Esa-Pekka Salonen is one of the best-known conductors of today, and he is also one of the best-known composers. Is there a relation? Does his fame as a conductor give him a leg up as a composer? Maybe, but everyone needs a leg up, and Salonen is a creditable composer regardless.

The New York Philharmonic performed a piece of his, Karawane, for orchestra and chorus. It was the final piece on the program—which is unusual, in that new works are usually heard on the first half of a program. Many seasons ago, a string quartet programmed a new work last. Proud of this decision, a spokesman for the quartet said, “Traditionally, the safe place for a new piece is right before intermission.” It’s an honor to go last.

Karawane is just under a half-hour long. It sets a poem, of the same title, by Hugo Ball, a leader of the Dada movement. This movement strove, or pretended, to find meaning in the meaningless. Ball’s “Karawane” is a bunch of nonsense syllables—which are not unamusing or uninteresting. They may be of special interest to musicians, who are so interested in sounds. In a song or an opera, who can understand the words anyway? (I’m kidding. Sort of.) In the evening’s program notes, Salonen was quoted as saying that Ball’s poem put him in mind of a convoy of elephants. “I started to imagine a circus lost in time and space,” etc.

In any event, Salonen’s Karawane was conducted, not by the composer, but by the Philharmonic’s music director, Alan Gilbert. I will sketch the piece, as I heard it.

It begins with the chorus whispering. In the percussion, there is a soft rain. (This is accomplished by a large rain stick.) Then the chorus mutters. This muttering is occasionally broken up by bells. Then the chorus starts to sing. The music is ancient-seeming, with a hint of Gregorian chant. I thought of Carmina Burana, the Orff hit. Will Karawane be a secular or pagan cantata? It is, sort of. There is some beautiful singing, on open vowels, especially “ah.” I thought of “Sirènes,” the third of Debussy’s Nocturnes. Then Karawane grows playful, as Salonen has fun with rhythm.

Salonen is a credit to this musical age.

Eventually, the piece goes instrumental, leaving behind the choral. A cello sings. Underneath him is a sci-fi-like accompaniment. The cello is joined by an oboe. In due course, we have what sounds like an orchestral interlude: delicate, shimmering, French.

Then the piece starts all over again. What I mean is, more raining, more muttering. This gives way to primitivism—Stravinskyan primitivism, and festive Stravinskyan primitivism at that. In the next stage, the music calms down. It is “spiritual,” New Agey. Salonen lost me here. I was ready for the piece to end. But the music gets festively primitive again, and it ends deafeningly—with a huge, sustained Respighian splash.

Maestro Gilbert conducted the work well. He is particularly good at contemporary works, I think: he has the intelligence and clarity, plus the willingness to prepare. I found Karawane a bit tiresome. But perhaps the problem was my lack of patience, rather than a lack of imagination on the composer’s part. In a program note of his own, Gilbert called Salonen’s work “deliciously whimsical while also being fully formed and rigorous.” I’ll buy that. And I’ll definitely buy Salonen, who is a credit to this musical age.

Joshua Bell and ensemble/Photo: Ian Douglas, courtesy St. Martin in the Fields

Into the same hall, David Geffen, came the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, led by Joshua Bell, the famous violinist. He is the Academy’s music director. Its principal guest conductor is Murray Perahia, the famous pianist. They all get stick fever, don’t they? (I believe it was the critic Bernard Holland who coined “stick fever” to describe the urge of a soloist to conduct.) Even Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau got it. He was a better baritone than he was a conductor—much.

Once, in an interview, I asked Valery Gergiev, “What makes a conductor? What must a conductor have that is not so needed in other musicians?” “Leadership,” he said. Bell no doubt has the qualities of musical leadership. You can see it when he plays chamber music. That is not to say that he dominates his partners, in a presumptuous or obnoxious way. He just can’t help leading. And I doubt anyone else minds.

The absence of a conductor costs a performance. There is a price to pay in subtlety, precision, and flexibility.

The first piece on the Academy program was Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony. Bell did not stand in front of the orchestra; he played in the concertmaster’s chair, and did some leading from it. When not playing, he leaned out and conducted with his bow. The absence of a conductor—a real conductor, standing in front of the orchestra—costs a performance, I think. There is a price to pay in subtlety, precision, and flexibility.

Also, I had a cheeky thought, concerning what Bell was doing: Why is it more important to conduct when your instrument happens not to have music to play? Does the orchestra need you more then? Isn’t this a matter of mere personal convenience? Like looking for your keys under a streetlight?

But Bell did a fine job, and so did the orchestra. One thing Bell contributed was a superb sense of rhythm. I have a complaint about the last movement—that the timpani were jarringly, unnecessarily loud.

Next on the program was another work in D major by a Russian composer: the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. Guess who the soloist was? I would have liked a bigger orchestra in this piece, but the Academy sufficed. Bell stood front and center, of course. When he played, he was more physical than usual, performing extra knee bends and so on. This was part of his conducting, or leading. He also conducted through his playing—imparting definition this way. When he did not play, he turned around and conducted the orchestra with his bow. I was amused to see that he goes up on his toes, when conducting. He does the same when playing.

All in all, he semi-conducted—which perhaps makes him a semi-conductor. I would note, too, that, in the third movement, the concertmaster (not Bell) did a little conducting, just to help the group out.

And how did Bell play? Like Bell, in brief. He was tasteful, stylish, and alive. Totally alive. He communicated this aliveness to the orchestra around him. It was catching. Bell committed a mistake or two—some flatness on high notes in the cadenza, for example—but these hardly mattered. At the end of the first movement, the audience rose in a thunderous ovation. They were on their feet for what seemed like two minutes. This was a louder, longer ovation than is usually accorded to a performer after the concerto. In the last movement, Bell was not as accurate as he can be, but he was musical as hell. I don’t care for a little ritard at the end, and Bell disagrees with me. But I am in no mood to quarrel with him about the Tchaikovsky Concerto.

Let me offer two footnotes: First, the soloist and the orchestra sounded wonderful in this hall—a hall whose acoustics are supposed to be defeating. Maybe it’s the performers who have failed over the years? Second, I have long had a thought about Bell’s reputation. Obviously, he is famous, honored, and rich (presumably). But I believe his critical reputation should be even higher than it is. What if he were Giosuè Campana from Cremona, or Lev Urbaniak from Odessa, instead of good ol’ Josh from Bloomington? Would his reputation be higher (though it has long been plenty high)? I don’t know.

After intermission, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields played Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8. Again, Bell sat in the concertmaster’s chair, leaning out from time to time. The symphony was fine, just fine. But it would have been better if Bell had abandoned his violin and stood in front of the orchestra, conducting properly. And, again, the timpani were intolerable—vulgarly, bangingly loud. My head hurts just remembering.

The soloist and the orchestra sounded wonderful in this hall—a hall whose acoustics are supposed to be defeating. 

Across the plaza, the Metropolitan Opera staged Don Pasquale, the comedy by Donizetti. In the title role was the man you would want: Ambrogio Maestri, the Italian baritone. He was born to sing such roles. He is a delight to the ear and the eye. (Maestri has a Falstaffian build, which he knows how to deploy onstage.) His Italian diction is a model—the quicker the music, the faster come the syllables, the better. He is a paragon of patter. On this night, he sang and acted with his usual skill. But it was often hard to hear him—for he was covered up by the orchestra, which was a cheat.

Ambrogio Maestri in the title role of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale/Photo: Marty Sohl, courtesy Metropolitan Opera

The tenor alongside him, singing Ernesto, was Javier Camarena, from Mexico. He was all smoothness and ease. And the audience demanded an encore from him—a true encore: he returned to repeat his beginning-of-Act-II aria. At some point in history, the cry of “Encore!” came to mean, “Perform something else, in addition.” But, originally, it meant, simply, “Again.” That’s what Camarena did: he sang it again.

Our soprano, portraying Norina, was
Eleonora Buratto. She is from Italy, and she is a find. She has a biggish, substantial voice, and she flings it about with confidence. Bel canto need not mean small. (The same goes for coloratura.) Buratto’s size and flair were utterly welcome. A Russian baritone, Alexey Lavrov, sang Malatesta, that headache (for Don Pasquale). He was not Italianate, but he, too, was welcome.

This was a very good night of singing—but there was that shadow over it: the Met orchestra, led by Maurizio Benini, covered up the star, our man Maestri. You longed to hear him, in all his Italianate intricacy, but the orchestra was banging away. Frustrating.

Steven Hough/Photo: Sim Canetty-Clarke

At the 92nd Street Y, Stephen Hough gave a recital. He is the British pianist, and composer, and arranger. In my chronicle last month, I had occasion to mention him: in particular, his ingenious arrangement of “The March of the Royal Siamese Children,” by Richard
Rodgers (from The King and I, of course). This is so good an arrangement, other pianists play it—not just the arranger. There are other living pianists whose arrangements are played by colleagues too. I think of Arcadi Volodos, and Marc-André Hamelin.

Hough’s recital at the Y included an original composition: his Sonata III (Trinitas). We learned from a note he wrote for the program that this piece was commissioned by a Catholic magazine, The Tablet. We also learned that he composed the piece according to the twelve-tone system. What I don’t know is why he called the piece a sonata. These titles, or designations, can be arbitrary. Quite possibly, he feels the piece to be a sonata. But if he had called it Spiritual Ruminations or any number of other names, no one would be the wiser.

It begins with thirds, mixed with some other intervals. The music is off-kilter, not quite content with harmony. For a while, the piece sounds like a compositional exercise—an experiment—rather than a proper piece. It becomes playful, impish. Then jazzy. Hough is noodling around on the keyboard, or seems to be. There are single notes, unaccompanied. What I mean is, there is one line, without chords, for example, underneath it. Then there are indeed chords—Romantic-sounding. Is this piece eclectic or schizophrenic? Is there a method to the madness? I’m sure there is. Eventually, a hymn appears: “Holy, Holy, Holy.” It is surrounded—thrown off-kilter—by dissonance. I was reminded of Charles Ives. If I saw correctly, Hough slapped the keyboard with the back of his hand. The final pages of his piece are quiet and mysterious—and not somber. It ends on a nice, simple, C-major third (I believe). This piece is absorbed in three, the Trinity.

I have a feeling that the piece is deeply meaningful to the composer—probably more than can be communicated to or grasped by listeners. Will other pianists play this piece, as they do that Siamese march? I doubt it, though perhaps they will. In any event, Stephen Hough is an intelligent and interesting man. And I like that he composes: that he rolls his own, in addition to playing the standard repertoire (and the beyond-standard). He is a real, rounded musician.

And here’s a footnote: For his own sonata, Hough used sheet music. And a page-turner. For other people’s music—Schubert’s, for example—he had no such need!

Timo Andres and Gabe Kahane/Photo: Stephanie Berger, courtesy Carnegie Hall

Let’s end at Zankel Hall—where Timo Andres and Gabriel Kahane gave a concert together. They are Americans in their thirties. Andres is a composer and pianist. Kahane is a composer, singer, and pianist. Maybe he could be called a singer-songwriter? Earlier this season, I wrote about Andres, who had written a piece for string quartet. Kahane is the son of Jeffrey Kahane, the pianist and conductor.

They are good friends, young Kahane and Andres are. Their concert included music that they had written for each other. It also included music by other contemporary composers: Thomas Adès and Andrew Norman. It further included music by not so contemporary composers, such as Schubert. In fact, it began and ended with Bach—pieces transcribed for piano four hands by György Kurtág. So, this was a real variety show.

At various points throughout the concert, Kahane talked to the audience. I could not object, because (a) this was not inappropriate to a casual, homey concert (and a homie one), and (b) Kahane was so charming. He even slightly disdained the idea of talking at a concert.

The first Bach piece, the men played stiffly and dryly. The music suffered from a poor sense of line. Next on the program were four folksongs, arranged by Britten. Kahane sang and Andres played. As Kahane sang, I had a funny thought: “He’s singing like a folksinger. Then again, these are folksongs.” We’re used to hearing Peter Pears or Arleen Auger in these songs, or at least I am. Kahane was a different story. He showed a funny habit, namely this: when a line ended in a sustained note, he did not sustain it. He just cut it off, quickly. But he was consistent in this.

Later in the program, he was scheduled to sing an item from Schumann’s Dichterliebe. I could not imagine how it would go. As it transpired, he sang it pretty much like a pop singer—which was different.

A vocal line under a fluid, restless piano accompaniment. This is a good formula indeed.

For Andres, Kahane wrote Works on Paper, a piano suite of three pieces. Fast, slow, fast, basically. They are “tonally atonal,” to use a phrase I learned from Lorin Maazel. In the middle piece, the pianist plucks the strings of the instrument. These are pleasant pieces, and I thought they might fall under a Griegian category: “lyric pieces.” For Kahane, Andres wrote Mirror Songs, a set of three. They are slightly minimalist, pop-like, and pleasant. Maybe a little arty. Later, there was another Andres song, “To Whom It May Concern.” It adheres to a tried-and-true formula: a vocal line under a fluid, restless piano accompaniment. This is a good formula indeed.

We also heard three more Kahane songs, which hover between the pop world and the art-song world. I was reminded of Bill Bolcom, including in the off-kilter rhythms of “Side Streets.” Another Kahane song, “Where Are the Arms,” has a touch of James Taylor, or so I thought.

Toward the end of the evening, Kahane deadpanned, “It’s almost over.” Then he sang four songs of Charles Ives, giving at least one of them a whispery pop style. This is not my taste, and I don’t think it’s Ives’s—but he can take a lot. The concert ended, as you know, with a Bach-Kurtág piece. Andres and Kahane played it much, much better than they had the first one.

Pervading this unusual and, to me, not always engaging concert was one thing: love of music. That is worth its weight in gold.

And I could hug Gabriel Kahane for something he said. Regular readers know that I dislike a habit of performers (well, many of them, but I’m thinking of one just now): they take up concert time by essentially reciting program notes from the stage. Kahane said, approximately, “Don’t you hate it when you go to a fussy restaurant and the waiter insists on reciting the menu to you, even though it’s right there in front of you?” Yes. Exactly.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 34 Number 9, on page 58
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