Some years ago, I was talking to a conductor about new music—about the pressure on people like him to program it. He said, “You know, the usual thing is to program standard works with a sprinkling of new music. What gets left out is unknown music of the past.” The conductor spoke of his particular desire to program symphonies by Martinu and Villa-Lobos. When was the last time you heard a symphony by one of them? Like never?

I thought of this conversation when Gil Shaham appeared with the New York Philharmonic. A few seasons ago, he played a midcentury rarity with the San Francisco Symphony in Carnegie Hall: the Violin Concerto of William Schuman. With the Philharmonic, he was playing the Concerto funèbre of Karl Hartmann. The composer was a German who lived from 1905 to 1963. He had a most musical middle name: Amadeus. He composed this piece in the autumn of 1939, when night was falling, or already had. The Philharmonic’s program notes quoted a letter he wrote to the conductor Hermann Scherchen: “I wanted to put all my thoughts and feelings into the music . . .”

The program notes also informed us that Hartmann slipped subversive, anti-Nazi messages into his score—including a “Russian revolutionary song.” This is a little puzzling. In the fall of 1939, the Nazis and Soviets were strong, warm allies, dividing up the world, and only in the summer of 1941 would the Nazis turn on their ally, much to the horror and chagrin of Stalin.

In any case, the Concerto funèbre is relatively spare and understated. It has an attitude of bleak contemplation. In my judgment, the piece is competent without being entirely attention-holding. You have to applaud Gil Shaham for championing these neglected works of the past. To me, the programming of the Hartmann had an air of the archeological. But still: Shaham is doing a valuable thing. His partner in the Hartmann, on the podium, was David Zinman. This guest conductor had begun the concert with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1—which was sprightly, incisive, and excellent. The second movement was nicely sculpted and, crucially, not rushed.

A musician friend startled me one time in commenting on Schubert, who packed much greatness into his thirty-one years: If Beethoven had lived only as long as Schubert, the only symphony we would have from him is the First. Well, it’s a good one.

The next week, the Philharmonic performed another unknown work from the past, a suite from The Bassarids, an opera by Hans Werner Henze. The composer is now in his mid-eighties; he wrote the opera when he was about forty. The Bassarids is based on The Bacchae, and has a libretto by Auden and Kallman. Henze fashioned a suite from the opera in 2004, on commission from North German Radio. Christoph von Dohnányi was chief conductor of the radio orchestra at the time. And he had conducted the premiere of the opera, at the Salzburg Festival. And it was he who was on the podium of the New York Philharmonic.

Adagio, Fugue, and Maenads’ Dance, as the suite is called, has the scent of antique mystery about it. I thought of Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra, which was composed at the same time as The Bassarids. Henze’s suite is pleasantly moody. It is written for a vast orchestra, and Henze exploits his orchestra skillfully. He seems a man who takes pleasure in orchestration. In the final analysis, I found the suite forgettable, but, as with the Hartmann piece, I was glad to have heard it. Dohnányi is good to champion it. There must be some nostalgia involved too: It was a long time ago that Dohnányi conducted the premiere of that opera—1966.

Two singers came into Alice Tully Hall, for a duo recital. They were Michael Schade, the German-Canadian tenor, and Luca Pisaroni, the Italian bass-baritone. It was good to hear some of the duet literature: specifically by Mendelssohn and Schumann. This literature is unsung, in both senses. The singers sang solo music too, each in his turn. Lieder were the order of the day. You don’t often hear an Italian sing this music, or sing it well, but Pisaroni does both. At his best, he exhibits control, intelligence, and, of course, his beautiful voice.

The pianist on this occasion was Justus Zeyen, one of the best in his field. He has command of color, rhythm, and other vital matters. I have long thought it would be nice to hear him all by his lonesome.

Michael Schade? He was in fine shape—free and easy. This was true even in his Mozart songs, where a singer is so exposed. In fact, it may have been especially true there. Schade did no straining, no fudging. He was pure and true. It was “like falling off a log,” as I once heard Leontyne Price say in a master class. A Schumann set (a set of solo songs) included “Mondnacht,” that sublime thing. Here, I think Schade was a bit precious. Straightforwardness would have aided him. But, man, was it sweet—süssissimo. Super-sweet.

The lower voice on this program was to have been, not Pisaroni, but Thomas Quasthoff. In January, however, he abruptly announced his retirement. Quasthoff is in his early fifties. Health problems, he said, were simply hampering him. Many years ago, when he was at the beginning of his fame, I wrote an article about him, mentioning his peculiar physical circumstances: Quasthoff is what they used to call a “Thalidomide baby.” I said that I expected never to address this subject again, and I haven’t, until now. It occurs to me to say that, in addition to everything else he has been, Quasthoff has been very brave. Schlepping around the world, making the most of what he has—and then some. It cannot have been easy. The able-bodied must have a hard time imagining the obstacles. Anyway, his life has been smashing.

Two days after the duo recital, the aforementioned San Francisco Symphony took up residence in Carnegie Hall, for a series devoted to “American mavericks.” Who? Well, composers such as Cowell, Ruggles, Feldman—and Cage. John Cage, whose 1970 work Song Books led off the series. This is a hodgepodge, a multimedia concoction. In the evening’s program notes, there was a quote from Michael Tilson Thomas, who described Cage’s score as “basically a kind of kit from which you, the performer, can come up with songs, speeches, actions, performances on other instruments, which all add up together to create a musical event.”

MTT is the music director of the San Francisco Symphony, and he was on center stage. He wasn’t leading an orchestra: He was doing such things as making a smoothie (I think) in a blender. What else did we see, and hear? Freaky images on screens. Women making freaky sounds—talking crazy talk. Guys playing cards. Jessye Norman, joining those guys (really). Someone dribbling a basketball. Jessye typing on a typewriter. She and others singing snatches of song. MTT, taking a videocam and showing the audience images of itself. At this, many laughed as if delighted. Whatever floats your boat, I guess.

The word for the piece, I would say, is trippy. So was the performance. It may have taken drugs to enjoy it. What would Beatnik culture be without drugs? Can Haight-Ashbury possibly be cool when you’re sober? Jessye Norman was as regal as ever. Her voice sounded like its refulgent self. Whether she sang in tune, I can’t say, because the cacophony onstage made considerations such as “in tune” irrelevant. That may have been helpful.

I’m sorry, but Song Books strikes me as a massive con—yet another one. I thought of P. T. Barnum and “a sucker born every minute.” I also thought of Andy Warhol and his “Art is what you can get away with.” They seemed to get away with it in Carnegie Hall. The audience applauded robustly. Did they mean it? Or did they think they were supposed to like it? If the emperor here was wearing any clothes, I didn’t see a thread. I grant that it may have been I who was blind. Sometimes when a person, or the whole world, says, “So-and-so’s a genius,” you have to take it on faith.

There was a second New York Philharmonic program with Christoph von Dohnányi on the podium, and it began with an OOMP—an obligatory opening modern piece. The piece is certainly the right length for an OOMP, at nine minutes. But it is a little old—1985—and perhaps by too famous a composer: the late Alfred Schnittke. In any case, the piece in question is (K)ein Sommernachtstraum, the wordplay of whose title is a little hard to render in English. (Not) A Midsummer Night’s Dream might come closest.

It begins with an innocent little Mozartean theme, which Schnittke proceeds to play around with, crazily. This was a specialty of his: playing around, crazily. But often, in his music, you can’t quite tell whether he’s joking. So it is with a lot of music written in the Soviet Union. “Sardonic” is the word we always use. Have you ever read anything about Prokofiev or Shostakovich that didn’t use the word “sardonic”? (K)ein Sommernachtstraum is clever and enjoyable, and our musicians brought it off spiffily.

They were then joined by a violin soloist, Frank Peter Zimmermann, for the Dvo?ák concerto. All concerned were sober, correct, and sound. They had the fundamentals. I thought of a line from an old song: “The fundamental things apply.” You could appreciate the Germanic style of Zimmermann, Dohnányi, and, by extension, the New York Phil. These guys were all business. But eventually things got . . . pedestrian, workaday. Boring. Dvo?ák’s Finale is one of the most delightsome things in music, and, on this night, it had no color, no lilt, no delight. Afterward, the friend sitting next to me confessed that she had slept. I’d confess too, but everyone knows that critics never sleep.

I said to two eminent critics that I wanted to get the taste of this performance out of my mouth. What recording of the Dvo?ák would they prescribe? Each answered without hesitation: “Suk and An?erl, 1960. Take two listenings and call me in the morning.”

The night after this Philharmonic concert, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center offered three clarinet quintets—three works for string quartet plus clarinet, I mean. One of these was by Marc Neikrug, an American born in 1946. I first knew him as the regular accompanist of Pinchas Zukerman (and I trust that Neikrug is mature enough not to mind the honorable word “accompanist,” which misguided people have tried to make pejorative). In addition to his composing and piano playing, he is the artistic director of the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival.

One of his compositions, the CMS program notes informed us, is “the anti-nuclear work Los Alamos, which juxtaposes commentaries on the American ‘star wars’ missile defense program and rituals practiced by the Pueblo Indians.” Perfect. If he had a piece “commenting” on the moral superiority of missile defense to Mutual Assured Destruction, he would get nowhere in music. Not a penny of grant money would be forthcoming. Even a nod to the Native Americans wouldn’t help him!

I feel especially free to mock because Neikrug’s clarinet quintet is so good. He wrote it two years ago. The first movement is both abrasive and lyrical. It is reflective, wondering. It seems to be expressing a curiosity. The second movement, I take to be the centerpiece of the work. It’s a kind of elegy, slightly Hebraic. There is a general stillness, but there’s breath within that stillness—even something like action. (Some music aims to be static.) I find this second movement quite affecting. The next is marked “Interlude: Lento,” and it features some noodling on the clarinet and some pizzicatos from the strings. This little movement seems to be anticipatory. Something’s coming.

And what’s coming? In the last movement, Neikrug loses me, I’m afraid. The music, as I heard it, that once, is abstract, intellectual, random (or random-seeming). The strings were sawing, but to what purpose? I didn’t think the fourth movement matched the first three, or was a fitting culmination, but I also realize the composer should know better—know better than I.

Playing the quintet were the Orion String Quartet and David Shifrin, the clarinetist. The Neikrug was the middle of their quintets, sandwiched between the Weber and the Mozart. How Weber loved the clarinet! (So did Mozart, by the evidence.) In my view, the Weber quintet is awfully, and wonderfully, Rossini-like. The clarinet functions as a coloratura mezzo, in a way—and Shifrin “sang” brilliantly. He was both showy and tasteful. He wasn’t about to go overboard, but he wasn’t about to hide in a corner, either.

One detail, about all five: At the end of the piece—exciting—the players rushed, in just the way the best bel canto conductors do. Intelligent, musical rushing.

As the Mozart quintet began, I wondered how many times Shifrin had played it. Two hundred? He seems not to have tired of it, and it’s hard to see how anyone could. I wish to make just one technical remark about Shifrin: His clarinet is one voice, from top to bottom. Callas used to joke—was she joking? —about “my three voices.” Shifrin does not have registers, but rather that single and even voice, from bassy bass to squealy soprano. And he is a true Mozartean, a man to whom Mozart is obviously second nature. Rubinstein (Artur, not Anton) said, “Mozart is too easy for children and too hard for adults.” Shifrin has retained what child-like qualities are necessary for the correct and magical playing of Mozart.

I’ve said it before, allow me to say it once again: If David Shifrin were a conductor, pianist, violinist, or singer, rather than a humble woodwind player, he’d be a very, very big deal in our musical life. He’s a big enough deal anyway.

The next night, in the same hall, Alice Tully, there was a performance of the St. Matthew Passion of Bach. Doing the honors were Philippe Herreweghe and his Ghent forces: He founded the Collegium Vocale Gent in 1970. According to his bio, his “energetic, authentic, and rhetorical approach to Baroque music soon drew praise.” I don’t know what “rhetorical” means in that context. I do know that music criticism in bios is something relatively new.

It probably need not be said that the sound of “period” bands is not to everyone’s taste. Twenty-five years ago, Itzhak Perlman said he was tired of turning on the radio and hearing scratch, scratch, hoot, hoot. Herre-
weghe kept things brisk and bouncy, in the period fashion. Sometimes it seems that the practitioners have one marking: Presto grazioso. As a rule, Herreweghe was tight, but he knew when to loosen up. He knew to let the music breathe. And he is not a foe of beauty.

One thing I often ask about the period practitioners is, Do they like music? Do they like music so as you’d know it? Herreweghe clearly does. I also ask, Are they scholar-monks or are they musicians? Herreweghe, scholarly as he may be, is a musician. He has excellent rhythm. He also has extraordinary musical intensity: The ferocity of some of the choruses was tremendous. Herreweghe made his tempos seem almost right to me. And, crucially, he observed the holy moments.

Singing the part of Jesus was Michael Nagy, who has a beautiful voice, although this voice sometimes sagged flat. In the role of the evangelist, or narrator, was a famous name: Prégardien. But it was not Christoph Prégardien, the German tenor who is one of the finest singers of our time. It was his son, Julian. Sometimes they do that, you know: Peter Serkin didn’t have to become a pianist. He didn’t have to adopt the same style of glasses either. Narration is a tough gig, but young Prégardien handled it honorably. The temptation is to be too matter-of-fact or too dramatic. Prégardien steered a satisfactory middle course. Recitative is almost a trickier art than song.

The St. Matthew Passion is not just a piece of music. It is also an act of worship. Did it seem that way from Herreweghe et al. on this night? Well, that depends on the listener, of course. I found the performance quite moving—at times disturbingly, bracingly moving. Bach and the story of Jesus have something to do with that too.

Okay, enough of the exalted—let’s talk about Manon. Massenet’s 1884 hit was revived at the Metropolitan Opera, which was born in 1883. We had a new production, led by Laurent Pelly, a French director and costume designer. His Manon is odd: whimsical, vulgar, quirky. Visually speaking, it’s on the ugly side, but there are dashes of beauty. The costumes seem to come out of Toulouse-Lautrec. Planted in the Cours-la-Reine scene is what looks like a giant basketball. (Much bigger than the basketball used in Song Books.) There is also a touch of Hello, Dolly!, as Manon, singing the Gavotte, weaves her way among top-hatted men. (“You’re lookin’ swell, Manny/ I can tell, Danny . . .”)

I could pick on this production for several paragraphs, but, on balance, I liked it. It’s not a Manon for all time, no. But for once or twice? Sure. I also liked the Met orchestra, which proved it can play even without James Levine in the pit. Fabio Luisi conducted a sensible and effective performance. In the starring roles were a pair who often star together: Anna Netrebko, the Russian soprano, and Piotr Beczala, the Polish tenor.

Manon is a role like Violetta (Verdi’s traviata, or girl who has gone astray). It requires different styles of singing, a variety of abilities. Almost no one can do everything perfectly. As I could pick at the production, I could pick at Netrebko. She often veered sharp, as is her wont. Then she would flat. She flatted on the final note of “Adieu, notre petite table” (which, in any case, was too slow). On the E flat at the end of the Gavotte, she was a mile low. Several miles. Her coloratura was spotty. Blah, blah, blah.

But let’s face it: She is a great singing actress. Because she is a superstar, and therefore a ripe target, we might overlook that fact. Renée Fleming has paid the same penalty. The whole of Netrebko’s Manon, on the night I attended, was greater than the sum of the parts. Netrebko finds a way to move you—to floor you—no matter what. And, by the way, her soft singing in the St. Sulpice scene was perfect.

Regular readers know my rap on Beczala: a beautiful singer, a rare flower, who has been harmed by roles too big for him. I think he should have waited longer for Des Grieux, as for Roméo and other roles we could name. But people are responsible for their own careers. In Manon, Beczala’s “Dream” was not very good. He strained, gulped, and suffered. So did the aria. The old Beczala—how strange to write that phrase!—would have knocked it out of the park. The cantabile would have been exemplary. He was better in “Ah! Fuyez,” in part because the aria is easier: One can belt. But Beczala provided general satisfaction, and his mezza voce in the last act was wonderful. (So was his partner’s.)

I feel compelled to report that I’ve changed my mind about Manon. For a long time, I thought of it as a sea of mediocrity dotted by islands of inspiration (chiefly the four arias I have mentioned). Now I think the entire opera is boffo, certainly worthy.

The publication Musical America runs a Thought for the Day. Shortly after the “American Mavericks” series at Carnegie Hall, they had a quotation from John Cage: “I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.” To me, Cage has become rather an old idea (and fear has nothing to do with it). Manon, on the other hand, seems fresh. A person’s musical experience, as with other experience, can be a terribly subjective thing.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 Number 9, on page 75
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