Have you ever heard Prokofiev’s American overture? I hadn’t either. It is a rarity in the corpus of a major composer. He wrote it in 1926 for an ensemble of seventeen instruments; he revised it for full orchestra two years later. Curiously enough, it was not the full-orchestra version with which the New York Philharmonic began a concert last month; it was the chamber version. The little band on the stage had a conductor nonetheless, and he was Michael Tilson Thomas, whose regular job is with the San Francisco Symphony. The American overture is open-hearted, kinetic, brash—American-sounding. Would I think that if not for the title? Not a chance. With a title, a composer can direct the listener’s mind almost anywhere. In any case, this overture is pleasant if not memorable.

Next on the Philharmonic’s program was a violin concerto, and a fairly new one, completed in 2007. This was the second violin concerto of Sofia Gubaidulina, the Russian composer, and it has a nickname—actually, a name. The formal name of the work is In tempus praesans, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. (Those first words mean “in the present time.”) There are some who regard Gubaidulina, not just as a very good or important composer, but as a great one. Several months ago, I was speaking with a music scholar, and I said, “Do you agree that Shostakovich was the last great composer we’ve had?” Oh, no, she said: Gubaidulina is great, and, in fact, superior to Shostakovich. I myself don’t see it, not by a long shot, but anyone can see that Gubaidulina has a gift. In tempus praesans is dedicated to Anne-Sophie Mutter, and it was she who was the soloist with the Philharmonic. The orchestra’s program notes said that the concerto “reveals [Gubaidulina’s] characteristically dark emotional terrain and her interest in mathematically derived structural ideas.” How much modern music, by how many composers, do those words describe!

As I recall, the concerto begins with the violin alone, and then the orchestra comes in—or rather, the percussion comes in. The percussion is prominent throughout. More than once, I have quipped that today’s music has more pots and pans than Williams-Sonoma. Future music historians may look back on this period as the Age of Percussion. In feeling, Gubaidulina’s concerto is often tense, martial, fierce, proud. There are several modern tricks, such as those writhing snakes—a sound that suggests those snakes. In any event, the work is well-made and interesting. That can be a pooh-poohing word, “interesting,” or an expression of faint praise. I don’t mean it to be. Interesting is better than uninteresting, which so much art is. I would like to hear the concerto again, to absorb it further. As for the soloist, Mutter, she came to play, as they say in sports. She was focused, accurate, and convinced. Not always does she come to play, and we can say that of us all, really.

To close the concert, Tilson Thomas led the orchestra in a Tchaikovsky symphony, the second one, dubbed “Little Russian”—which refers, not to a short Muscovite, but to Ukraine. The first movement began with a poor entrance: ker-plunk. The rest of the movement was okay, but still rather sloppy and indifferent. The second movement—maybe the most charming, slyest march ever written—was okay, too. Nothing special, nothing pleasurable. The Scherzo lacked its heart-pounding excitement. And the Finale? It began with another bad entrance, another kerplunk. But the orchestra proceeded in respectable fashion. Many of us have observed that a mediocre performance can be worse than a lousy performance. A performance can be interestingly lousy. This performance of the Tchaikovsky Second was killed by the quality of okayness. I will remark one bright spot: The principal horn, Philip Myers, had a strong night.

I remember when Kurt Masur, the Philharmonic’s one-time music director, led the orchestra in this work. It must have been twelve years ago. This “stodgy kapellmeister” was not supposed to be a Tchaikovsky man, but he conducted the “Little Russian” superbly: with rare discipline and verve. The music was absolutely thrilling. Honestly, I have not thought of the symphony the same way again. I said to a senior critic, sitting near me, “This was Tchaikovsky for those who don’t like Tchaikovsky—Tchaikovsky with Beethoven qualities.” He replied, “Anyone who doesn’t like Tchaikovsky is an [expletive deleted].” Masur’s successor, Lorin Maazel, put on a Tchaikovsky festival. This was supposed to be proof positive of the essential backwardness of his tenure. The festival was wonderful.

Sticking with Tchaikovsky, go to the Metropolitan Opera, for his Queen of Spades. This is a masterpiece, as is especially clear when it is well conducted, well played, well sung, and well directed. At the Met, it was. There were people who went back to see The Queen of Spades again and again, so enthralled were they. The singing was first-rate. But I will talk mainly about the conducting, on which so much hinges.

In the pit was Andris Nelsons, a Latvian just over thirty, and the music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in England. There must be something in the water there. At least, they know how to attract them. Preceding Nelsons in the post was Sakari Oramo, the excellent Finn. I have enthused about Nelsons before: That was last season, when he conducted Puccini’s Turandot at the Met. Last February, he had a very good outing with the Philharmonic. He was especially good in Beethoven’s C-minor piano concerto (in which Jonathan Biss was the soloist). In The Queen of Spades, he was not less than magnificent. The story of the opera was told in the orchestra. Seldom has this opera sounded so symphonic, to me. And yet Nelsons did not overwhelm the singers. He simply conducted The Queen of Spades in full. He was alive to everything. He had the details right and the overall picture right. The music was controlled, never wayward, yet it breathed. This is how Tchaikovsky ought to be. Nelsons was never sentimental and never crude. The opera was beautiful, terrible, and exceptionally moving.

Let me tell you about something I noticed in Nelsons’s bio—this was in February, at the Philharmonic. His bio contains the humblest sentence I have ever seen in such a bio. And musicians’ bios aren’t natural homes for humility, I can assure you. Nelsons, we are informed, “has been studying privately with Mariss Jansons since 2002.” Jansons is the young man’s fellow Latvian, and one of the best conductors in the world. Remember, Nelsons has a pretty big-deal post: the music directorship in Birmingham. Yet he is willing to say, or have said, in his bio that he is still studying with Jansons. Good for him, on every count.

I have a great deal to say about the singers in The Queen of Spades, and would like to spend several paragraphs on each. But I will confine myself to the tenor, Vladimir Galouzine. He made big, heroic sounds, as you might expect a Hermann to make. But these sounds were always warm, rounded, and beautiful. They were warm even when they were ringing. Galouzine never barked, pinched, or strained. And he sang all of his lines as though thinking about them—as though meaning what he said, or sang. This ought to be a given, but you don’t get it from every singer. The chorus has a big role to play in this opera, and the Met’s came through. They were especially effective in hushed prayer. And Elijah Moshinsky’s production, from 1995, is both striking and fitting. A production that actually matches the libretto and score—how novel.

Some years ago, I did a public interview of the conductor Valery Gergiev in Salzburg. We talked about how some sneer at Tchaikovsky and Puccini. He said that audiences would always be drawn to them, and for very good reasons. And he said, Sure, you can perform Tchaikovsky and Puccini—or Wagner and “even Mozart”—in “an insipid way.” But then “the fault is yours, not theirs.”

More Tchaikovsky? This will be the violin concerto, another masterpiece (as well as a showpiece—a masterpiece-showpiece). Three chronicles ago, I hailed a performance that remains one of the best of the season: Nikolaj Znaider’s playing of the Elgar Violin Concerto with the Philharmonic, under Sir Colin Davis. I thought Avery Fisher Hall might levitate. So it was with some anticipation that I went to Carnegie Hall, to hear this same Znaider in the Tchaikovsky. Behind him, and around him, was the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, conducted by Iván Fischer. This was not Znaider’s night. And the Tchaikovsky may not be his concerto. In the first movement, he showed little of the fluidity and flair that it takes to play this music. He was square and sober, not to say grave. He sawed through the music like it was work. Playing that is effortful, at least in this concerto, is no fun. Some of Znaider’s intonation was awful. And he played with a big, fat tone, which was fine. The problem was that it was unvaried. Tchaikovsky needs some slipperiness, lilt, and charm, too. The second movement, the Canzonetta, went a lot better than the first. In fact, it was lovely—thoughtfully shaped and sung. But the Finale was a crashing disappointment. It was a grim march to the end. The music was deprived of its grace, impishness, zing. It did not sound like itself.

Znaider had something else to play, however—an encore, the Bach D-minor Sarabande. And he played it beautifully. He could not have summoned more sensitivity, nuance, and taste. Go figure.

Again to the Met, for an opera by Rossini. I have long thought that Diana Damrau, the German soprano, and Joyce DiDonato, the American mezzo, should get together. Should be a performing pair. They have much in common: loads of technique, innate musicality, and pizzazz—personality to burn. In the recent past, they have taken turns portraying Rosina in the Met’s Barber of Seville. There is little to choose between them: One is a soprano, the other is a mezzo; one sings “Una voce poco fa” in F, the other sings it in E. Otherwise, who could favor one over the other? Both are a joy, and similarly so. I was saying to someone last summer, “They should really do duets-and-arias concerts, and albums. Get a Joan ’n’ Jackie thing going.” Forgive my familiarity: I was referring to Dame Joan Sutherland, the late soprano, and Marilyn Horne, the mezzo-soprano, whose nickname is “Jackie.”

The Met has just gotten Damrau and DiDonato together in Le Comte Ory, an opera never before staged at the Met. Joining the women was Juan Diego Flórez, the leading Rossini tenor of our time. The show should really have been brilliant. But you never know: What can’t miss on paper, sometimes misses; and what seems unpromising, can hit. At any rate, the three singers were flying, on the night I attended. They were firing on all cylinders. They were free, liquid, and stylish. Damrau sang her easy E flats, Flórez his easy C’s, and DiDonato her easy B’s. Trills, roulades, and other things danced through the air. Rarely is there so much technical security on one stage. Each of the singers acted appealingly, too. Damrau seemed like a real person, not a Rossini stock character. Flórez, who has often been stiff and forced, was a hoot. And DiDonato carried herself amusingly like a man—hers was a trouser role.

Nostalgia always tries to tell us that nothing today is quite as good as what was in the past. But I’m not sure you have ever been able to do a whole lot better than Damrau, DiDonato, and Flórez for Rossini singing. And I still maintain that those women should go on the road, and into the recording studio. Maybe make some TV specials too, à la Sills and Burnett.

Back to Carnegie Hall, for a recital by Leif Ove Andsnes, the Norwegian pianist. On the first half of the program were a great Beethoven sonata, the one in C major known as the “Waldstein,” and Brahms’s Four Ballades, Op. 10; on the second half were Schoenberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces, Op. 19, and another great Beethoven sonata, his very last sonata, the one in C minor, Op. 111. I thought of a famous quip by Schnabel: “My programs are boring both before and after intermission.” He meant, of course, that, as a rule, he did not play showpieces or bonbons.

Some of Andsnes’s hallmarks are solidity, compactness, and efficiency. We heard these in the “Waldstein.” Not a hair was out of place, if you know what I mean. Some of the sonata had an unusual Mozartean quality: a crispness, a restraint. You might have asked for more warmth and lushness—maybe a speck more pedal. Andsnes is an admirably spare pedaler; but this spareness can be overdone. The pianist’s sound was often dry. The last movement was correct and earnest, but, frankly, it was dull—and that is not this music, as you know. The first Brahms ballade, the one in D minor, was really good. I have never heard it played better, and just about every pianist plays it. Andsnes’s straightforwardness served this piece very well. It just moved along, movingly. The next ballade, the one in D major, is one of the most beautiful pieces we have. Again, Andsnes was straightforward. There is no need to milk this little beauty. But he might have allowed more tenderness, more songfulness, more poetry. The Schoenberg pieces? Andsnes gave each one its logic and personality. And then there was Op. 111. In the first of the two movements, Andsnes was his solid, smart self. He was that way in the Arietta, too. No fuss, no muss—that’s Andsnes. This music has been played more transfiguringly. But at least Andsnes didn’t approach it as a holy object to tremble before. And the Arietta will out—will work its magic.

Where do you stand on the encore issue? Should a pianist play an encore after Op. 111, or is the sonata a kind of final word? I say, final word. But Andsnes disagreed. And if you’re going to play one encore, you might as well play more. Andsnes played three. They were a little piece for children by Kurtág (in the same key as the Arietta, which helped, somehow); a Chopin waltz, the one in A flat, Op. 42; and Schumann’s Romance in F sharp. Andsnes played them all splendidly, just splendidly.

As it was a good idea to get Damrau and DiDonato together, it was a good idea to get Dorothea Röschmann and David Daniels together. She is a German soprano, he is an American countertenor. What do they have in common? Nothing, except for vocal and musical excellence. I have referred to Röschmann as a Schwarzkopf for our time. She is intelligent, elegant, versatile, a model in Mozart, Schubert, Strauss, and others. Daniels was both the spark of the late countertenor craze and the best thing to come out of it. There was a lot of hype surrounding him, and hype can be off-putting. But he is the real McCoy, a true singing musician.

In Carnegie Hall, Röschmann and Daniels sang an all-Handel program, mainly arias, with some duets sprinkled in. Did Schwarzkopf ever sing Handel? Oh, yes. No one ever sang “Care selve,” the aria from Atalanta, more heartbreakingly. Röschmann can sing Handel too, and Daniels is one of the most famous Handelians of this age. The two performed with a period band, from about ten blocks north: Juilliard415. I have written the name as they do: italicized “a” and all. The name has to do with the tuning of A in Baroque times. Names of businesses and such have taken some odd turns in recent years, Don’tYouAgree?

As I listened to Röschmann and Daniels sing their Handel, I thought, “Uh-oh, there will be no avoiding the P-word.” The singers were, I’m afraid, perfect. They were immaculate in their technique and unerring in their expression. They were correct and tasteful, but not demure. They were immaculate and soulful, a combination not often achieved. The two were even better in duet than they were singly. They must have enjoyed singing together, these peers. Will a recording ensue? May there at least be a high-quality pirate of what took place on this Sunday

In the November 2009 issue of this magazine, I spilled a lot of ink—not friendly ink—on the Met’s new production of Puccini’s Tosca. The production was conceived by Luc Bondy, the Swiss director (and the son of François Bondy, a journalist and novelist, an anti-Communist when it was important, and hard, to be one). The Bondy Tosca has been revived this season. I will not spill more ink. I will say only that they have—someone has—made some adjustments. A prime example: In the original, Scarpia put a disgusting sexual move on a statue of the Virgin Mary, at the end of Act I. Now he merely caresses her face. Ah, the forces of reaction are forever at work. What’s a progressive director to do?

The principal roles, on an April evening, were taken by Violeta Urmana, the Lithuanian soprano (whom we first knew as a mezzo); Salvatore Licitra, the Italian tenor; and James Morris, the veteran American bass. Urmana was a powerhouse of a Tosca, as you would expect. She was also somewhat square in her singing, not altogether Puccini-esque. She did not do lilt very well—as when Tosca, in Act I, sings about the little cottage she shares with Cavaradossi. Scalding, she did very well. In Act II, Scarpia sings, “Quanto fuoco!” “What a fiery outburst” (from Tosca)! It was. And Urmana’s “Vissi d’arte” was stout and gleaming. Licitra, you may remember, made big news ten years ago: He was a last-minute substitute for Luciano Pavarotti in this house, the Met, in this role, Cavaradossi. The press was itching to write, “A star is born,” and some did. But he had been merely adequate. Last month, he had a bad first act, bellowing sharp. Not often do Italian tenors bellow sharp—Russian ones, maybe. By Act II, however, he was much better, singing with his best barrel-chested ardor. And the Scarpia of James Morris? Wily and magnetic. To my ears, Morris has always had a Scarpia snarl in his voice, even when singing Wotan. And the Scarpia snarl works especially well for Scarpia.

A brief word about Paul Plishka, another American bass, even more veteran than Morris. For the past several seasons, he has taken small parts at the Met. He was Sourin in The Queen of Spades. And, here in Tosca, he was the sacristan. He used to have bigger roles. It requires some humility to ratchet down to the smaller roles—taking snuff as the sacristan, drinking and gossiping in The Queen of Spades (and in other operas), collecting the rent in La bohème, demanding Otello’s sword at the end, etc. Plishka sings and acts these parts very well. He is a continuing asset to the Met, and, I imagine, a help and guide to younger singers.

End this chronicle in Greenwich Village—at Le Poisson Rouge, where classical “acts” sometimes appear. In fact, regularly appear. Ignat Solzhenitsyn performed with two students from Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute, where he teaches. He is a pianist and conductor—and the middle of the writer’s three sons. Joining him at Le Poisson Rouge were a violist and clarinetist. The three played a number of pieces for this combination of instruments, including a new one: Book of Days, by Daron Hagen, an American composer born in 1961. If I have understood correctly, the seven days of the week function as movements. They begin with Monday, not Sunday, and the first movement is simple, tuneful, and pleasant. (Are your Mondays like that?) The next movement is busy, squirmy, flitting—also a little jazzy. As I have mentioned before, composers can’t help being jazzy, when a clarinet is at hand. This goes double for American composers. Hagen puts a variety of moods and styles in his “book.” How these relate to the particular days, I can’t really say. I can say that the final movement, for Sunday, is hymn-like. I can also say that the work held my attention. Faint praise, right? From me, not at all.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 29 Number 9, on page 56
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