip between arias or choruses. But the Messiah singers guzzled just any old time. Take the tenor, Mark Tucker: Just as someone else’s aria was finishing, he gave himself a deep suck. He could have waited until that aria was over—besides which, he wasn’t going to sing anytime soon.

I think these bottles of water have meant that singers drink just because a bottle is there—and not because they need to. And it would be pleasant if they dropped the habit.

If you can think back to Christmas, you can also think back to New Year’s Eve—on which night Lorin Maazel conducted the Philharmonic in a program of Italian opera: overtures, dances, intermezzi, arias. Who sang those arias? The woman who is probably the most glamorous opera star in the world, Angela Gheorghiu. This Romanian soprano is the object of much sneering, from critics, chat-room cranks, and others. She is, doubtless, a piece of work, a super-diva, a fount of airs. Legends about her abound. (But what is opera without legends?) Do you know the story of Gheorghiu’s requesting a hairdresser and makeup artist for a radio interview? Did I say “requesting”? I meant “demanding.”

In any case, what has this to do with her singing? Zilch, basically. I feel lucky in my relations with Gheorghiu, so to speak, in that I first heard her before she was famous—before I even knew her name. I came to her free of prejudice. In the early 1990s, I went to a Turandot at the Metropolitan Opera, mainly to hear Ghena Dimitrova in the title role. The formidable Bulgarian soprano was nearing the end of her career, and I’d never experienced her, live. Dimitrova did not have a good afternoon (which was immaterial)—but who was this lissome girl portraying Liù? It was Gheorghiu, and her singing was astounding: pure, sensitive, technically faultless. Rarely have I heard such high pianos.

Anyway, I have heard her many times since, and I have never heard her sing badly. I have heard her sing tentatively—but never badly, and usually she has been superb. I think, in particular, of an outing as Adina, in Donizetti’s Elixir of Love. There was also Marguerite in Faust, and a recital in Salzburg … Other great singers, I have heard sing badly, and some of them have sung badly over and over. This is not true of Angela G. And when she is safely retired or dead, she will be recognized by one and all as one of the great sopranos of her time. The recordings will confirm this. And her antics and airs will be happy parts of operatic lore.

What did she sing on New Year’s Eve? Oh, the aria from La Wally, and the one from Adriana Lecouvreur, and several Puccini favorites. She exhibited her usual qualities of technical control and intelligent expression. Hers is an uncommon voice in that it is dark in color and rather light in weight. Generally, you get dark and heavy, and light and light (if you will)—but Gheorghiu’s combination of dark and light is very rare, and marvelous. And though she is essentially a lyric soprano, she has an ample reserve of power. In this concert, she sang “Pace, pace,” from La Forza del Destino. She should probably not perform this role (Leonora) in an opera house; and her account of this aria was perhaps too beautiful—the cries of “Maledizione!” at the end didn’t scare anyone. But she negotiated it well, and brought down the house.

As she’s wont to do.

Stick with the New York Philharmonic, to consider other soloists. One of them was James Ehnes, the Canadian violinist, born in 1976. He’s one of the outstanding fiddlers of his generation, and that’s saying something, given the excellence of his generation. He made some news in this city three years ago. He played the Tchaikovsky concerto with the Philharmonic in Central Park—which wasn’t so remarkable. What was remarkable was that, once he’d finished, he proposed to the woman who became his wife, as TV cameras whirred. That made a feel-good segment at eleven o’clock.

In his more recent appearance—not in Central Park, but in Avery Fisher Hall—he played the Walton Violin Concerto. This is far less known than Walton’s viola concerto, which is almost certainly the best thing ever written for that instrument and orchestra. (No offense to Berlioz’s Harold in Italy.) The violin concerto is sweeping, glittering, cinematic. It is also a bit on the schmaltzy side. Whatever the quality of this work—and it is a worthy, if not supreme, one—Ehnes played it brilliantly. He applied lyricism, understanding, and gobs of technique. About that lyricism: Seldom will you hear such singing on a violin. He was utterly seamless, without a stitch. Small wonder that other violinists speak with awe about him, as they do.

And I will relate something interesting—a little inside baseball. I am reliably informed that when violinists, and other string players, in an orchestra really like a performance by a soloist, they will not “applaud” with their bows. They will put down their instruments and bows and applaud with their hands—as at least half of the Philharmonic’s string players did for the amazing James Ehnes.

Making a lesser splash with the Philharmonic was another violinist, the young German Julia Fischer. Actually, she is of both German and Czech ethnicity, according to her bio. We were introduced to her three seasons ago when Lorin Maazel had her play the Sibelius Violin Concerto. That performance—certainly the one I heard (and bear in mind, these are subscription concerts, repeated two or three times)—did not go well. Many of us observed that she seemed unready for prime time. Why had Maazel pushed her forward, and in so difficult and demanding a work?

But last season she sprang a surprise: She played a recital in Zankel Hall, and it was highly admirable. That program included Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata. So when she was again scheduled to perform with Maestro Maazel—at the end of December—I, for one, didn’t know what to expect, although I was leaning positive.

But she just had to play the Tchaikovsky concerto. Why violinists feel they must do this, I don’t know. Not every violinist is equipped to play this concerto—they can’t all be Maxim Vengerov, or James Ehnes. What’s wrong with playing a Mozart concerto? He wrote five, they’re all kissed with genius, and this is a big, big Mozart year (the 250th birthday). Miss Fischer played the Tchaikovsky, and she was correct and modest in it. There is room for correctness and modesty, even in this concerto. But she was altogether too small for it: too small in sound, and too small in conception. She simply lacked the panache, daring, and strength for it. The young lady was by no means disgraceful—but she came off as a gifted, poised student who had tackled a monster concerto, without really being able to do it justice.

She obviously has the backing of Lorin Maazel, a very good backer to have. But it would be sweet to hear a Mozart concerto next time, or—if you must have more flash—the Mendelssohn.

What may be the concert of the 2005–2006 season came when Christian Zacharias flew in to guest-conduct the Philharmonic. He led the orchestra in two symphonies of Haydn, both of them “Paris” symphonies, No. 83 in G minor (“La Poule”) and No. 86 in D. He did well by those works, and he did particularly well by the first one. But that’s not what made this concert memorable. Zacharias is a pianist, although, like almost everyone else these days, he doubles as a conductor—and between those Haydn symphonies he played Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 18 in B flat, K. 456.

Ladies and gentlemen, you may have never heard such Mozart playing as from this veteran German. One might write for pages about it, but let me confine myself to this: Zacharias channeled the spirit and style of Mozart himself; his playing was at one with the composition. Mozart would have sat there and beamed. This pianist didn’t put a foot wrong, and he put every foot (are there more than two?) right. I myself sat there astonished. Now, as a rule, I’m against conducting from the keyboard. I have long maintained that the pianist-conductor impairs himself in both his tasks. But Zacharias handled the orchestra about as well as he handled the piano, capable of everything.

I have heard all the great—and all the good—Mozart pianists of my lifetime. And we all have our recordings of Gieseking, Kraus, and the rest. I’m not sure I’ve known anything to surpass Christian Zacharias, on this evening.

I will touch on one more orchestra concert, this one a visit to Carnegie Hall by the Metropolitan Opera orchestra. James Levine’s soloist was the soprano Renée Fleming, although she was less a soloist than the star of her own show: She dominated the afternoon, singing Tchaikovsky (the Letter Scene from Eugene Onegin), Berg (the Altenberg Lieder), and Strauss (the Final Scene from Capriccio). She sang magnificently and she sang disappointingly, as sometimes happens, to Fleming and others. The Letter Scene was a bit heavy, slow, and mannered—Fleming can really kill a piece with portamento. But her Berg was smart and disciplined, and who’s better in late Strauss? In any Strauss, really. The Countess’s reflections were imbued with twilight.

But the point I wish to make is this: In attendance was Marilyn Horne, the great (and retired) mezzo-soprano. A high honor for Fleming, that Horne showed. And immediately after the Final Scene, there was one person in the hall standing (others would follow): Marilyn Horne. The soloist smiled at her and bowed. I simply note that to have Marilyn Horne stand for you in Carnegie Hall is no small thing—even for a world-famous soprano.

The Chamber Music Society staged a three-concert festival called “The Essence of Ligeti”—a survey of the chamber music of György Ligeti, the eighty-two-year-old Hungarian-born composer. Ligeti is just about the most popular composer in this city, certainly among the critics and proselytizers. I said at one point that the major paper should be renamed The Ligeti Times. And the Miller Theatre, at Columbia University? “The Ligeti Theatre.” Far from neglected, Ligeti is programmed constantly, and ol’ Mozart—even in his 250th-anniversary year—is lucky to get a word in edgewise. (I exaggerate, slightly.)

As for me, I like Ligeti’s music—and certainly respect its braininess—but, as the first President Bush said about conservatism, I’m not a nut about it.

The middle of the three concerts featured the French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who is one of Ligeti’s greatest champions. He played some of the composer’s etudes, as he does, a lot. Before he played them, he spoke about them—which is another thing people do, a lot: They like to talk about Ligeti as much as they like playing him. It seems to me that great composers don’t need so much oral support. At any rate, Aimard played the etudes capably, evincing a clear familiarity with them. Afterward, he joined the violinist Mark Steinberg and the French-horn player Marie Luise Neunecker to perform a 1982 Ligeti trio, subtitled “Hommage à Brahms.” These musicians played it thoughtfully, when you could hear them over Aimard’s ridiculously loud singing and groaning.

The last movement is marked Lamento: Adagio, and it is a terrible thing indeed—terrible in its lamentation.

And now for something completely different: Playing at the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway (or near enough Broadway) is Souvenir, a “play with music” by Stephen Temperley. I’m loath to tread on Mark Steyn’s territory, but I’ll say a quick word. Souvenir is about Florence Foster Jenkins, the New York society woman who thought she could sing. Problem was, she couldn’t sing—she was awful. But she loved singing, she loved giving concerts, and people flocked to see her. She developed a cult following. Her recordings circulated widely, long after her death in 1944. FFJ was more laughed at than laughed with—in fact, I don’t think she was laughed with at all. And this is the subject of Souvenir.

I, for one, found the play excruciating. I could barely sit in my seat. In part, I hated to see the poor woman ridiculed, or even examined. But the show is quite well done—thanks principally to the lead, Judy Kaye, who portrays FFJ. Donald Corren plays the sidekick, Cosme McMoon, Mrs. J’s pianist, who is a legitimate musician. (Incidentally, McMoon was the composer of the wonderful song “Crazy Rhythm”—no, not “Fascinating Rhythm”—which is heard throughout the play. It’s one of the best things about the play.)

Permit me to tell you something: I’m not a great one to predict what will happen in a show, or movie, or what have you. I just about never say, in the first minutes of a movie, “He will get a sex change, and she will shoot the mailman.” But I just knew that Judy Kaye—who is a fine singer—would have to sing legitimately. I don’t think one’s ego could take not proving one’s ability, in a long Broadway show. Throughout Souvenir, Kaye does an excellent job of singing badly, which is not necessarily easy. Her “Caro nome,” for example, is a hooting, screeching mess.

Well, just as I thought, Kaye sings straight at the end—the song is the Bach-Gounod “Ave Maria.” (The conceit is that this is the way Mrs. J. heard herself, when she was making a hash of things.) I boast now—and perhaps everyone else predicted this too—because I may never guess right again!

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 24 Number 6, on page 53
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