One night, the American Composers Orchestra presented a bassoon concerto: that of Christopher Theofanidis, written in 2002. A few weeks later, the New York Philharmonic presented an oboe concerto, by another Christopher: Christopher Rouse, the orchestra’s composer-in-residence. There are many, many bassoon concertos, but none of them is ever played. There are a great many oboe concertos, but none of them is ever played either. No bassoon or oboe concerto has entered what I would call the standard repertory.
Rouse wrote his concerto in 2004, and he has written concertos for other non-starring instruments too. (Non-starring in concertos, that is: The oboe is critically important in the orchestral literature at large.) He has given concertos to the flute, trombone, percussion, and guitar. That is generous service. He has also written concertos for the boring old piano, violin, and cello.
His oboe concerto is in three movements, which are played without pause. That’s the way it is these days, it seems: pauseless concertos. It’s almost as though composers were afraid people would applaud between movements (although, with many of these pieces, there is fat chance of that). In his concerto, Rouse tests the oboe to what seem like the limits. In the first movement, the instrument does some plaintive singing, of course—plaintive singing is what the oboe was born for. But there is much nimble virtuosity as well. This movement is very busy, flitting here and there. That is a trait of today’s music: busyness. In my view, a lot of contemporary music comes off as so much busywork. Rouse also employs plenty of percussion. That is another modern trait.
In the second movement, the oboe does some more singing, and there are fairy-like bells and harp. The effect is Disneyesque. In the final movement, there is more busyness, more flitting, and I’m not sure this activity develops into anything much. The concerto ends with those fairy bells and harp, along with some doodles from the oboe and a low, French-like flute. The ending is beautiful. It is beautifully conceived. I thought of Shakespeare, which I wish I did more of: “Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it.”
I have been rather hard on Rouse, and one reason is that I respect him. He is a skillful composer, with ample inspiration. One merit of his oboe concerto is that you can always hear the soloist—who plays an instrument that doesn’t make much noise. But the concerto, unlike other Rouse works, did not leave much of an impression on me. Perhaps another hearing would raise my opinion.
The soloist was the Philharmonic’s principal, Liang Wang. He performed adeptly and musically. And I will relate something charming: In the second movement, he went without breathing for a very long time, and when he let go, he looked just like a kid who has been underwater for a long time and has emerged, taking a big gulp of air. Wang is a fine player, but so is another oboist who belongs to the Philharmonic: Sherry Sylar, the associate principal. Like Wang, she would have been a worthy successor to Joe Robinson, who left in 2005.
This concert began with a Strauss tone poem, Don Juan. Under the baton of Alan Gilbert, it did not bloom or soar as it should. This was an earthbound performance. Beauty of sound is important in this work, and the Philharmonic’s general sound was far from that. The horn players had a terrible time of it (and Strauss habitually depends on them). The pizzicatos that conclude the work were positively awful. The entire performance had a feeling of “Another day, another dollar.” Members of the orchestra surely want to meet high standards, even if they will garner applause and praise no matter what.
On the subject of Strauss, the Metropolitan Opera staged two of his operas in rapid succession, first Die Frau ohne Schatten and then Der Rosenkavalier. (Strauss and his librettist, Hofmannsthal, wrote them in the opposite order.) Like Don Juan, these scores call for much blooming and soaring. Rosenkavalier did little of that, under Edward Gardner (on the night I attended, I should specify). Frau did much more of it. It was conducted by Vladimir Jurowski, the Russian maestro with the huge mane of black hair. We have previously discussed in these pages the strange role that hair plays in conducting. We may turn to the subject again at some whimsical time.
The Met has a production of Frau by Herbert Wernicke, and it premiered in 2001. Christian Thielemann was in the pit, making a huge splash in New York. In this same period, he guest-conducted the Philharmonic, in a program that ended with Brahms’s First Symphony. The program also included Mozart’s C-minor piano concerto, in which the soloist was Yefim Bronfman. Thielemann has become one of the most important conductors in all of Europe.
Jurowski was never unsatisfactory on the night I attended. But in Act I, he did not have complete freedom. He seemed to be concentrating very hard. The music was brisk and tight. Warm passages should have been warmer, and holy passages holier. Nonetheless, Jurowski was a perfectly good manager. And by Act III, he enjoyed total freedom, letting the music rise from the earth. Strauss was a privilege to listen to. It was a shame, however, that the last chord was not together. This is a picky point, and I seem to be picking on endings. But if an ending is poor, you may leave the opera house or concert hall with the taste of that ending in your mouth.
Die Frau ohne Schatten, like other Strauss operas, requires voices of a fairly rare type: big and lyrical. Deborah Voigt was a marvelous Empress back in 2001. Twelve years later, Meagan Miller, another American soprano, was making her Met debut. She made wonderful sounds, although some of her high notes were effortful, and a few were tremulous. Still another American soprano, Christine Goerke, was outstanding as the Dyer’s Wife. She had the desired combination of strength and lyricism. Ildikó Komlósi, who sang the Nurse, was a piece of work. She wrung every last drop out of her character. Maybe she did too much wringing: The Nurse resembled another Strauss character, Klytämnestra, the wicked mother in Elektra.
Herbert Wernicke made just one production for the Met: this Frau. He died several months after its premiere. The near-universal acclaim for this production is just: Wernicke lets you see Die Frau ohne Schatten, which is a very hard opera to see, a very hard opera to produce. Proof of this is other Fraus, so many of which fail.
David Shifrin, the clarinetist, presided over a concert of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. He used to preside over CMS in general: He was artistic director from 1992 to 2004. This concert offered an assortment of music from Mozart till yesterday, almost all of it involving the clarinet, or more than one clarinet. Shifrin was the principal, and the other clarinetists were his students, or former students. There was a warm, homey, studio-like aspect to this concert. Early on, we heard “Parto, parto,” the aria from Mozart’s Clemenza di Tito. You need a mezzo-soprano for this aria, of course, but you also need a clarinetist, who is a virtual co-soloist. The mezzo was Sasha Cooke, and her co-soloist was Shifrin. In lieu of an orchestra was a piano quartet: The aria sounded more chamber-like than ever.
In all likelihood, the performers would have liked a second crack at this. The performance was a little disorderly, with strange fluctuations in rhythm. There was no conductor to blame. Cooke has a beautiful, lush, opulent instrument, but it did not sound very Mozartean in this instance. From one and all, “Parto, parto” did not have its customary thrill.
The program featured two new works, one of them by Lowell Liebermann (who is not to be confused with another American composer, Peter Lieberson). This work is Four Seasons, for the very combination discussed above: mezzo-soprano, clarinet, and piano quartet. The texts are by Edna St. Vincent Millay. The poems have to do with nature—spring and summer and all that—but mainly they are about human nature: romantic love and the brief-candleness of life.
Liebermann puts six songs into Four Seasons, the first of which is “Spring.” It is sassy, squirmy, and jazzy. There is a whiff of the cocktail lounge about it. It is 100 percent American. The composer makes a beautiful transition into the next song, which is about summer (and other seasons). It is a frankly Romantic song. Then we get “The Death of Autumn,” twice—two settings of that one Millay poem. The first setting is intense, furious, and painful; the second one is slow and sad. The remaining songs are affecting in various ways. Throughout this work, Liebermann weaves his instruments, including the voice, skillfully. The songs make an impact, or at least they did on me. In the margin of my program, I wrote a rare note: “These babies might last.”
If they last a hundred years, they may not have a better advocate than Sasha Cooke. Vocally, psychologically, and emotionally, she was magnificent in them. About Shifrin, I will simply say what I have said of him for ten, twenty years: The fact that he is a clarinetist is incidental; he is a great musician, and the clarinet is but his particular means of expression.
Years ago, I knew some senior Hungarian musicians who had studied with the Big Three in Budapest. They spoke with reverence about their teachers. And those teachers were Bartók, Kodály, and Weiner. All three were born in the first half of the 1880s. Bartók is an immortal, of course. Kodály is world-famous. But Leó Weiner is scarcely known, certainly beyond Hungary’s borders. The Orchestra of St. Luke’s programmed a piece of his for a concert at Carnegie Hall.
The concert was conducted by a Hungarian, Iván Fischer, and the piece was the Serenade for Small Orchestra, Op. 3. (By the way, the orchestra was no smaller than the New York Philharmonic, let’s say, for a Mozart symphony.) As the opus number may indicate, the Serenade is a student piece, written when Weiner was twenty-one. It received three awards. And those awards are understandable: The Serenade is a nifty, almost enchanting piece. It may not be the equal of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 1, written when that composer was nineteen, and completing his studies in Leningrad. But it is well worth knowing. If Fischer was the one who programmed it, he did not do so merely out of patriotic duty or pride.
The work is in four movements and is a little over twenty minutes in length. It is like a practice symphony. The first movement, Allegretto quasi andantino, is like Tchaikovsky with a dash of paprika. The second movement bears a German marking: “Lebhaft, sehr rhythmisch,” or “Lively, and don’t skimp on the rhythm.” The music is like that. The third movement, Rubato, may be the best of the bunch. It starts out like a clarinet concerto, with a Gypsy inflection. Then it becomes a bassoon concerto, and then an oboe concerto, and then a flute concerto. Finally, it returns to the clarinet. The last movement, Allegro molto, bounces along pleasingly. All four movements are in nice balance with one another.
Fischer conducted with elegance and affection. Agreeability filtered through Carnegie Hall. On the evidence of this student piece, Weiner should have gone on to do big things in composition. Why he did less, I’m afraid I don’t know.
Xuefei Yang is the Chinese guitarist with a Spanish heart. All classical guitarists must have a Spanish heart, because the music of Spain is the heart of their repertoire. Spanish is the native language, so to speak, of a guitarist. In 2008, Yang made an album called 40 Degrees North—because that is the (approximate) line of latitude connecting Beijing and Madrid. Here in New York, she played a recital sponsored by the 92nd Street Y, but not held at the 92nd Street Y. It was held at an alternative venue, SubCulture, down on Bleecker Street. It is a “very cool place.” That’s what Yang said in her opening remarks (and musicians, as you know, feel they must speak, as well as play, sing, or conduct).
SubCulture is a basement venue, hence “Sub,” I gather. And concerts take place there—hence “Culture.” Their slogan is “Concerts for the Adventurous.” That is a conceit typical of the music business. “If you want fuddy-duddy, non-adventurous concerts, go uptown!” Bleecker Street, you may recall, has a place in opera history: In 1954, Gian Carlo Menotti wrote The Saint of Bleecker Street.
Xuefei Yang had almost no Spanish music on her program, which was unusual. At the end, she played a sonata by Ginastera. She opened with dances from Britten’s Gloriana, the opera he composed for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. The year 2013 was crammed with Britten, as that was the composer’s centennial year. May the new year bring a more reasonable amount (if I may) of this excellent and important composer. Yang did the arrangement of these dances herself. Every guitarist must roll his own—must borrow other music, to expand the repertoire. When it came to playing, Yang was not herself in these dances. She was sloppy, tight, tentative, and very dull.
She was still not herself in the second set, Schubert songs arranged by Johann Kaspar Mertz, a nineteenth-century Hungarian. Yang remained tight, errant, tentative, and dull. Schubert’s “Ständchen,” to take one song, is virtually made for the guitar. (“Ständchen” means “serenade.”) Yet Yang was curiously unsinging and unmusical in it.
Her first half ended with more Britten, a proper guitar piece by that composer, the only one he ever wrote: Nocturnal After John Dowland, Op. 70. He wrote it for his guitar-playing countryman Julian Bream. And Yang did justice to it, and to herself: She played with intelligence and confidence. An entrancement
should set in as the piece unfolds, and it did.
When she was starting her career, Yang said that one of her goals was to forge a Chinese repertoire for the guitar. She is apparently doing it, as she opened the second half of her recital with a piece by Chen Yi, commissioned for her. The piece is Shuo Chang, whose title refers to a kind of Chinese storytelling. Yi has written a colorful, flavorful, engaging piece, and Yang played it with stylish conviction. She then returned to British music, in a way: Five Bagatelles by William Walton. I say “in a way,” because these little pieces reflect Walton’s adopted land, Italy. Walton wrote them for Bream. And Yang did her best playing of the night in them. She was the guitar star we know from recordings. All the errancy and uncertainty of the first stages of the recital was completely erased. She was musical confidence itself. And she strode on in the Ginastera sonata.
I thought she might give us some Bach as an encore. Instead, she said, “I haven’t played anything Spanish tonight.” Really? True enough: Ginastera, as an Argentinian, was Latin American, not Spanish. She did not announce the encore she played. She simply shrugged and said, “You probably know it.” Many people do—but they are unlikely to know its name or composer: Recuerdos de la Alhambra, by Francisco Tárrega. At its best, this piece is heavenly, a dream. You and your surroundings could practically float away. And so it was at SubCulture, from Xuefei Yang.
A week and a half after this recital, the 92nd Street Y was scheduled to host another guitar recital, by Sharon Isbin (a recital to take place at the Y itself). Let me close this chronicle by telling you a story. One night, Isbin was a guest of William F. Buckley, Jr., at a National Review editorial dinner. At the table, he said to her, “So, I understand you’re the best guitarist in the world.” She said, “No, no. There is no ‘best guitarist in the world.’ That would be like saying there’s a best writer in the world.” Bill leaned back, smiled that thousand-watt smile, and said, “Waal . . .”
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 32 Number 5, on page 70
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