Music January 2015
New York chronicle
The San Francisco Symphony plays Samuel Adams, Jaap van Zweden guest conducts the New York Philharmonic, and more.
The San Francisco Symphony opened a concert at Carnegie Hall with a work by Samuel Adams. Not the revolutionary, and not the beer. This Samuel Adams is a composer, born in 1985, the son of John Adams (not the second president, but the noted composer). According to his bio, Samuel Adams grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. He studied at Stanford and Yale. The work performed by the SFS was completed in 2012, and its name is Drift and Providence.
It’s about the ocean. There are many works by California composers about the ocean. They have a similar vibe. This work is in five parts, beginning with Embarcadero. The whole thing lasts about twenty minutes. In a program note, Adams said he composed the work while splitting his time between Oakland and Brooklyn. (Has he ever seen a place short of hipsters?) He was not interested in imitating the sounds of the ocean, he said, nor in painting an impression, as Debussy did in La mer. “Rather, this piece aims to develop a reactive sonic environment suggestive of a more contemporary disposition—that the water from whence we came is an object of psychological remove in a highly digitized and distracted life.” In present-day music departments, this may make a lot of sense.
Drift and Providence uses a slew of percussion, as so many modern works do. On the roster are brake drums, sizzle cymbals, and sandpaper blocks. Also, the program booklet informed us that “live sound design is performed by the composer.” I believe this involves fiddling with a computer at the back of the hall.
The beginning of the work certainly conjures water, as in La mer, or Das Rheingold. Adams creates a nice wash. Indeed, the present period, in composition, might be known as the Age of Wash. The music sounded to me very California, very Bay Area. Did I think that because I had read the composer’s bio? Possibly. The music is repetitive, lulling—music to give in to. If you don’t—if you’re not lulled by it—you find yourself annoyed.
In due course, the lulling gives way to some mighty American yawps. There are also low utterances, reminding me of the dragon in Siegfried (speaking of The Ring). For a while, the work held my attention, which seems like faint praise, but which is actually high. Then, it seemed so much busyness, and playing with sounds. After the SFS’s performance—conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas—Adams took an old-fashioned bow: deep. I admired that.
I also admired Drift and Providence. I found some of it tedious, yes, but the work is also imaginative and intelligent. I might well like it better on a second hearing. Furthermore, I admire Adams’s nerve in going into composition. His father is probably the most famous living classical composer, along with Philip Glass. By the way, the big three—Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven—all had fathers who were professional musicians. Sons tend to follow fathers, whatever the profession, whatever the century.
For some years, I had heard of Jaap van Zweden, but I had never heard him. Which is odd. As a rule, I hear musicians before they are big. And Van Zweden is big: acclaimed as one of the best conductors now working. He does not have the starriest podium in the world. Since 2008, he has been the music director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. But he has made worldwide waves from that podium. In former times, Van Zweden was the concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. He assumed this position when he was eighteen. A Wunderkind, obviously, although, because Van Zweden is Dutch, we should probably find the Dutch word. (Wonderkind.)
Van Zweden guest-conducted the New York Philharmonic, in a program of Mozart and Shostakovich. The Mozart was the Sinfonia concertante, in which the soloists came from the orchestra: Sheryl Staples, violin, and Cynthia Phelps, viola. Let me describe to you the exposition of the first movement, conducted by Van Zweden: It was crisp, vivid, and engaged. It had both taste and guts. This was strong Mozart, almost Beethoven-like, the kind favored by George Szell (and, after him, his apprentice James Levine). Let me say something about the second movement, Andante, as well: It had an unforced, unrushed momentum, which is a rare and wondrous thing. Also very Mozartean. They say that the test of a real singer is Mozart. If you can sing him, you can sing anything. Mozart may be the test of a real conductor, too.
The Shostakovich was the Eighth Symphony, which began with an arresting attack—that’s a good way to begin. The intensity of the piece never flagged (except when it should have). Van Zweden is clearly a leader. When he conducts, there is “energy in the executive.” Years ago, I asked Valery Gergiev what sets conductors apart from other musicians. He said, “Leadership.” There is nothing better than leadership coupled with musicality, when it comes to conductors. Van Zweden got from the Philharmonic a classic Shostakovich sound: clean, sometimes severe, sometimes growling. This Eighth was bristling, stony, and, in the main, riveting. The New York Philharmonic played like a great orchestra. One could see what all the fuss about Van Zweden is about.
Readers of The New Criterion know that I admire Leonidas Kavakos, the Greek violinist and conductor. They also know that I admire Yuja Wang, the Chinese pianist. Their joint recital in Carnegie Hall was a big day on the concert calendar. Cameras stood on the stage to film the recital, apparently. The playing was shockingly poor—almost unbelievably so.
They started with the Brahms Violin Sonata No. 2 in A major. Wang’s opening notes were not together. Her rubato was queer. She drew away from the tops of phrases, in that too common and annoying way. She was strangely muted. Mousy. “Sing out, Louise!” Was this her concept of holy chamber music? She played this sonata as though afraid to break it. Kavakos, too, was guilty of timidity, although he made some beautiful sounds. So did Wang. They are beautiful players. But they were weirdly disengaged from the music. The middle movement was virtually devoid of feeling. The final movement showed signs of life, but too few. All this was extremely puzzling.
After the Brahms, the musician sitting next to me said, “It’s like they wandered in from outer space, with no connection to Earth’s music.” This was Brahms without heart, without soul, without Brahms. Some coolness or even detachment in Brahms is desirable. So is restraint. But these players went beyond restraint into something like indifference. I think they would be shocked to hear a recording of this evening.
The next piece on their program was the Schumann Sonata No. 2 in D minor. It was more reasonable than the Brahms, more awake. But it was still sleepy and hesitant. Again, the players made some beautiful sounds, and had some successful phrases. They are, after all, top musicians. But they made no case at all for the sonata. It is not Schumann’s best piece, by a long shot. But it is better than presented. It was essentially bloodless.
Rightly or not, I left at intermission. I figured I would just tell you about this shocking and numbing first half. People say the second half was better. (Sonatas by Ravel and Respighi.) It could hardly help being. Musical performance is such a chancy and mysterious thing. Performances that ought to be great, aren’t; those that promise nothing, deliver a lot.
A Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at the Metropolitan Opera promised a fair amount and delivered a great deal. Shostakovich’s opera is a symphonic tour de force. It is as much an orchestral work as it is a vocal one. The story of the opera—its characters, its emotions, its events—is in the orchestra. The Met’s outdid itself. Never have they been better, including under their veteran and masterly music director, James Levine. Another James conducted on this occasion: Conlon. The woodwinds were world-class. The orchestra at large exhibited, among other qualities, smooth rudeness. Smooth rudeness is key to Shostakovich, certainly in this work. Conlon conducted like a man who has Lady Macbeth in his bones, and knows the score inside out. For the record, he was in the pit when the Met’s current production had its premiere, in 1994.
Singing the title role, Katerina Ismailova, or Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, was Eva-Maria Westbroek, the Dutch soprano. (This was a good period for Dutchmen in New York, what with Jaap van Zweden over at the Philharmonic and all.) I first heard her in 2008 as Sieglinde at the Salzburg Easter Festival. She was wonderful then—pure and touching. But I had no idea she could pull off the sensuality, villainy, and pathos of Katerina. She acted the role superbly. She sang it superbly too, though she had some trouble: Her top was in distress for a while, and her singing was sometimes effortful. The troubles mattered little. She was so gutsy, she swept all before her.
Katerina’s lover, Sergei, was portrayed by Brandon Jovanovich, the tenor from Billings, Montana. I always knew him as a solid and appealing lyric singer. I had no idea he could pull off Sergei, all lust, virility, and bad charisma. Jovanovich was like a young Marlon Brandon. And he could sing: freshly and ruggedly, easily and commandingly. Also excellent was Anatoli Kotscherga, a bass from Ukraine, who sang Boris, Katerina’s father-in-law. Like Westbroek, he had some vocal problems—such as inaudible low notes—but, like Westbroek, he minimized them with a compelling overall portrayal. This is a canny stage pro, Kotscherga.
The other day, I wrote the phrase “Irish soprano”—and it reminded me that “Irish tenor” comes naturally to the lips. “Irish soprano,” not so much. “Russian bass” is another phrase that comes naturally to the lips. And there were several of them onstage for Lady Macbeth. Mikhail Kolelishvili was nearly a scene-stealer as the Priest. (He is a Russian, I believe, despite the Georgian last name.) Vladimir Ognovenko did a star turn as the Police Sergeant. And Dmitry Belosselskiy did another one as the Old Convict.
Shostakovich performs a near-miracle: His opera is never boring. Not for a page, not for a measure. And it became clear by about the middle of Act II, at the Met, that we were hearing a first-rate Lady Macbeth. How about the production? It is by Graham Vick, the English director. There are many things I dislike about the production, including the updating: Katerina is a bored 1950s housewife. I can’t tell you how bored I am of the bored 1950s housewife. I am more bored than she is. When did she become a cliché? By 1967 or so? Vick mocks domesticity by having ladies in wedding dresses appear with vacuum cleaners, and then do vulgar things with those instruments. But this is a brilliant production—a brilliant, nasty production for a brilliant, nasty opera.
Van Zweden once again conducted the New York Philharmonic. This program started with a piece by a Dutchman about a Frenchman: Johan Wagenaar’s Cyrano de Bergerac Overture, composed in 1905. It begins in exuberant Straussian fashion. Under Van Zweden’s baton, the overture was crisp, compact, and taut. It was sufficiently Romantic, but never soupy. This guy, Van Zweden, seems tight as a drum, in a good sense. There is some Toscanini in him. As for Wagenaar, what a difference a few letters make, you know?
Later in the program, Van Zweden conducted a very familiar work: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major. Can you hear it again? Enjoy it again? Thrill to it again? Very much so, if it is conducted and played like this. The opening movement was not just satisfying but surprising. Van Zweden chose or brought out some dynamics that I had never heard before. Everything was heightened. Nothing was bland or routine. The second movement was insinuating, ghostly—and perfectly paced. Very few get this right.
The third movement is marked Presto, and it was fast indeed. But I believe this movement can burble, merrily, as well as race. It was a little too racing—or a little too unburbling—for me. What’s more, I found the trio sections too slow and pompous. But Van Zweden had a clear point of view. And the last movement? Well, let me say this, about the performance as a whole, all four movements: It reminded me why I loved this symphony, and Beethoven, and music in the first place. Have you ever had one of those experiences? Lately?
The crowd went absolutely mad, as well it should have. It stayed and cheered far longer than a Philharmonic crowd usually does. Frankly, I don’t understand why orchestras don’t give encores anymore, as they used to. They do on the road, but not at home. The home crowd deserves an encore now and then, and the orchestra deserves to play one. It’s win-win. I have not heard an encore from the Philharmonic in Avery Fisher Hall since the middle of the Maazel tenure.
I’m going to end this section on a sour note—and “sour note” is just the right phrase. Some years ago, Allan Kozinn, the singular critic of the New York Times, wrote something like this: “Once again, the horn section stunk up a Philharmonic concert.” I realize how difficult the instrument is. I don’t need to be preached to about the difficulty of the horn. Esa-Pekka Salonen, the conductor, who began as a horn player, once confirmed to me that I must cut the horn players a lot of slack. I believe it. And I do. But how many miles should this slack go?
At the Met, James Levine settled in to conduct Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Wagner’s grand comedy. There is always some anticipation before Levine conducts Wagner, at least in me. One expects a peak experience. Years ago, at an intermission of Götterdämmerung, I said to a fellow critic, my friend Fred Kirshnit, “What can we look forward to in Act III?” He said, “James Levine is the best conductor of Siegfried’s Funeral March since Furt-wängler”—or maybe Mahler. As Levine gave the downbeat for this recent Meistersinger, I had a familiar thought: The light filtering through this man’s Afro is the most reassuring sight in opera.
So, how was the overture? It was okay. Mediocre, actually. And how about the rest of Act I? It was okay. The score was unquestionably well managed—but pedestrian, kind of waved through. The music had little impact. The music in Act II had some loving warmth—but still, not the impact it should. Would this be a write-off of a Meistersinger? No. The prelude to Act III was marvelous. Profound. And so was the music that followed. Levine was himself. I suspect that the music—the music itself—inspired him. In my opinion, Wagner really gets serious in Act III. The rest is, in a sense, warm-up.
And, honestly, I feel sorry for a guy of whom peak experiences are routinely expected. In any case, Levine reached a very high peak before this very long evening was through.
I will discuss one singer, the bass-baritone singing Hans Sachs, James Morris. He is a veteran Sachs, a veteran Wotan, a veteran Wagnerian. But I have to tell you: No matter what he sings, I hear a Scarpia snarl in his voice. The voice, in Act I of this Meistersinger, was not good. It had the wobbles. It got nowhere near top notes. I thought of a scandalous remark made by Richard Lamm, then the governor of Colorado, in the 1980s. Addressing the issue of physician-assisted suicide, he said, “We’ve got a duty to die and get out of the way . . .” Does Morris really have to keep treading the boards? Aren’t there younger, fresher Sachses? But in Acts II and III, he proved that he still belongs on those boards. Indeed, dominates them. He was his familiar, exemplary self. Above, I referred to a bass as a “canny stage pro.” This goes double for Morris.
We saw the production of Otto Schenk, from 1993. The next time Meistersinger hits the Met, it will be hit by Stefan Herheim’s production, from the Salzburg Festival. I cried against it in our October 2013 issue. Let me try to rephrase a classic song: It’s their party, but I’ll cry if I want to.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 33 Number 5, on page 62
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