In 1931, Thornton Wilder wrote a one-act play called The Long Christmas Dinner. It’s about a family and its Christmas dinners over several generations. It’s also about the terrible, remorseless passage of time. Thirty years later, Paul Hindemith made an opera out of this play (one act, correspondingly). Wilder himself supplied a libretto.
Both the play and the opera were presented at Alice Tully Hall, in a double bill. Presiding over the opera was Leon Botstein, who conducted the American Symphony Orchestra. In his spare time, Botstein is the president of Bard College. This magazine has knocked him about, over the years. We’ll keep doing it, rest assured! But, whatever his transgressions in higher education, he performs a service in music: He dusts off repertoire that deserves to be heard.
At Alice Tully, as in life, the play came first and then the opera. The two had the same production, with Jonathan Rosenberg serving as director. Often, opera is described as “sung theater.” Appearing on David Letterman’s show in November, Jessye Norman told the host and his audience not to be uptight about opera: An opera is “simply a story that is being sung instead of spoken.” Never have I seen a starker illustration than at Alice Tully, for the double bill.
Incidentally, I found the play more understated—subtler—than the opera. I might have expected the opposite. Maybe that expectation would have been foolish.
Hindemith has an overture or prelude of sorts, and it has an air of timelessness. It also has an air of anxiety. It is noodling, restless. Because we’re talking about Christmas dinners, the carol “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” pokes through. The rest of the opera, too, is anxious, busy. This is very mid-twentieth-century. But there is also a fugal element, a touch of Bach. Hindemith revered Bach, as a composer should. There is also a touch of American band music, which I think Charles Ives would have admired. Furthermore, there’s a touch of jazz, of “fascinatin’ rhythm.”
The composer writes beautifully in this opera, as well as brainily. The last part is delicate, almost French, I would say. The very last words of the opera are spoken, if I remember correctly, not sung. Too bad, I say: Couldn’t we leave the talking to the plays and the rest of life?
Botstein conducted the work ably, though his orchestra was a little loud: It was onstage, rather than in a pit. Maybe the overloudness could not be helped. The cast had eight singers, three of whom had two parts. One of the characters is Leonora. What would opera do without women named Leonora? The Hindemith-Wilder Leonora was sung by Kathryn Guthrie, who has a high, easy, confident soprano. Another soprano, Camille Zamora, sang with poise. A baritone, Jeremy Ott, showed an outstanding voice, a beautiful voice. He reminded me of a young Thomas Hampson.
The Long Christmas Dinner was one of the last things Paul Hindemith ever wrote. Last summer, I interviewed Christoph Eschenbach (the conductor) at the Salzburg Festival. I said, “Who’s underrated, among composers?” He said, “Hindemith.” There is a case.
Guest-conducting the New York Philharmonic on the second-to-last day of the year was Juanjo Mena. His regular job is with the BBC Philharmonic. And, according to the first line of his bio, he is “one of Spain’s most distinguished conductors.” Fine, but I must trot out my oft-quoted Buckley line: “Is that on the order of celebrating the tallest building in Wichita, Kansas?” Mena’s program in New York was all-Russian, or Russian-Spanish—because the first piece on it was Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio espagnol. It is a tribute to Spain that so many non-Spanish composers want to write Spanish music.
Mena conducted the Capriccio with intelligence. The first section was crisp, tight, and buoyant. It conveyed mirth within order. One challenge for a conductor is to keep the charisma going in the slower sections—these should be slow but not slack. Mena did not excel in this task. But he was satisfying overall. One reason is, he resisted doing too much. He was willing to let the music speak and sing and dance for itself. He did not smother it with ego. Neither was he a podium wallflower.
The Capriccio calls on many soloists within the orchestra, and the Philharmonic’s performed with varying degrees of flair. The clarinet, Anthony McGill, had enough flair for two or three soloists. So did the oboe, Sherry Sylar. It is a particular pleasure to report that the horns were top-notch. I knock them so.
After Rimsky-Korsakov came Rachmaninoff, in the form of his Piano Concerto No. 1. This is a stepchild among Rachmaninoff piano concertos, as is No. 4. But they get their hearings. I have a blunt question: Would they be heard at all if they weren’t by Rachmaninoff? Yes, I think so. But they might be considered curiosities or exotica. By the way, I’ve always wondered why the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2 doesn’t get more play.
The soloist in Rach One was Daniil Trifonov, the young Russian. He displayed his customary wizardry. He also did more pounding than I have ever heard him do. He has trouble making a big, deep, rich sound. He may pound in compensation. He did some nice singing in the Andante, but some of his rhythm was flaccid. Here is something that he is very good at: bringing out the musical line while there are a million notes around it. This is important in Rachmaninoff, as in Chopin.
He sat down for an encore, and started to play a Debussy piece, Reflets dans l’eau. This pleased me greatly, for Trifonov is a sensitive pianist and a colorist, made for Impressionism. This Reflets was surprisingly poor. It had strange accents, muffled inner voices, and few colors. Rubato was woefully misjudged. And sounds tended to be wispy, not properly soft or nuanced.
If that was a surprise, Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony, played after intermission, was very much a surprise. I was expecting a good one, after Mena’s Capriccio espagnol. This “Pathétique” had almost no emotional impact whatsoever. There was not a wet eye in the house, to borrow an old line. Honestly, I wouldn’t have thought that this very moving work could be played so unmovingly. I’m confident that Mena can do better, and that New York audiences will hear it.
At the Metropolitan Opera, I saw Hansel and Gretel on New Year’s Day, and its run started shortly before Christmas. This opera is considered Christmassy, and I’m not sure why. Because there is a gingerbread house in it? The Met’s current production is too cool—too “concept”—to have a gingerbread house in it. The opera is also considered a children’s opera. Is it? Or is it an opera that has children in it? Or rather, an opera whose two principal characters (sung by adults) are children? I’m not quite sure.
The Met’s performance was conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, whose overture was beautiful. The phrasing and dynamics were just right. The horns were gratifyingly sure-footed. I have a complaint, however: Sir Andrew conducted the overture too lovingly. Isn’t that a strange complaint? I felt the same about the Evening Prayer, later on. The prayer could have used a bit more firmness, a slightly steadier pulse. Throughout the opera, Sir Andrew was relaxed and genial. Relaxed and genial seems to be his specialty. Sometimes, more intensity or definition or bite was called for.
My heart sank a little when Gretel opened her mouth to sing: The opera would be in English. It is much more flavorful in German, the language in which the opera was composed. What I mean is, Humperdinck wrote the notes to match particular syllables. “Well, the audience was American, so why shouldn’t the opera have been in English?” you may well say. Frankly, you can’t understand the words anyway—I mean, comprehensively. You are apt to use the supertitles, or seatback titles, anyway. So . . .
I have a further complaint, as long as I’m being cranky (Grinchy?): Why are little voices always cast in this opera? Because it’s a “children’s opera” and children have little voices? There is a big ol’ Wagner-style orchestra in the pit. There would be nothing wrong with big yet flexible voices in the cast—especially in a house as large as the Met. Heidi Stober was Gretel and she was lovely, but I had trouble hearing her. Regardless, she had the spirit of the role and opera.
She is a soprano, and Hansel is a mezzo role—filled on this evening by Christine Rice. She was strong, sweet, and accurate. The Witch was a man, a tenor: Robert Brubaker. He looked like a grotesque Julia Child, and sang his part with welcome witchly wackiness.
The Met premiered a new production of The Merry Widow on New Year’s Eve. I saw it on the less mythologized night of January 3. The operetta was in English, as well it should have been: There is a lot of talking in it, for one thing. It is a different proposition from Hansel and Gretel.
There were lots of names in the cast, starry names. Old stars and young stars. The youngest one had the most difficult time, vocally: Alek Shrader strained terribly on high notes. The young tenor was in the role of Rosillon, whose love interest is Valencienne—who was sung by Kelli O’Hara, the queen of Broadway. She was adequate, but the role did not really give her a chance to show her stuff. Nathan Gunn, the baritone, was Danilo, singing suavely.
Speaking of suave, Sir Thomas Allen was on hand as the Baron. He was the de facto emcee of the night. And, predictably, he was suavity itself. Sir Thomas must get out of bed debonair. He has pure white hair now, and I guess I had never seen him au naturel. The voice was amazingly fresh. Never has there been such a mismatch between hair and voice since Dmitri Hvorostovsky turned about thirty.
In the title role, Hanna, the merry widow, was America’s sweetheart, Renée Fleming. She was an elegant, mature, serene Hanna, rather than a party-hearty type. That was okay. Fleming’s sense of music and theater is very keen. At the end of the “Vilja,” she sang a high B that was right in the center. She also tossed off a couple of brave and good D’s.
Conducting the opera was none other than Sir Andrew Davis, who was, of course, relaxed and genial. The Met orchestra’s strings were nicely Viennesey in their waltzing. The production was in the hands of Susan Stroman, another queen of Broadway. The costumes (by William Ivey Long) were fabulous. The dancing was enjoyable. The libretto was fashioned by Jeremy Sams, who did his job creditably.
I will forgo specific criticisms to say something general, and blunt. Lehár’s operetta, The Merry Widow, is a delicious, charming little work of art. I found it neither delicious nor charming on this evening. Lord, was it dull. Flat—not of pitch but of spirit. The champagne had no fizz in it, at least for me. I had the sense that I ought to be enjoying the show more, but couldn’t.
The New York Philharmonic gave a concert on January 8. Before he gave the downbeat, Alan Gilbert wanted to address a few words to the audience about the jihadist massacre in Paris that had taken place the day before. He used a phrase that stands out in my mind: “our response as musicians.” He also quoted Leonard Bernstein, the guiding spirit of the New York Phil.: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”
In my view, musicians have no special response to make to world events. I always thought a “musician’s response” was a conceit, even when I was an adolescent, and absolutely besotted with music. It should be enough to have a human response. To respond as a human being. As for Leonard Bernstein’s words, they are very pretty, and very like him: gushy. But they will not stop or counter a single terrorist attack. You know what will do that? The CIA, the NSA, and the military, to name three institutions. And what thanks do they get?
Anyway, on with the music. Gilbert conducted Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales, and conducted them very well indeed. He imparted exceptional vitality. Making a beautiful contribution was the flute, Sandra Church.
After the Ravel, a Philharmonic librarian came out to give a little speech about the next piece on the program, the Nielsen Clarinet Concerto. She essentially spoke program notes, the way people do these days. She did so in an NPR voice and an NPR style—which probably suited the audience just fine. Sometimes, when I gripe about talking from the stage, people say to me, “What about Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts?” I have two answers to that. 1) Bernstein did that sort of thing unusually well. And 2) They were young people’s concerts, not regular concerts. Our society has in some respects been infantilized.
The soloist in the Nielsen was the orchestra’s new principal, Anthony McGill. He was liquid, canny, and virtuosic, as usual. If I were writing about a singer, I might say he was equally good in cavatina and cabaletta—in the slow and lyrical and the fast and flashy. You recall that shockingly dull “Pathétique” Symphony I mentioned earlier? The best thing about it was the clarinet, McGill.
Maestro Gilbert has completed a multi-season survey of Nielsen works, a survey that the Phil. calls “The Nielsen Project.” In a program note, Gilbert wrote that Nielsen “deserves to be a central part of the orchestral canon.” A canon is central already. Nielsen should be at the center of it? Where to put Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms? But I am being pedantic and churlish (not to mention a jerk). Gilbert has done well by this underperformed composer, and the composer has done well by him.
A concert of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center had nothing but strings. The program offered two trios and a quintet—beginning with Beethoven. What we heard was his Trio in C Minor for Violin, Viola, and Cello, Op. 9, No. 3. He certainly loved that key. And though this is an early work, it is 100 percent Beethoven. Does he ever sound immature? I believe he was born Beethoven.
The players onstage were Benjamin Beilman, violin; Yura Lee, viola; and David Finckel, cello. Beilman is new to me. From my seat, he looked about twelve. And he played with maturity and expressiveness. Lee was acute and musical, as usual. She made a very beautiful sound on the viola. In her hands, the viola is more than a filler instrument. And even if it is—what marvelous filling! Finckel was his reliable and professional self.
Their performance of Beethoven’s trio was not immaculate, but it was something better than that: alive. The music was never on autopilot. In the Scherzo, the players brought out a rustic or folk element I had never quite heard before. The entire performance was like a controlled tempest, despite the innocent little C-major ending.
Next came a work by Kodály, his Serenade for Two Violins and Viola, Op. 12. Three players stood side by side (by side?). The violist, Paul Neubauer this time, was in the middle. The violinists flanking him were Ani Kavafian and Beilman. The first movement was beautiful, achingly so, and it reeked of the Old World. It practically made you wish you were Hungarian. Neubauer, like Lee, does the viola very proud. In hands such as these, it is not a stepchild but more like a star of instruments.
Between the second and third movements, Neubauer paused to address a faulty hearing aid that was sending a piercing sound through the hall. Or rather, he addressed its wearer: Could he or she turn it down? I once saw Dawn Upshaw, the soprano, make the same appeal. After some hubbub, the performance resumed, and Kodály’s third movement, Vivo, sounded like a Hungarian hoedown.
In due course, all the players involved in this concert came together for Dvovák’s Quintet in E flat, Op. 97. This is not the work nicknamed “the American”—that’s Dvovák’s String Quartet in F, Op. 96. But the name would fit Op. 97, too. Parts of it are as American as “Yankee Doodle.” Our five players traversed it heartily, rambunctiously, and sometimes a little sloppily. The Finale, they would have liked to have over. But it was a good performance, capping a fine concert.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 33 Number 6, on page 44
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