In recent months, I have discussed the residencies at Carnegie Hall of two orchestras: the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic. Care for a third? The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, which traveled to the hall for two concerts. Orchestras aren’t ranked like tennis players, but if you had to choose a Big Three in the world, you could do worse than to name the Berlin, Vienna, and Amsterdam orchestras. But understand that this is subjective, even mischievous.
The man standing before an orchestra makes a big difference, and the RCO—our shorthand for the Amsterdam orchestra—had its chief conductor, Mariss Jansons. He also plays this role for the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Munich. We had him in America for a while, when he led the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Some people, who know what they’re talking about, say that the PSO was the best orchestra in the country during this time.
The RCO began its first concert at Carnegie Hall with the Sibelius Violin Concerto. The soloist was a countrywoman—not of the conductor, who is Latvian, but of the orchestra. I am speaking of Janine Jansen, the superb young Dutch violinist who has proven herself in a range of repertoire. She did some very good playing in the Sibelius Concerto: Her introspection at the beginning was almost painful; we felt that we were listening in on something deep and personal. Along the way, there were some questionable interpretive touches—ritardandi and pauses, for example—and some technical bobbles. But Jansen will always give an accomplished account.
The problem was that this was a small-scale Sibelius Concerto: not big enough, or bristling enough, or powerful enough. You, or at least I, kept asking for more: more intensity, more rapture, more sound—more, more, more. The work, intelligently played, simply did not make the impact it should.
But the audience provided a big ovation, and the violinist provided an encore. Remember the famous headline “Menuhin Fiddles, Orchestra Burns”? Jansen prevented any burning by enlisting a member of the orchestra in her encore. With the concertmaster, Vesko Eschkenazy, she played a movement from Prokofiev’s Sonata for Two Violins. It was brought off with beauty and poise.
After intermission, Jansons—as distinct from Jansen—led the orchestra in one of the great Romantic symphonies, the Rachmaninoff Second. The first two movements were a clear success: sweeping, kaleidoscopic, enthralling. Jansons breathed like a champion (and breathing is key in Rachmaninoff, whether the work is for piano, orchestra, or piccolo). You could forget details, even the world, and simply become absorbed in the music. The famous and beloved third movement, Adagio—from which we get the pop song “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again”—suffered from some shapelessness. And the finale, Allegro vivace, needed more passion, more swirling excitement, and more speed. It could even have done with a touch of delirium, I would say. But Jansons had been satisfying enough.
There would surely be an encore, and I like to guess these things. What would it be? I took account of the composers on the program, and guessed that the encore would be one of two pieces: Valse triste (Sibelius) or an orchestral transcription of the Vocal- ise (Rachmaninoff). It was Valse triste. (I shouldn’t break my arm, patting myself on the back, because this was a pretty easy guess.) That sad waltz never loses its allure, does it? There used to be an ad slogan for a ham: “It’ll haunt you till it’s gone.” Valse triste, may I say, will haunt you all the way home, and maybe even into the next day.
For their second concert, Jansons and the RCO had but a single work on the program: Mahler’s Symphony No. 3. The evening had the makings of an extraordinary one: Jansons is a great Mahler conductor; the RCO is a great orchestra; and Lord knows the Mahler Third is a great symphony. Before the downbeat, a sentence stole into my mind: “For what we are about to receive, let us be truly thankful.” The experience proved gratifying indeed.
The orchestra was magnificent in its sound and in its technical execution. The music sometimes glowed, sometimes growled, or snarled. Jansons brought out the strangeness of the work, and also its humanity. This was one great-hearted man conducting another—Jansons joining with Mahler. The scherzo was particularly arresting, having all the vigor and precision you could want. The penultimate movement, with the children’s chorus, was charming, suave, glistening—delightsome. The finale started with nothing less than holiness. The music was unusually light and transparent, too. And the movement built from there, in its healing, affirmative way. The timpani were notably purposeful, issuing life-beats.
Probably, there should never be an encore after the Mahler Third—this symphony is a final word. But what could the RCO play? Often, visiting orchestras offer something from the home country. And an oxymoron occurred to me: “Dutch composer.” Puzzling, for a land of immortal painters, among other artists. In any case, the RCO played no encore, needing none. Over the two nights, we learned once more that this is an ensemble of great value, an adornment to Holland itself. I had a jarring thought: How will the RCO fare under sharia?
It has been a good season in New York for George Benjamin, a British composer born in 1960. Specifically, it has been a good season for one of his works—a work that is actually two works, as I will explain. In November, in a recital at Alice Tully Hall, the French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard played Benjamin’s Piano Figures. This is a set of ten small pieces, so small they might be called micro-pieces. At some point, Benjamin took these pieces, expanded them, and orchestrated them, christening the result Dance Figures. The New York Philharmonic played this set in February.
The figures are dancy indeed, and sometimes song-like. It is not hard to discern the influence of Stravinsky. The music is dissonantly melodic, you might say, or tonally atonal. The pieces are distinct from one another, but they are not merely separate episodes: They form a coherent whole. According to the Philharmonic’s program notes, “Dance Figures was imagined from the outset as both a score to be choreographed and a stand-alone orchestral work.” I vote for choreography: I think the music would benefit from dancing for an audience member to see. It gives the impression of a soundtrack, or in any case an accompaniment. The set is undoubtedly well crafted, but I fail to see much inspiration in it. Perhaps on a second hearing, or, counting the November piano performance, a third?
The Daughter of the Regiment returned to the Metropolitan Opera. Two seasons ago, the company staged a new production of Donizetti’s comedy by Laurent Pelly. The singing stars were Natalie Dessay, the French soprano, and Juan Diego Flórez, the Peruvian tenor. This season, Flórez was back, but there was a new Daughter in the cast: Diana Damrau, the German soprano. Damrau and Flórez are both high-flying exponents of bel canto, and they duly dazzled. Damrau, looking a little like Hänsel with a pigtail, frolicked, pouted, and sashayed through her part. Once, while borne aloft and lying on her side, she absolutely nailed a high E flat. Flórez has a lot of high Cs to sing, and these were a little tight, but who could care? They were there, like clockwork.
There is a young American mezzo—or is she a true contralto?—named Meredith Arwady. She was the Marquise of Berkenfield, and she showed several gifts, including a glorious bottom. I should rephrase that: a glorious lower register. Arwady has some of the booming volume of Stephanie Blythe, and I imagine she is tired already of comparisons to Blythe. She will have to get used to them—just as Blythe, I would wager, had to get used to comparisons to Marilyn Horne.
Dame Kiri Te Kanawa—Kiri the Kiwi—appeared as the Duchess of Krakenthorp. Was this her farewell to the Met? Possibly. If so, she went out with a lark, rather than something high-toned: The Duchess is a very comic character, certainly as played by Te Kanawa. And the soprano interpolated a song by Ginastera (yes, Ginastera). She sounded very, very good, as she had in her farewell recital at Carnegie Hall in 2007. This is a singer enviably well preserved. For years, there has been much crabbed and sniffy comment about her. The usual charge is, “Pretty voice, no brains.” In my view, this is not a very brainy opinion.
Back to the Philharmonic—which, one night, ditched its regular home, Avery Fisher Hall, for something more downtown and more upscale: Carnegie Hall. The bill of fare included a work by Magnus Lindberg, a Finn who is the orchestra’s composer-in-residence. Born in 1958, Lindberg has had evolutions in his life, as many of us do. The Philharmonic’s program notes contained a statement he made in the 1980s: “Only the extreme is interesting. Striving for a balanced totality is nowadays an impossibility … An original mode of expression can only be achieved through the marginal—the hypercomplex combined with the primitive.” That is an absolutely perfect expression of musical dogmatism. It should send a chill down our spines as we read it.
But Lindberg lost some of his dogmatism, certainly by the time he wrote his clarinet concerto in 2002—and this was the work we heard. Again a quotation from the program notes: “I wanted to do a real concerto. There was a time when a concerto had to be something like an anti-concerto—against the instrument and against the whole conception of soloist and orchestra. Today I don’t see any problem in doing a real concerto where the soloist plays in juxtaposition or together with the orchestra.” Thank heaven for that. And there was never any “problem”—except in the minds of those willing to be slaves of fashion.
Lindberg’s clarinet concerto is in one movement with five sections. Solo instrument and orchestra are strikingly well integrated. The work is rhapsodic, tumultuous, restless. There is lots of percussion, this being a modern work, but the percussion is not without purpose. And the concerto is genuinely exciting, not merely frenetic. The listener occasionally needs a break, a spell of more soothing music, and he gets it: There is a Christmassy stretch, I dare say, even a dose of the Disneyesque. It’s hard to tell whether the composer is mocking or in earnest. He has the clarinet make every sound it can, and probably some it should not. And it was amazing—surprising—to see that the work ends in a warm C major.
The soloist was the clarinetist who has long played this work, Kari Kriikku, the composer’s fellow Finn. He played the concerto to within an inch of its life—or to within an inch of his? This is an exhaustingly, almost punishingly virtuosic work. The clarinetist has a long, difficult, dazzling cadenza. As Kriikku was playing it, a violist in the orchestra beamed at him. Quite right.
Into Carnegie Hall came the Mariinsky Orchestra from St. Petersburg, led by its famous chief, Valery Gergiev. One of his favorite composers is Berlioz: He conducts a lot of him in the concert hall and in the opera house. On this evening, we had Roméo et Juliette. What is it, exactly? It is a typical Berliozian hybrid, dubbed by the composer “a dramatic symphony for soloists, chorus, and orchestra.” Gergiev handled the music with discipline and smarts—also with a great deal of respect. He did not let the score waft away in clouds of sugar. At its best, this performance had an electric tautness.
In all likelihood, the most popular part of this symphony—or whatever you choose to call it—is the Queen Mab Scherzo. Gergiev and the Mariinsky let down here. We have heard many more gossamer, more shimmering, and more accurate accounts of this scherzo—faster ones, too. The dullness of this account was an unexpected mark against the evening. And the performance altogether seemed to run out of gas, as Gergiev fell into a pedestrian, businesslike mode. Nevertheless: He delivered, all told, a solid reading of a seldom-performed work.
Incidentally, the Mariinsky Orchestra is now traveling under that name: the Mariinsky Orchestra. During Soviet times, they were the Kirov Orchestra. After the USSR collapsed, they readopted the name Mariinsky—which was their name before the revolution—but traveled under “Kirov,” because the West was used to that name. Then they took an intermediate step: traveling under “Mariinsky Orchestra of the Kirov Theatre.” Now they have dispensed with “Kirov,” which is to the good: He was a brutal Bolshevik (even if killed by other brutal Bolsheviks). When I brought up the name issue with Gergiev in a public interview a few years ago, he was at pains to say that, really, Sergei Kirov had been a kinder, gentler sort of Bolshevik. In any case, it’s pleasing to report that the orchestra from St. Petersburg is now the Mariinsky, plain and simple, with Kirov on the ash heap of history.
Ready for something off the beaten path? In the mid-1990s, Jessica Douglas-Home wrote a biography of Violet Gordon Woodhouse, her great-aunt. Who was Gordon Woodhouse? A harpsichordist known as the “English Landowska.” She lived from 1872 to 1948, and that life was a most unconventional one: She formed a ménage with several men, one of whom was her husband. There were amorous relationships with women too (one gathers). In the mid-2000s, Roger Scruton, the philosopher well known to readers of The New Criterion, composed an opera about Gordon Woodhouse, Violet. I have to ask whether there’s anything this versatile man can’t do. It would not be surprising to learn that he had entered the Winter Olympics as a snowboarder.
Douglas-Home has fashioned a presentation called Violet: A Dramatization in Words and Music of the Life of Violet Gordon Woodhouse. It was performed in a private home in New York for the benefit of Classical Action: Performing Arts Against AIDS. Douglas-Home has written a script for an actress and an actor, who perform a variety of functions. Interspersed with the reading and acting are pieces for the harpsichord—by Bach, Couperin, Scarlatti, and others. The pieces were played by Maggie Cole, an American who lives in Britain. She is a musician of authority and taste.
The entire dramatization is a treat: beautifully conceived and written, ever engaging, and a break away from the everyday (to quote an old ad slogan, for the second time in this chronicle). I am not alone in thinking that Violet’s life would make an appealing movie, on Merchant-Ivory lines.
Olga Borodina did one of the things she does best: give an all-Russian recital. This one was in Carnegie Hall, and the Russian mezzo was in excellent form. That was a relief, because she had been showing signs of wear and tear. Whatever the recent past, on this night she gave a recital worthy of her greatness. There were several composers on the program. In the old days, we heard Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff romances, basically. These days, with the West happily flooded with Russian singers, we are exposed to all sorts of composers. Borodina sang Rimsky-Korsakov, Cui, Balakirev, and Sviridov, among others. One of her Balakirev set was called “Spanish Song.” She also sang the Spanish Songs, Op. 100, of Shostakovich. The first of that set is “Farewell, Granada!”
I will give you a word about encores. Some years ago, Borodina did an all-Russian recital in Alice Tully Hall (I don’t quite remember the composers). She sang two encores, not Russian at all: “Ombra mai fu” (Handel) and “Summertime” (you know who). And most recently at Carnegie? She departed from the Russian here too, singing two Spanish songs—real Spanish songs, by Falla. And then she turned to the opera world: to that prize aria of mezzos, “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” from Saint-Saëns’s Samson and Delilah. By the way, anyone who heard Borodina and Domingo in those roles at the Met will never forget it. Borodina sang the aria capably, but something surprising happened at the end—even shocking: She didn’t go up for the high B flat. She stayed down low. She must have known that she didn’t have the note, and we can admire her prudence. Still, this was an unsettling note—non-note?—on which to end a stellar evening.
We will end with Michael Hersch—a composer discussed before in these pages. He is a young man, not yet forty, who grew up in Virginia and teaches at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. He won a slew of awards right out of the gate, and his music has been showcased by, among others, Mariss Jansons. A couple of years ago, I did a public interview of Jansons in Salzburg. (This was the same series in which Gergiev took part.) I asked him about contemporary composers worth hearing—and one of the few names he mentioned was that of Hersch.
In 2005, Hersch finished The Vanishing Pavilions, a profound, visionary, almost apocalyptic work for piano that takes approximately two and a half hours to play. Hersch has now written a similar work called Last Autumn. It was premiered in Philadelphia toward the end of last year, in a version for cello and French horn. The cellist was Daniel Gaisford, who has championed Hersch’s two sonatas for solo cello; and the French hornist was the composer’s brother, Jamie. The composer has made another version of Last Autumn: for cello and alto saxophone. And this version had its premiere in New York, at Merkin Hall.
Last Autumn is laid out in two “books”—Book I and Book II—and there are about twenty movements in each of them. Half of them are “companioned” (the composer’s word) by texts: lines of poetry by W. G. Sebald, a German who lived from 1944 to 2001. For example, the first movement is “marked,” if that’s the word, “The air stirs the light …” The movements without Sebald have such designations as “March,” “Psalm,” “Scherzo,” and “Lullaby.” The music is recognizably Herschian: concentrated, mysterious, riveting, quirky, demanding, sometimes violent. I think of that critic’s cliché “searing intensity.” Hersch writes as though his life depended on it, as though everything were at stake. His internal life must be powerful, sometimes jolting (who knows?).
The combination of cello and alto sax seems odd at first, but it quickly comes to seem perfectly natural. And it’s interesting that a work for two instruments, one of which is not the piano, with its vast range and possibilities, can be gargantuan. Hersch was certainly fortunate in his exponents, his players: Gaisford, who is always superb and curiously underfamous, and Gary Louie, a Peabody professor and a student of the renowned Donald Sinta, who has spent his career at the University of Michigan.
According to the evening’s program notes, Hersch is composing another big work, Cedar Apostles, which like The Vanishing Pavilions is for piano. Pavilions, Autumn, and Apostles will form a trilogy or cycle, spanning more than eight hours of music. Length aside, Hersch is a bona fide composer with important things to say, as Jansons recognizes, and as more and more people will recognize as this exceptional career continues.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 28 Number 8, on page 53
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