Gustav Mahler was a conducting composer, probably the most famous in history. Or was he a composing conductor? The poor guy worked very hard as a conductor, reserving only summer weeks to compose. He gave us nine symphonies, among a relative few other things (including a completed movement of a tenth).

Esa-Pekka Salonen has worked very hard as a conductor. Indeed, the fabulous Finn was the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1992 to 2009. I interviewed him in 2011, and he said he had a strong desire to spend more time composing. It had always been a battle with him: conducting versus composing, or conducting in conjunction with composing. He still logs his time on the podium. He is, for example, the principal conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra (London). But he is also putting his pen to paper, or however composers do it these days.

Salonen speaks from the stage with economy and elegance.

Recently, he composed a cello concerto, and he composed it for a specific player: Yo-Yo Ma. In a program note, Salonen writes, “It has been a very great pleasure and honor to write a concerto for one of the most unique life-givers and communicators of our time,” Ma. A great many composers wrote for the late Mstislav Rostropovich. Indeed, it might be said that “Slava” built the cello repertory, at least the twentieth-century cello repertory. Prokofiev and Shostakovich were only two of the dozens of composers who wrote for him—that’s a good start. And composers are writing for Ma as well, as we can see.

Ma played the Salonen concerto at the New York Philharmonic with Alan Gilbert, the orchestra’s music director, on the podium. Beforehand, Gilbert came out to speak, proclaiming the new work “marvelous,” with “deep humanity” and “deep soul.” The composer himself was on hand to say a few words. He told a story about going spear-fishing with his father in northeastern Finland. The composer-to-be was eight or nine years old. He saw the fish move in the water. This, Salonen related to his concerto, somehow. I did not quite catch his meaning. (I have a feeling that Salonen caught, or speared, the fish.) He also mentioned that his concerto is very, very difficult, for the soloist. After Ma got a look at the manuscript, he said to Salonen, “Not only do you hate the cello, you hate me.”

As regular readers may know, I am not a great fan of talking from the stage, but Salonen does it with economy and elegance—which is also how he conducts, much of the time.

In the aforementioned program note, Salonen has a fairly lengthy, fairly detailed description of his concerto. Here is a sample passage, from his comments on the first movement: “I imagined the solo cello line as a trajectory of a moving object in space being followed and emulated by other lines / instruments / moving objects. A bit like a comet’s tail.” Composer aside, let me tell you a little of what I heard, listening to this new concerto.

The first movement begins in chaos, or in a primordial soup. The soup has a minimalistic motive. It is also sci-fi–like. In due course, the cello sings like a cello—I mean, as a cello traditionally sings. It is Romantic, even Brahmsian, dare I say. This is truly lush, songful music from Salonen. In the woodwinds, there is a happy cacophony. For the French horn—the instrument that Salonen played, before becoming a conducting star—there are high-flying passages. The scoring is somewhat cinematic, with tinkles and shimmers in the orchestra.

On the whole, this first movement is both precise and free—a winning combination for music.

Salonen’s concerto is in three movements, by the way, and the movements are labeled as simply as possible: “I,” “II,” and “III.” So, on to II—which begins songful and Romantic. Then it goes loopy and electronic. What I mean is, cello licks are looped around the hall, electronically. We are now experiencing “surround-sound.” At some point, the music becomes bleached—dried out—like so many compositions today. Then there is something you less often hear: a birdy duet between cello and flute.

Is the second movement visionary or gimmicky? I could not quite decide, as I listened.

In the third movement, there are ghostly glissandos on the cello. There is also more “sound design,” as the phrase goes: fun with electronics. I’m afraid the piece began to lose me a bit. The cello digs into the strings and growls. There is much agitation on that instrument. The music is a chaos of rhythm—pounding rhythm—and sound design. We get some dancing of an “ethnic” nature. There is a great deal of sound and fury, signifying . . . I don’t know. Are we listening to music or is it closer to gesture and display? The concerto ends interestingly, with echoing, electronic birds (as I heard them).

I would like to hear the concerto again. I know that Salonen knows what he’s doing, even if others may not. And I can tell you that the concerto was superbly played by Yo-Yo Ma, who was passionate (as always) and commanding (as often). On the podium, Alan Gilbert served the music intelligently.

And I wish to quote, once more, from Salonen’s program note, because I love this sentence so: “I have never—not even during the quite dogmatic and rigid modernist days of my youth—felt that the very idea of writing a solo concerto would in itself be burdened with some kind of dusty bourgeois tradition.” Esa-Pekka Salonen was far too bright, and far too talented, to be fooled by modernism, certainly of the rigid, dogmatic sort.

Ottorino Respighi is well-known, but only for a handful of works—chiefly his orchestral tone poems, celebrating Rome. These are Fountains of Rome, Pines of Rome, and Roman Festivals. You also hear a song now and then: maybe “Nevicata,” or “Nebbie.” But Respighi wrote nine operas, one of which is La campana sommersa, which premiered in 1927. This spring, New York City Opera has staged this rarity. It has done so in collaboration with a company from Sardinia, the Lyric Theater of Cagliari.

La campana sommersa means “The Sunken Bell.” It was taken from a German play (in blank verse), Die versunkene Glocke. The play was written by Gerhart Hauptmann, who lived from 1862 to 1946, and received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1912. For Respighi, Claudio Guastalla fashioned a libretto. (He was Respighi’s regular collaborator.)

The story is about the human world and a fairy, or spritely, world. A bell-maker, Enrico (in the opera), creates his magnum opus. But a naughty faun causes the bell to tumble into the lake. Enrico is injured in the tumult, and is rescued by a lovely sprite, Rautendelein. With her fairy powers, she cures him. He dumps his wife and children and lives with Rautendelein in the fairy world. Dramatic things ensue.

Here on the page, the story seems absurd (and I could make it absurder). But on the stage, it is less so. Respighi was delighted when he read Hauptmann’s play. In his mind, music leaped from every page.

I always say about City Opera that it teaches you new repertory.

The score is a strange, and effective, combination of fairy-tale music and verismo. Of sprinkles and shimmers and sterner stuff. Respighi was a master orchestrator, and this fact is obvious from the beginning of La campana sommersa to the end. The work is through-composed, essentially. There are not arias or set-pieces or opportunities for applause. There is a stirring love duet, however.

You could cite influences on the score, and similarities to other scores, and I will. One thinks of Dvo?ák’s Rusalka. And the style of Debussy. And Rimsky-Korsakov. (Some exoticism made me think of Le Coq d’or.) And one must think of Wagner, without whom this work probably would have been impossible. But in fairness to Respighi: Of how many works could that be said, post-Wagner? Countless.

The truth is, this opera is, mainly, Respighian. Indeed, I thought of those tone poems, as I listened. For a second or two, I could practically see the Appian Way (which features in Pines of Rome).

The cast in this show was excellent, reminding me that not all good singers are well-known—and that not all well-known singers are all that good. Brandie Sutton, an American soprano, was Rautendelein, showing pliancy, accuracy, purity, and stamina. It was virtually a tour de force. Enrico is a splendid tenor role, a role that I would categorize as lyric-heroic. Plácido Domingo, in his prime, would have killed it. (Apparently, he never sang it.) The part was very well handled by Marc Heller. And the conducting was very well handled too, by Ira Levin.

La campana sommersa ought to enchant the eye as well as the ear—and it did, thanks to a production led by Pier Francesco Maestrini. Sets, lights, video, and costumes were utterly in accord with the story and the score. I would like to see the production again, and to hear the opera again.

I always say about City Opera that it teaches you new repertory—new operas, yes, but also operas that have lain a-mouldering. At the beginning of this season, the company did Aleko, Rachmaninoff’s one-acter. Like many, I had long known an aria: Aleko’s Cavatina. Thanks to City Opera, I now know the opera. La campana sommersa, too—and I’m glad of it.

Why don’t more people know it? Why does La campana sommersa lie a-mouldering (or sunken, like the bell, if you will)? Fashion in opera is a curious thing. I discussed this a few years ago with Roberto Abbado, who was about to conduct La favorite, the Donizetti opera (known as La favorita in its Italian version). This was once broadly popular, indeed a staple. Then it fell off the map. Why? A mystery. You could just as well ask why hemlines rise and fall.

La campana sommersa will not make the world forget Otello (let’s say). But I bet it’s as good as some operas that you and I both know.

Simone Lamsma is a young Dutch violinist, and she played a recital in Weill Hall with Robert Kulek, an American pianist. They began with a brand-new work: a sonata by James MacMillan. It was commissioned by Carnegie Hall and is dedicated to Lamsma. MacMillan is a Scottish composer, known for being religious and independent-minded. He goes his own way in music, heedless of what others are doing, or demanding.

It’s rare for an instrumental recital to begin with a new work. Usually, the new work is placed in what has been called the “safe space” right before intermission. (If the new work follows intermission, maybe people won’t come back.)

If I have understood the history, MacMillan composed a song, when young. It’s called “The Tryst,” setting a poem by William Soutar, a Scotsman who lived from 1898 to 1943. Later, MacMillan incorporated his melody into a piece for chamber orchestra, Tryst. He also wrote a violin-and-piano piece called After the Tryst. And the new sonata—the one performed at Weill Hall—has a nickname: “Before the Tryst.”

May I say that, for a composer known for religion, MacMillan has a whole lotta trystin’ goin’ on?

Our program notes quoted MacMillan on his “Tryst” melody. It conveys, he says, a feeling of “commitment, sanctity, intimacy, faith, love, but it is also saturated with sadness, as if all these things are about to expire.” That is a lot for a melody to do. I’ll tell you how the sonata struck my ears.

It begins with the violin alone, high, high up on that instrument. The notes are quiet and disembodied. The piano comes in up high as well—with a fast tremolo. The music is quick and nervous. It gets a touch bluesy. There are folk elements and modernist elements, combined. Mainly, the music is quick: quick in tempo, spirit, and brain. At one point—maybe more—violin and piano race up and down the scale in unison. There is an excitement that covers this piece.

Dullness is the cardinal sin of performance.

I thought, “This is before the tryst? I wonder what during is like.”

The sonata is in one movement, although there seem to be distinct sections. Eventually, the music gets big and grand. That which was light is now heavy: pesante. At the end, the music kind of gives up. It is spent. As at the beginning, the violin is alone and high up, disembodied.

Dullness is the cardinal sin of performance, according to Liszt. We might say that it’s the cardinal sin of composition, too. (The world is full of sinning composers.) MacMillan’s sonata is never dull. It held my attention at every juncture. Both performers were good, and certainly not dull. They played a lively piece in a lively way. They were sharp in their rhythm and clean in their execution.

A footnote: Robert Kulek looks a little like Álvaro Uribe, the former president of Colombia. Another footnote: The last line of Simone Lamsma’s bio tells us that she plays a Stradivarius “on generous loan to her by an anonymous benefactor.” Anonymous to her or anonymous to the world at large? In any case, we should all have generous benefactors, and if they want to keep quiet, fine.

Into Carnegie Hall came the Munich Philharmonic, for two concerts. The orchestra was led by its music director, Valery Gergiev. He is commonly associated with the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, and rightly so. But he also has this Munich gig. The second of the two concerts in Carnegie Hall comprised three famous works . . .

. . . the first of which was Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. The orchestra made beautiful sounds in this work. The flute was alluring, and even the horn was alluring, bless it. Overall, this account was a sonic treat. Yet, for me, it was a little too slow and a little too careful. Studied, I would say . . . until the end, when Gergiev sprinkled his magic on it. I’m referring to that musical wizardry that he can impart. In this instance, he did it through the flutter in his batonless hands: the “Furtwängler flutter” (named for the late German conductor Wilhelm).

The program continued with a Schubert symphony, No. 4, which the composer nicknamed the “Tragic.” He wrote it when he was nineteen. What were you doing at that age? In the opening movement, the orchestra was suitably dark, but also a little heavy, for my taste. With the next movement, Andante, there was nothing wrong. Even so, it was workaday, in my view. With the third movement, the Minuet (plus Trio), there was something wrong, again in my view: it was just too sober. I believe this music has a screwball quality, not evident on this night. The symphony ends with an Allegro, which Gergiev carried off with gratifying brio.

After intermission came the big work on the program, or certainly the longest: Mahler’s Symphony No. 4. This is his “Classical” symphony, some people say, or his “Mozart” symphony: his (Mahlerian) echo of the past. Gergiev was alive to this work, and the Munich players responded. The second movement had great character, ethnic and otherwise. The slow movement was sweet, warm, and beautifully shaped. Beautifully breathed, I like to say.

For the last movement, there is a singer, a soprano, but the initial singer in this movement is a clarinet: and this orchestra’s player sang marvelously. The soprano was Genia Kühmeier, from Salzburg. I don’t mean that she performs at the famous annual festival, which she does. She is actually from Salzburg, a Salzburger. She sang brightly, correctly, and commendably. I, however, like a bit more sweetness and warmth in this part—and a “taffiness,” i.e., pliancy, flexibility.

In the final measures, after the soprano stops singing, there was a shocking error: a G natural instead of a G sharp. I thought my ear had been bitten off. It was like an attack. Never mind: I was glad to be present for this Gergiev-led Mahler Four.

It is always good to be present when Anna Netrebko sings Tatiana. Tchaikovsky’s opera is called Eugene Onegin, but, particularly when Netrebko is cast, it could be called Tatiana. At the Metropolitan Opera, she did not sing prettily, and she did not always sing in tune. I’ve frequently said that she sharps in languages not her own. This time, she sharped in Russian, plenty. But, at every turn, she communicated operatic truth. You may not choose her to sing a song—Schubert’s “Gretchen,” let’s say—but she is an opera performer to her toes.

Mariusz Kwiecien was her Onegin—suave, canny. Alexey Dolgov was Lenski, and he delivered just when he was supposed to: in Lenski’s Aria. I could not have told you that he would sing it so well, based on the first act and a half. Štefan Kocán sang Gremin’s Aria a little stiffly, but still, what a wonderful voice. Like Mahler’s clarinet at the beginning of the fourth movement, Tchaikovsky’s woodwinds must sing, throughout Eugene Onegin. The Met’s performed like pros. They should have been onstage, to share the ovation at the end.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 9, on page 52
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