Ignat Solzhenitsyn played a recital on the barge. He is a pianist and conductor (and son of the great man). The barge is the venue—the famous venue—of Bargemusic. This venue sits under the Brooklyn Bridge. It is “New York City’s floating concert hall,” as PR has it. Many of us over the years, surely, have made quips about barcarolles.
A barcarolle, you recall, is a song or other piece of music having its origins in Venice and its gondoliers.
As Solzhenitsyn is a friend of mine, I should not review his recital. Suffice it to say he is excellent. I will say a little about the music he played—the two works on the first half of his program. These are unfamiliar, or at least they were to me. One of them is by a little-known composer; the other is by a very well-known and canonical composer. Go figure.
Solzhenitsyn began his recital with the Six Preludes, Op. 6, of Robert Muczynski. He was an American composer, born and brought up in Chicago. He had his higher education there, too. The bulk of his career, he spent at the University of Arizona. He composed his Six Preludes in 1954, when he was twenty-five. He would soon play them in Carnegie Hall, in a program consisting entirely of his own music. Born in 1929, he died in 2010.
I will say just a word about each prelude. The first is bright and interesting, reminiscent of Prokofiev. The second is ruminative. The third is a kind of scherzo, buzzing around like a bee. (This would be more Rimsky-Korsakov than Prokofiev.) In the fourth, Muczynski is back to the ruminative. Then there is more buzzing. Then there is rhapsody—outright, sprawling rhapsody. The fifth prelude has both the jagged and the lyrical (a good, and Prokofiev-like, combination). There is a touch of a scherzo at the end of it. And the final prelude is a bulldozer, plowing its way through, heedless and unstoppable. I was reminded of the Precipitato, the last movement of Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7.
Muczynski’s preludes are not derivative. I don’t mean to say that. But they bear influences, as music does.
The Six Preludes have been played for many years, especially by students, from what I have been able to find out. I met them only on the barge. They seem to me to come from the pen of a man who loved the piano: who loved listening to it, playing it, and composing for it.
How about the other unfamiliar work on Solzhenitsyn’s program? It was a Schubert sonata. An unfamiliar Schubert piano sonata? Isn’t that like saying “unfamiliar Beethoven symphony”? No, because the Sonata in B major, D. 575, is rarely programmed. Why is a mystery, to me. Schubert wrote it in 1817, when he was twenty. (So his middle years, right?) I will say a word about each of the four movements, as with the Muczynski preludes.
A joy of music is discovery.
The first movement is both simple and not. I don’t know how Schubert does that, but he does, over and over. The second movement is a song—a beautiful Schubert song, in E major. He could not help writing songs, even in his instrumental music. The third movement is a scherzo, and a Schubertian one: not an impish or devilish scherzo, but a genial one. The final movement is so smooth, so interesting, so Schubertian. It has no discernible mood. It exists in that Schubert world, that atmosphere all the composer’s own.
If you will indulge a cliché, a joy of music is discovery: the making of new friends, even when they are composed by giants, whom you have known for years.
Under the auspices of Great Performers, Christian Gerhaher came to Alice Tully Hall for a recital. It’s true: he’s a great performer. This German baritone is one of the best lieder singers of our time, and he has a superb partner in his regular pianist, Gerold Huber. (Also German, Huber was born the same year as Gerhaher, 1969.) The two of them don’t even look at each other. Their communication is barely conscious at this point, I think.
Their program was all-Mahler—an unusual kind of program. How did they do it? They began and ended with selections from Das Lied von der Erde. In between were the Rückert-Lieder, a song from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, and a couple of other items.
Gerhaher can look wild, disheveled, almost a musical demon. (That can be exciting.) On this evening, he was composed, and dressed in classic fashion: white tie and tails. Not for him the black pajamas that are today’s uniform.
The recitalists began with Das Lied’s first low-voiced song, “Der Einsame im Herbst.” The orchestra, or in this case the piano, plays a long introduction. Then the singer comes in on a high F, not easy to come in on. Gerhaher grabbed the note, just a little, but it was a good one. Now I will make some general remarks about his singing.
He is an intelligent guy—a prized interpreter—but he does not intellectualize his songs: he just sings them. He is not so much an artiste singing art songs as a guy singing songs (with much refinement, to be sure). He gives you a range of colors. And he does not force his voice. What a beautiful voice it is. Amazingly beautiful. Is this an obvious thing to say? No, because people are so taken with Gerhaher’s interpretive powers that they may forget the obvious: what a throat.
The same is true of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. People love to talk about his insights, his diction, his mental mastery. But without that golden throat—you and I would never have heard his name.
Gerold Huber does many admirable things on the piano, of which I will cite a few. He has a good sense of the detached and the legato. When he imitated a drum—as Mahler calls on you to do—it was startlingly drum-like. And he knows what volume to play at: how loud, how soft. Famously, Gerald Moore titled his memoirs Am I Too Loud? The truth is, an accompanist can be too soft, too. Too retiring, too unassertive. Huber, like all the best accompanists, or “collaborative pianists,” has the gift of the right volume. (I cherish a remark by Craig Rutenberg: he likes being known by the traditional term “accompanist,” because “ ‘collaborator’ reminds me of wartime France or something.”)
About the Rückert-Lieder, I will make a single remark: Gerhaher sang “Liebst du um Schönheit” with a quality I had never heard in it before: annoyance. When you hear it, you realize it goes with the poem.
The recital ended, appropriately, with the Abschied, the Farewell, from Das Lied von der Erde. I am reminded of Shostakovich—who once asked his younger colleague Rodion Shchedrin, “If you could take one score with you to a desert island, what would it be?” Shchedrin, put on the spot, said The Art of the Fugue (Bach). Shostakovich said Das Lied.
I don’t know what you sing for an encore after an all-Mahler program—except the holy “Urlicht” from the “Resurrection” Symphony. Which is what Gerhaher did. It was a great recital, thanks to Gerhaher and his superb pianist. But thanks to Mahler too, whose genius was evident all over again.
At the New York Philharmonic, they played a new trombone concerto by William Bolcom—they being the orchestra’s principal trombone, Joseph Alessi, and, of course, the orchestra itself, led by its music director, Alan Gilbert. Bolcom was a figure of my youth. What I mean is, I grew up in Ann Arbor, and he taught at the University of Michigan. He led a dual life: classical composer and jazz, or cabaret, pianist. He teamed up with his wife, the singer Joan Morris, for all sorts of performances, in popular veins. You would see the couple around town. I spotted them once in an ice-cream parlor, Lovin’ Spoonful, on Main Street. They were celebrities, and deservedly so.
Bolcom’s trombone concerto is in three movements. The first has a marking that I associate with Beethoven: “Quasi una fantasia.” That’s how the two sonatas of Op. 27 are labeled. (The second of them has a much better-known label: “Moonlight.”) I will report a little of what I heard, in this Bolcom concerto.
Bolcom led a dual life: classical composer and jazz, or cabaret, pianist.
It begins on an Ivesian note, with a muted trumpet (as I recall). This is evocative—calling up the American past. In the orchestra, there is unease, and the composer uses plenty of percussion. These things are par for the course in today’s music. In this first movement, we hear low, yawpy sounds. And there are sudden shifts. This is a shifty movement. At one point, the music gets big and angry. Then there is a ravishing cello solo. (Cello solos are always described as “ravishing.” It’s in the music writer’s handbook.)
At the end of the movement, someone in the audience, thinking the concerto was over, shouted, “Encore!”
The second movement is marked “Blues.” It is indeed bluesy, and rocking, and Bolcomesque. This is the composer of “The Graceful Ghost Rag” (probably Bolcom’s most famous piano piece). The final movement is “Charade,” and it is jazzy, Bernsteinian—very West Side Story, to be specific. You could almost see the Jets and the Sharks dance. I believe, too, that I heard a quotation from a Bolcom cabaret song, “Amor.”
I will go out on a limb and say that the second and third movements are Bolcom’s natural self—his musical and compositional inclination. Does he write music such as the first movement because he has to? Because that’s what contemporary American composers do? This is too big a subject—a can of worms—for a chronicle such as mine.
After intermission, the Philharmonic and Maestro Gilbert performed a new symphony, Wynton Marsalis’s Symphony No. 4, “The Jungle.” Actually, I have written that wrong: the work is called The Jungle, and, in parentheses, we have “Symphony No. 4.” So, one should write this: The Jungle (Symphony No. 4). Upton Sinclair wrote a novel called The Jungle, in 1906. It was about Chicago and the meat-packing industry. Marsalis’s work is about New York. The Philharmonic’s program notes described it as “a wary, unvarnished ode to New York City.” Can odes be wary and unvarnished? I would have to ponder that.
At the beginning of the 2010–11 season, the Philharmonic premiered Marsalis’s Swing Symphony (Symphony No. 3). (He appears to be consistent in his naming style.) In these pages, I wrote that the work “is essentially a jazz piece: a jazz piece with some classical window dressing. And it is long, pleasant, harmless, tedious, unmemorable—a little dull. Marsalis is a masterly musician, but this is not a masterly creation.” I think I liked No. 4 better, on first hearing—but some of those same thoughts and words apply.
Like No. 3, No. 4 is for symphony orchestra and jazz orchestra, combined. It has six movements—but, on the night I attended, the Philharmonic omitted the first movement, playing the remaining five. There was apparently a question of rehearsal time. In the future, the orchestra will play the symphony complete. But even with the first movement shorn, the work clocks in at fifty minutes—which is not a bagatelle.
Marsalis has given his six movements titles. And he has written descriptions of each, in a “guide.” Take the final movement. It is called “Struggle in the Digital Market,” and is described as follows: “The city is driven ever forward by more and more profit and the myth of unlimited growth for the purpose of ownership and seclusion. Some form of advertisement occupies every available space. The struggle asks, ‘Will we seek and find more equitable long-term solutions . . . or perish?’ ”
An individual listener can take the composer’s sociological musings to heart or ignore them—and listen to the symphony simply as music. So it is with Bernstein’s violin concerto, aka his Serenade. You can match Plato’s Symposium to the music, as the composer fancied. Or you can ditch the symposium and listen to the concerto.
Marsalis’s second movement is called “The Big Show,” and is intended to reflect “the brash, brassy razzle-dazzle of our city.” I must say he is faithful here. The music is big, brassy, and New Yorky. It has touches of Gershwin and other titans of jazz. This movement suffers from some posing, I think—some attitudinizing. There is gesture after gesture, which is distinct from a naturally developing composing.
The third movement—“Lost in Sight (Post-Pastoral)”—has an oboe song, rather nice. Then there are some down-and-dirty sounds, not nice at all. For the cello, there is a funky solo. (Not all of them are ravishing.) Then people start to hum—people in the orchestra, I mean. Eventually, the music turns Coplandesque, nicely insinuating. With the fourth movement, it’s maracas time. This is the Spanish section, “La Esquina.” The music lives la vida loca, and a pleasant life, too. Movement No. 5 is called “Us,” and it, too, is pleasant. It also has the whiff of the cocktail lounge about it.
In the sixth movement, we get that “digital struggle.” Digital or not, there is conflict in the music. There is also clapping—clapping from orchestra members. The clapping seems simple enough, but the rhythm is actually quite tricky. Later on, the piece resists ending. I mean, it rails and wails and protests against ending. It screams against ending. I found this very effective, perhaps the most effective part of the whole symphony (or the five-sixths of it that we heard).
At various points in the symphony, especially when the music got quiet, a man sitting near me said, “Wow,” for the benefit of his neighbors, surely. He was signaling his special appreciation of the piece. I appreciated it too, if I wasn’t as wowed. I found the piece quite pleasant to listen to. (There’s that word again, “pleasant.”) I also wondered whether one should sit and listen to it, reverently—as opposed to dancing to it, or eating to it, or milling to it. I also thought that the music could serve as a soundtrack to a movie.
Those are rude remarks, I’m sure. And I have a rude question—but a pertinent one, I think: if The Jungle were not written by our leading and most beloved jazzman—a trumpeter of almost superhuman ability—would orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic play it? I don’t know.
The Metropolitan Opera staged Roméo et Juliette, the Gounod opera. The production was Bartlett Sher’s, which has this feature: the lamps of Verona rise out of sight. So do the chandeliers at the Met (whatever the production, whatever the opera). I thought this made for a nice symmetry, if you will. Presiding in the pit was Gianandrea Noseda, the Italian maestro. I would have liked a bit more ardor, and a bit more momentum, from him. But he conducted intelligently and musically, as usual. The little F-major berceuse that begins Act II was notably lovely.
Grigolo has a one-in-a-million voice.
Our Juliette was Diana Damrau, the German soprano. Even before she opened her mouth, she was winning: girlish, Juliet-like, adorable. For all these years, I have said that her “secret ingredient”—to go with her ample singing skills—is adorability. She was not in her best voice on this night. The voice was small, as well as blemished. Yet she never pushed it, and she has any number of qualities to compensate. Moreover, as she told me once in an interview, “your voice is your voice. You can’t go to the store and buy another one.”
Her “Je veux vivre”—aka “Juliet’s Waltz”—was interesting. It was exceptionally slow, and yet not too slow. She played with the notes and words, teasing them out, enchantingly. Her high C at the end was low, but this hardly mattered.
Opposite her as Roméo was Vittorio Grigolo, the Italian tenor. He was in splendid voice. All night long, he poured forth gold, often with a little quiver in it. He was both loud and lyrical—a lucky combination. His high soft singing was exemplary. When he did this, I could feel the pressure in my diaphragm, I swear. He was sometimes a little swoony, but he never crossed into vulgarity. In his aria, “Ah! lève-toi, soleil!” you could hear the sunrise. Pardon my sappiness, but it’s true.
Grigolo is the target of snarkiness, which must relate to his penchant for hamming it up onstage. But there must be envy involved too. Grigolo has a one-in-a-million—one-in-hundreds-of-millions?—voice. I think of a tagline from long ago: “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.”
Responsible for the titles—the translation on seatbacks—was Cori Ellison, a distinguished dramaturg. Freely and wisely, she mixed in Shakespeare’s own words. I don’t know whether anyone has said this before, but he could really write.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 6, on page 58
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