The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center put on an unusual and interesting program. They called it “The Romantic Viola.” After the lights dimmed, Wu Han bounded onto the stage. A pianist, she is the artistic director of cms, along with her husband, the cellist David Finckel. Wu Han said (approximately), “This program is so fascinating, I can’t help jumping onto the stage to talk about it.” I think differently: I would rather jump onto the stage to play it. But so enthusiastic a talker is Wu Han—and so brief a one, usually—even a curmudgeon like me can’t begrudge what she does.

The star of “The Romantic Viola” was Paul Neubauer, who became the principal violist of the New York Philharmonic at twenty-one. Then he pursued a solo and chamber career. He is one of the most famous violists in the world, if you don’t think that’s too ridiculous a sentence. I have written about him in these pages for many years. I say, “He has one of the best string sounds going.” Also, he plays with sovereignty. There is almost an arrogance about his playing, or an aristocracy, if you like. He knows what he’s doing. And he knows that he knows.

Neubauer is one of the most famous violists in the world, if you don’t think that’s too ridiculous a sentence.

His instrument, the viola, is a marvelous thing: part violin, part cello—all viola. The instrument is to strings what a mezzo-soprano is to singing. These sounds are exceptionally appealing, to many people.

Violist Paul Neubauer, pianist Alessio Bax, and mezzo soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano at Lincoln Center/Photo: Tristan Cooke, courtesy the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center 

Why do people make viola jokes? I have put this question to several violists, including Lawrence Dutton, of the Emerson String Quartet. He gave an answer I never would have expected. He did not say, “Oh, it’s so unjust.” He said, “Because the quality of viola playing has been so poor. The jokes are deserved.” The better musicians go to the violin, he said, while the junior varsity takes up the viola.

Paul Neubauer, of course, is an all-star. He and a small army of supporting musicians played a nicely mixed program, ranging from Schumann to Turina to Tower. (More about her—Joan Tower—in a moment.) At the end of the first half came a piece by Gordon Jacob: a Suite for Eight Violas. Jacob was an English composer who lived from 1895 to 1984. He was a friend of the viola, composing two concertos for it. He wrote his suite in 1976, in honor of Lionel Tertis, the famous (yes) violist and teacher who had recently died. It was for Tertis that William Walton wrote his viola concerto—the most famous of all such concertos. Jacob’s suite is in four movements, beginning with one called “Dedication.” It is unmistakably English. It has that melancholy that is not quite sad, and that happiness that is not quite happy. What a strange sensibility, and endearing.

Onstage with Neubauer were, necessarily, seven of his fellow violists. It was virtually a convention. Among them was Larry Dutton, and also the current principal of the New York Philharmonic, Cynthia Phelps. At certain points in the suite, I thought of a phrase I had never thought of before: “viola choir.” It is a very good idea.

Joan Tower is an American born in 1938. She has composed four pieces for Neubauer—the latest of them last year. The first was Wild Purple. Then came Purple Rhapsody, Simply Purple, and Purple Rush. Tower has been quoted as saying, “I always thought of the viola sound as being the color purple.” I can’t help thinking of Alice Walker’s novel (The Color Purple). Also of Purple Rain, by Prince, who died in April.

Simply Purple and Purple Rush were on this cms program. They are both for solo viola (i.e., unaccompanied viola, viola alone). The second is a companion to the first, or a follow-on. Sometimes composers do this. My late friend Lee Hoiby did this with songs. In a program note, Tower explained that the second piece was the same as the first in its “actions,” but faster. Much faster (hence Rush). The first piece, Simply Purple, is absorbing in its unfoldment, I think. And it is obviously a complete piece, a finished work. The second piece is plenty virtuosic—but it struck me as more a compositional exercise. I look forward to a second hearing, and perhaps a better impression.

And I salute the composer for enhancing the repertoire of this marvelous, if mocked, instrument.

Alan Gilbert conducts the New York Philharmonic/Photo: Chris Lee, courtesy New York Philharmonic

A concert of the New York Philharmonic began with an oomp, which is to say, an obligatory opening modern piece. It was by Franck Krawczyk, who—don’t let the name deceive you—is French. His bio includes an amazing fact: he was a piano student but ended his career on that instrument when he stopped playing in the middle of a recital. Apparently, he simply stopped while playing Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata. He wanted to write his own music—which he did, going on to study composition.

The Philharmonic played Après, a work in three movements. Each movement is dedicated to someone important to the composer. The first is dedicated to his teacher in Lyons, Gilbert Amy; the second is “pour György Kurtág,” the Hungarian composer; and the third is “à la mémoire de Henri Dutilleux,” the French composer. He died in 2013, three years shy of one hundred. Kurtág just turned ninety. So we are talking about long-lived composers.

Krawczyk’s first movement is called “Coda . . . Ruines.” Has a piece ever begun with a coda (which means, you recall, “tail”)? The second movement is “Reconstitution,” which, in addition to being for Kurtág, is an “Hommage à L. van Beethoven.” The third movement is “Matin,” and, like the preceding movement, it relates to Beethoven (as well as its dedicatee, Dutilleux). I did not hear any of the “Pathétique” Sonata, however—Mr. Krawczyk’s aborted piano swan song. I’ll tell you a few things I did hear.

The first movement has a wash of strings. I thought of Barber’s famous Adagio. Then there are groanings and interjections—angry interjections. This movement is well conceived and well shaped. It is interesting in its harmonics. In the second movement come pots and pans: lots of percussion. This, too, is interesting. Krawczyk is a skillful orchestrator. The music is baldly modernist. It is suspenseful and angry, resembling the soundtrack of a scary movie, I thought. For me, this movement went on too long. At some point, I was startled to hear a piano. Was this at the beginning of the third movement? I’m not sure. The movements blend. I had not noticed the piano onstage. That instrument is joined by the harp—putting me in mind of Britten, who liked to employ the harp, often spookily. Before this movement is over, we have declarative brass.

Krawczyk's music is baldly modernist.

At the beginning of the concert—before the Philharmonic’s music director, Alan Gilbert, gave the downbeat—I heard something strange: a dog not barking. The conductor had not come out with the composer to talk about the piece. He simply bowed and started conducting it. Was the composer present in the hall? He was. When his piece ended, Krawczyk sprinted onto the stage—I mean, sprinted—to take his bow. On the evidence of Après, he has a lively musical mind and a respect for others. Built into this work is gratitude, which is a valuable quality, in music as elsewhere.

I’ll say something that may be ungrateful. The concert continued with Schumann’s Cello Concerto, in which the soloist was Carter Brey, the Philharmonic’s principal. He played with his customary poise and dignity. More than most soloists, he looked at the conductor. Is this because he is used to being in the orchestra? The concerto would have benefited from more tang, more flavor, from all involved, especially in the last movement. A blandness covered the performance. But could the performers truly help it?

Here is where my ingratitude, or possible ingratitude, comes in. Despite effort, I have not been able to warm to the Schumann Cello Concerto, although its middle movement—an F-major song, in part—undoubtedly has merit. The outer movements are stuffed with Romantic filler. Virtuosic gestures, amounting to a parody of Romantic storminess. Not even Slava and Lenny—Rostropovich and Bernstein—could bring this piece to life for me.

What is the worst piece in the standard repertory? I might vote for the Schumann Cello Concerto.

So, I propose a parlor game, a question: What is the worst piece written by a major composer? No, a different question is better: What is the worst piece in the standard repertory? I might vote for the Schumann Cello Concerto—and I make so bold as to say this because I love the man, Schumann. I believe he nodded in his cello concerto. We can talk about his violin concerto later, but then, that’s not in the standard repertory.

Albina Shagimuratova as Konstanze in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail/ Photo: Ken Howard, courtesy Metropolitan Opera

The Metropolitan Opera revived Die Entführung aus dem Serail, or The Abduction from the Seraglio, one of Mozart’s operas. In the pit, James Levine—who received a standing ovation at the outset. The company had recently announced that Levine would be retiring as Music Director, though he will conduct some performances next season as Music Director Emeritus. He has long battled health problems. The overture to The Abduction was full of pep—but not especially precise.

This opera is hard for singers. Mozart is characteristically hard, but The Abduction is exceptionally so. One soprano, Konstanze, sings an aria that goes, “Martern aller Arten,” meaning, “Torture of all kinds.” That could describe the opera at large, for singers (though these tortures have their rewards). In an interview, Renée Fleming once told me that, at the beginning of her career, she got a lot of work singing Mozart roles—because other sopranos shied away from them. And when she finally gave him up, she did so with relief—because he was so hard.

Singing the plum, show-stealing role of Osmin, the Pasha’s overseer, was Hans-Peter König. He is a German bass. Initially, he sounded tired. He got a little better as Act I continued. The tenor singing Belmonte, Paul Appleby, was adequate but tight. His higher notes were especially unfree. Konstanze was “a Russian with a mouthful of a name,” as I said in a 2008 review of her: Albina Shagimuratova. She has a very interesting voice: juicy, potent, pliable, and full of colors, mainly dark. Here in Act I, she did some impressive singing, but she also did some sloppy singing, and I’m afraid she also screeched.

One bright spot in Act I was the comic interplay between König, as Osmin, and Brenton Ryan, the young tenor portraying Pedrillo. König is a very large man, and Ryan is whip-thin. Bossing Pedrillo around, Osmin gave him an amusing stomach-bump. Yet there was not much to smile at in Act I. Levine was without his usual intensity, and his usual crispness. There was no sparkle in the show. At the first intermission, it felt like midnight to me. Had we really just begun?

“And then there was Act II.” That’s what the friend sitting next to me—a soprano, as it happens—said at the end of that act.

It was completely different from its predecessor: sparkling, precise, wonderfully Mozartean. For part of the difference, we can credit the arrival of another singer, Kathleen Kim, the soprano portraying Blondchen. She was all poise, femininity, and (to use this word again) sparkle. She provided a definition of perky defiance. Possibly, she perked up Hans-Peter König—who sang beautifully, freshly, and smartly. The interplay between them was delightful. He is immense, and she is tiny. They made the most of it. Brenton Ryan sang handsomely and confidently. And Paul Appleby did some welcome loosening up.

When I reviewed La Shagimuratova in 2008, she was the Queen of the Night, in Mozart’s Magic Flute. I said, “She sank her teeth into the Queen’s music—making it meaty, crunchy, and dramatic. She was not as clean and pure as some. But she was formidable and exciting, as the Queen should be—a songbird with teeth.” Something like that applies to her Konstanze. Her “Martern aller Arten” was flawed but bold. Imperious. And throughout the night, when she was singing less than optimally, I still thought, “What an interesting voice.”

In Act II, James Levine found his Mozart groove. He stayed in it for Act III.

In Act II, James Levine found his Mozart groove. He stayed in it for Act III. He demonstrated his typical combination in Mozart: majesty and litheness. Tempos were right, phrasing was right. Ensembles had their natural shape. Act III features that hit aria for Osmin, “O, wie will ich triumphieren,” with its famous low D. König handled both the aria and the note satisfyingly. Levine, and his friend Mozart, closed out the evening with a crisp, buoyant chorus—those giddy shouts of C major. Levine has more performances in him.

Robert Spano conducts the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall/Photo: Steve J. Sherman, courtesy Carnegie Hall

Into Carnegie Hall came the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, led by its fine music director, Robert Spano. It was the centennial of Robert Shaw’s birth—I mean, to the day. This concert took place on April 30, 2016. Shaw, best known for his choral conducting, was the music director of the aso from 1967 to 1988. Early in his tenure, he founded the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus. They were on hand in Carnegie Hall, too. The esteemed conductor died in 1999.

I had a funny thought: Would Atlantans be miffed that, to celebrate the Shaw centennial, the orchestra and chorus skipped up to New York, and the country’s most famous concert hall? Why not celebrate at home? But perhaps Atlantans are too content for such thoughts.

The centennial concert finished with a Shaw classic, and a Brahms classic: the German Requiem. But it began with a new work, for the same forces as the Brahms: orchestra, mixed chorus, soprano, and baritone. This was Zohar, by Jonathan Leshnoff, an American. Our program booklet described him as “a leader of contemporary American lyricism.” In other words, “Brace yourself: he’s a square.” Alternatively, “Don’t worry: it’s going to be all right.”

The title of his piece refers to a commentary on the Books of Moses. In a written statement, Leshnoff says, “The Zohar is extremely profound, dealing with the most basic and deepest issues of Judaism and life. I barely understand its surface level, but even that surface level inspires me to the core of my being.” Leshnoff is a believer. This comes through in the very first notes of his piece. The texts are in English, most of them translated by the composer himself. There are six movements, some of which are massive and choral, others of which are more intimate and soloistic. (The same is true of the Brahms Requiem, of course.)

Leshnoff’s first movement is a crying out: a huge, choral crying out. Its rhythms are sharp. I was reminded of John Williams, the movie composer. For some, and from some, this would be a putdown. Not from me. Also, this movement sounds like it could be from a contemporary musical. The next one—“What is man?”—is prayerful, hushed, reverent. And it was sung just that way by Jessica Rivera, the soprano. She was utterly sincere and unaffected. I was thinking that this movement could function as a stand-alone piece, quite apart from Zohar as a whole.

The next movement is quick and scherzo-like. Profound or holy works need such a movement, don’t they? I think of Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder and its “Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder!” For that matter, Siegfried can be thought of as the scherzo movement of Wagner’s Ring! In any case, the ear and mind need the relief. This third movement of Leshnoff’s even swings a bit.

How do you criticize a piece like this? It is so personal, so religious—beyond criticism, in a sense.

It’s followed by a song: a yearning song, one that becomes impassioned, even desperate. It was convincingly sung by the evening’s baritone, Nmon Ford. The next movement is a reprise of the first, as far as I could tell. Then it resolves into C major, going into the final movement, “Higher than High.” This is a quiet, mystical section. It ends with the repetition of the word “You.”

How do you criticize a piece like this? It is so personal, so religious—beyond criticism, in a sense. I enjoyed Zohar, and I appreciated it. What’s more, I congratulate Jonathan Leshnoff for going his own way. He is obviously not trying to be cool, and he is obviously not writing for fellow composers, or critics. Recently, I wrote a short essay on the state of contemporary music. At the end, I addressed the age-old question, “Is classical music dying?” This death is always being predicted; it has yet to occur. “Music is one way in which people express themselves,” I wrote. “It is also a way in which people praise God.” Yes.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 34 Number 10, on page 51
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