The city had its annual flurry of opening nights, and first out of the gates was the New York Philharmonic—they are traditionally first. Lorin Maazel, the music director, embarked on his last season. He came to us in 2002. And, next fall, he will be replaced by Alan Gilbert, who is coming from the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic. We will have years to bemoan or puzzle over or hail him.
As is customary, the opening-night concert began with the national anthem. Maazel conducted it as he always does: purposefully, nobly, meaningfully. He does not consider it a beer-hall embarrassment to be gotten over with. He continued with Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture, which he conducted with flair but also with restraint. This was a friendly, merry account, rather than a rip-roaring one. And then we had our soloist of the evening: Sir James Galway (otherwise “Jimmy”). Who would have predicted, thirty years ago, that a flutist—a flutist, of all musicians—would become an international superstar? But Galway has, thanks to his multiple skills.
With the Philharmonic, he played the concerto of Jacques Ibert. He showed his superb technique, which included downright deviltry. And, in the work’s slow movement, he produced some lovely colors. But something was wrong with this performance—something that dwells in the mental, and musical, realm. When it was over, the friend sitting next to me said, “Pretty boring for opening night.” Yes, it was—for any night.
But Maazel saved the day in the second half with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. Last season, he conducted an entire Tchaikovsky festival—which is part of the bill of indictment against him: the bill that says, “Maazel’s has been a backward-looking, unadventurous tenure.” That’s untrue, but even if it were true: Isn’t there something to be said for conducting Tchaikovsky memorably well? Maazel was a pro in the Fourth, and the last movement lifted you from your seat. (And not because you were in a rush to get out, either.)
The Metropolitan Opera opened with a gala featuring the soprano Renée Fleming—that was the official opening. First, the company performed Verdi’s Requiem, in honor of Luciano Pavarotti, who died in September 2007. James Levine was on the podium, or rather, in the pit. And this was not a mountaintop performance—one for the ages. That’s a ridiculous statement, isn’t it? Yes, but Levine gives those—performances of that type. I remember a Verdi Requiem of his in Carnegie Hall. When it was finished, and the musicians had left the stage, the audience was reluctant to leave. I think they wanted to remain in the atmosphere of the performance. I have seldom seen anything like it.
At the Met, Levine had four worthy soloists, including Marcello Giordani—who, as the tenor, was in a ticklish position: in other words, the Pavarotti position. The great man sang this music many, many times (including on special occasions such as this). Giordani did some faltering, and a lot of it. But he always maintained a basic dignity. And he projects such decency—such goodwill—you root for him, regardless. The mezzo was Olga Borodina, who is simply one of the best Verdi Requiem mezzos of all time—along with Stignani, Horne, and your other favorites. She did not have her best outing on this evening, but who could really complain? The soprano was Barbara Frittoli, who made up for technical problems with a very touching sincerity.
How many times does it happen—that the least-known member of a vocal quartet or cast is the best (or close to it)? Levine’s bass, Ildar Abdrazakov, sang his music magnificently. As for Levine: No, it was not a mountaintop performance. But even halfway up the mountain with him—particularly in Verdi’s Requiem—is a fine journey.
Before Renée Fleming took the stage at the Met, Lorin Maazel conducted another concert—this one beginning with a new work, Rhapsodies for Orchestra by Steven Stucky. He is an American who teaches at Cornell. And his piece is both typical and atypical—typical of his time and not. What is typical? Like so many modern pieces, Rhapsodies employs a lot of percussion. Indeed, future historians of music may look back at our time as “the Percussion Period.” Also, there are bird-in-the-jungle sounds, sci-fi, or sci-fi-ish, effects—you know these moves. And why are composers so stingy with melodies? It’s a mystery. Maybe none occurs to them.
But Rhapsodies is a good and worthwhile piece. Stucky applies washes of sound, and he layers his sound interestingly. Moreover, his piece has an intelligent and natural arc. And despite those modern moves, he recalls the American Neo-Romanticism of mid-century: Piston, Schuman, Persichetti, and those boys.
This concert had a soloist, Yefim Bronfman, who played Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor. No one now living plays this work better than he. I will set down just one detail: He played his opening measures in perfect unison—which is much harder than it looks or sounds. I once knew a woman who remembered how Rachmaninoff himself had played these measures. She wondered at the evenness of them—and she would approve of Bronfman.
Maazel and the Philharmonic made good partners in this concerto, doing more than conductor and orchestra usually do. (This is traditionally a piano vehicle, pure and simple.) And, after intermission, they performed Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite and Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin Suite. In the first, Maazel was suave and urbane, but also child-like—not exactly a quality we associate with this hugely sophisticated man. In the Bartók, he was stylish, daring, exotic—like the music itself. A greatly satisfying concert.
That opening gala at the Met was a glittering affair, complete with red carpet, and celebrities to walk it. Fleming herself is a celebrity. After the gala, they handed out samples of her new perfume, which is called La Voce, from Coty. That’s fame—fame beyond opera houses. Fleming is an exceptionally versatile singer, in addition to an exceptionally good one. She sings a range of opera roles, and a range of songs. For opening night, she sang three of the roles for which she is best known: Violetta (in Verdi’s Traviata), Manon (in Massenet’s opera of the same name), and Strauss’s Countess (in Capriccio). I should say, she sang excerpts from those roles.
And how’d she do? I thought of Tiger Woods: Sometimes, after he wins a tournament, he says, “I didn’t have my A game.” This drives some of his fellow pros nuts: that he wins without his A game (and says so). Well, so it is with a performer of Fleming’s caliber: She did not have her A game. But she played well enough to win, and she richly deserved her applause—and the honor of opening the Met season.
Carnegie Hall’s season opened with an all-Bernstein concert, anchored by the San Francisco Symphony, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. This year marks the late Bernstein’s ninetieth birthday—and you know how the music business loves an anniversary. Anniversaries are practically its organizing principle. Tilson Thomas led off with the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story—and a marvelous job he and the orchestra did. They were completely idiomatic in this rightly beloved music: not too “popular,” not too “classical”—perfect, actually.
In the course of the concert, Tilson Thomas gave a speech, as musicians are wont to do now. And he said that Bernstein was “a proud LIB-ER-AL!” That’s how he said that word: with three distinct, fist-shaking syllables. Audience members went wild with joy and delight. It was one of those self-congratulatory New York moments: not a murmur of dissent. Aren’t we all wonderful? Tilson Thomas then said that Bernstein wanted to make music “to inspire a better world”—and we all know that only liberals wish a better world. Furthermore, we might ask: Was Bernstein a liberal, in any true sense? When he was raising money for the Black Panthers, who were killing cops with abandon, and having to pay legal fees, what liberalism was he advancing?
Anyway, this was a concert—despite Tilson Thomas’s speech, despite the audience’s self-congratulation. And it was, on balance, a good concert. But we might ask about Bernstein in the long term. As I see it, West Side Story will live forever—as long as there’s anything like musical theater. About the classical music, one cannot be so optimistic. Serenade, the violin concerto of sorts, is a good piece. But some of us think that most of Bernstein’s classical music will disappear with his friends and general circle—the “Lenny” crowd.
Don’t try telling that to anyone in New York, however. He still has god-like status. In an interview published in Carnegie Hall’s program, the following question was put to Alan Gilbert, the Philharmonic’s incoming chief: “We speak of the three Bs: Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. It may be too soon to add another, but if you were to try, would you include Bernstein?” Gilbert did not say no. He said that Bernstein “deserves to be considered in the pantheon of great composers.” He’ll get along just fine, will Gilbert, in New York.
To the Met again: When Karita Mattila does Salome here, she goes all the way—that is, she appears stark naked (briefly) at the end of the Dance of the Seven Veils. Patrons are sure to bring their binoculars: even if they’re sitting in the first rows. I’m not sure that this full monty adds much, except for notoriety. And I’m not sure that Mattila’s dance is terribly Salome-like: It is trashy, slutty, and Vegas, rather than mysterious, seductive, and Oriental. She might as well have a pole. But you wouldn’t throw this dance out of bed for eating crackers.
And the role of Salome is far more than a dance. The Met revived Jürgen Flimm’s 2004 production of Strauss’s opera. And Mattila was absorbing in it. She is “the consummate singing actress,” people say, and they’re not far off. She is especially complete in Salome. You may not agree with every jot and tittle (and jiggle), but this portrayal is one of the most compelling in opera today.
The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center had a good idea—kick off its season with a program of octets. Was the Mendelssohn included? No, but there are other octets—just none as winsome (and remember that the composer wrote his piece when he was sixteen—just sixteen). CMS offered works by Françaix, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, and Schubert. Stravinsky’s octet is for woodwinds and brass—and it’s nice to see them get the spotlight for a change, in a world dominated by strings. Especially welcome was the clarinet of David Shifrin, who has been extolled in these pages as one of the best instrumentalists in the world. He repeatedly confirms that.
Schubert’s Octet in F major, D. 803, is a clear masterpiece—and also an hour long. What did Dr. Johnson say about Paradise Lost? “None ever wished it longer than it is.” I doubt anyone has ever wished D. 803 longer, either. It may have seemed particularly long in the CMS performance, which sagged some. But, to say again: a masterpiece, clearly.
Very clearly a masterpiece is Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which the Met revived. You may tire of this oft-staged masterpiece—but not in a first-rate performance, which is what we had. Presiding in the pit was Louis Langrée, a Frenchman well-known at Lincoln Center: He is music director of the Mostly Mozart Festival, which occurs in the summer. And he had onstage a slew of worthy singers. I will touch on a few of them.
Don Giovanni was Erwin Schrott, the Uruguayan bass who is approaching celebrity (though not at the Fleming level). With his flowing hair and bare chest, he looked like Fabio, the model whose image appeared on countless romance-novel covers. Schrott was often as smooth in his singing as he was in his appearance. At other times, he struggled, vocally. But he always exuded charisma, a must for the bad old (or young?) don. Don Ottavio was portrayed by Matthew Polenzani, one of the great Mozart tenors in memory—no more need be said for now. And Zerlina was the young New York-born sensation Isabel Leonard. She was simply delectable, doing everything Mozart (and Da Ponte) could have wanted with this country lass.
Seeing her, you think of a favorite musical anecdote—at least I did: An experienced concertgoer took a friend, a newcomer, to an event featuring Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (famously described as “the most glamorous woman in Europe”). When Schwarzkopf walked onto the stage, the friend gasped, “And she sings, too?”
As I noted earlier, sometimes the least well-known member of a cast turns out to be the best—and that was arguably true in this Don Giovanni. Portraying Donna Anna was a Bulgarian soprano named Krassimira Stoyanova. She has an extraordinary voice: melting, poignant, adaptable. That voice is lyric, but it can penetrate easily. Her technique was unfaltering throughout the opera (and Mozart gives Anna plenty of room to falter). And she showed herself to be a smart, smart musician. Composer and librettist could not have asked anything more from her, either.
Back at the Philharmonic, Lorin Maazel conducted the Mahler Tenth, which as you know is a single movement: The composer had time to complete the Adagio, and no more. This music needs beauty of sound—and the Philharmonic failed to provide that. Indeed, the strings were downright painful. But Maazel did some interesting things with the score: giving it bite and sass. Also, one sforzando made the lady in front of me jump. (I think she’d been snoozing.) All through the Adagio, Maazel was measured and logical. He was also a little grim and dutiful—more heart would have been nice. Often, people accuse Maazel of being a cold machine—even of not liking music. This is baloney, of course: but sometimes you can forgive people for making the mistake.
On this concert, he also conducted a piece of his own: his Music for Flute and Orchestra, with Tenor Tuba Obbligato, Op. 11. (Tenor Tuba Obbligato!) Maazel composed this piece for his friend Galway in 1995. And it is well crafted—a brainy score from a brainy guy. It is episodic, balanced, a little slick. There are modernist touches—you could even say clichés—and there is considerable beauty, too: for example in a section simply called “Song.” There is also humor. At one point, the audience laughed out loud—and Maazel, on the podium, smiled when they did. It must be satisfying to a composer when people laugh at his jokes.
The soloist was the Philharmonic’s principal flute, Robert Langevin, who is not a Frenchman but near it: a Quebecker. French people have a special relationship with the flute (despite Galway and notable others). And Langevin was superb in his conductor’s piece, technically and musically. In an interview once, he said that he loved the flute for the astonishing variety of sounds it can make. He showed many of these sounds here.
On another day, Maazel conducted a concert that began with a Bach Brandenburg concerto—No. 5. Maazel is doing these concertos this season, his last with the Philharmonic: Wise and soulful is the man who knows to honor Bach. But this performance of No. 5 was pretty painful: weak, feeble, sleepy. A failed experiment, I’m afraid. The harpsichord onstage was barely audible. Why not a piano (Glenn Gould-style)? And here was something curious: Throughout the middle movement, there are only three players—a trio—and Maazel conducted them every step of the way. It didn’t help.
Following the Bach was a new piece by Bernard Rands, a British-born composer who has long lived and worked in the United States. His piece is called Chains Like the Sea, or rather, CHAINS LIKE THE SEA—what those capitals mean, I can’t tell you. The two sections of the piece are labeled in small letters: “the sabbath rang slowly” and “rivers of the windfall light.” But music doesn’t care about words, if it is instrumental. It doesn’t care whether those words are written by Dylan Thomas or you or me. What does Rands’s piece sound like?
It is squirmy, bleak, mysterious, and tense. It uses a lot of percussion. Melody is scarce, or absent. In other words, it is a modern piece, like innumerable others. People sometimes say that all Vivaldi concertos sound alike. It’s not true—but if it were, at least they’d have the excuse of having been written by the same man.
CHAINS LIKE THE SEA has a pleasantly violent ending. There are other worthwhile pages, too. In fact, the whole piece is worthwhile. Its maker is obviously a man of intelligence and skill. But the awful question is, Will anyone desire to hear this piece, as years go on (or even months)? Does it matter? I suppose there is the satisfaction of having expressed what is in one.
On the second half of the program, Maazel conducted Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 3 in G, which is kind of an honorary symphony: part of Tchaikovsky’s symphonic canon. Maazel conducted the suite with power, sweep, and stringency. The Scherzo was a touch heavy—fairies wore army boots. And that magnificent ending section could have had more pomp and majesty. It was tight and fast—but also thrilling. As a bonus, Maazel conducted an encore—the Csárdás from Swan Lake, which oozed the Old World in rhythm and overall feeling. Our maestro put on a damn good show.
La Gioconda, Ponchielli’s opera, requires six singers. (Dancers, too—let’s not forget the Dance of the Hours.) You need three women and three men, all of whom have important music to sing. And the Met arranged a high-quality cast—which included Olga Borodina, whose Laura is unsurpassed. But let me just highlight one singer, at the end of this chronicle: Ewa Podles, the Polish contralto who sang La Cieca. La Podles had not appeared at the Met since 1984. She was in her early thirties then. And she is still a wonder of nature (please pardon the cliché). Her voice arises from some primordial realm, and she seems to be able to do whatever she wants with it, technically. As La Cieca, she was riveting—in her singing, I mean. You would have expected that. But she also showed herself to be a committed actress. She is a total operatic performer—in addition to a concert singer and a recitalist.
We all know that she’s a great singer. And great singers are rare. But Podles is rare even in the small class of great singers. Most everybody is like someone else—at least one someone else. Podles is pretty much like no one, standing alone. And doubly astounding for that.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 27 Number 3, on page 48
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