“I was born singing and grew up singing. I live my life singing.” Those are the words of a Latvian folk song, which the Latvian Radio Choir sang as an encore, in an arrangement by Alfreds Kalnins (one of the most prominent Latvian composers, who lived from 1879 to 1951). Latvians are indeed a singing people, and a musical people. At the Metropolitan Opera recently, at least two Latvians have shone: Kristine Opolais, the soprano, and Elina Garanca, the mezzo-soprano. Balts in general have been known to sing. Recall that Estonia’s independence movement, in the last years of the Soviet Empire, was known as “the Singing Revolution.”
The concert of the Latvian Radio Choir took place in the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, on West Forty-sixth Street. It was part of Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival. What does that name mean, “White Light”? According to Lincoln Center literature, the festival is an “annual exploration of music and art’s power to reveal the many dimensions of our interior lives.” That leaves a lot of room—and avoids the word “religion.” Each year, the Salzburg Festival begins with programs of sacred music, known collectively as the “Ouverture spirituelle.” (Yes, this proud Austrian festival uses a French term.)
The Latvian Radio Choir was founded in 1940 and has had the same artistic director since 1992: Sigvards Klava. It was he who led the choir in New York. The concert was sold out, incidentally, suggesting a hunger for what the Latvians had to offer.
They offered a program of new or newish works, mainly by Latvians, and works by Mahler. They began with a piece by Eriks Esenvalds, born in 1977. This was “Stars,” setting words by Sara Teasdale, the American poet. It was interesting to see this Latvian choir begin in English. The piece is touched by beauty and sincere emotion, and it was sung in just that fashion by the choir. I thought, “If the concert were nothing more than this, it would be enough.”
I also had two other thoughts. (1) “Tonal music, sacred music, spiritually tinged music will never die. The heart and mind want it.” And (2) “How much does the ambience have to do with the enjoyment of ‘Stars’? This church, the dim lights, and all that: what role do these things play? Would ‘Stars’ have the same impact in, say, a brightly lit gym?” I think so, actually—for the musical mind. For others, the ambience may well play a significant role.
The first Mahler piece was “Die zwei blauen Augen,” from Songs of a Wayfarer, in an arrangement by Clytus Gottwald, a German musician born in 1925 (and still going). From the choir’s mouths, the song was rounded, smooth, beautiful—almost too much so. It could have used more of a crunch. I thought something similar about an arrangement of the Adagietto from Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. It was marred by a beautiful sameness. In between those two pieces came the gsoat, i.e., the Greatest Song of All Time. I speak, of course, of “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,” from Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder. I exaggerate, of course, but barely. The song, from the Latvians, went off the rails for a while—I mean it went off pitch. Worse, it did not have the transcendence it should.
Incidentally, I did not understand a word from the choir, in any language, all night long. This did not especially trouble me, as I place less importance on diction in singing than others do. You could kick up a hearty debate on this subject.
One of the newer pieces was “Chu Dal,” or “Quiet Water.” It was composed by Santa Ratniece, who, like Eriks Esenvalds, is a Latvian born in 1977. In this piece, the singers make a variety of sounds with their mouths, including blowing and whistling. I would classify “Chu Dal” as a New Age and minimalist piece. If you are enchanted by it, you’re in luck; if not, you’re in for a long sit, even though the piece is a mere twelve minutes or so. I myself was not enchanted, but I seem stubbornly unenchantable by such pieces in general.
A piece by Juris Karlsons, a senior Latvian composer, born in 1948, had its premiere. It is “Oremus” (“Let Us Pray”). Initially, it is quick, catchy—almost jazzy. Subsequently, it is slower, with sustained notes. The entire piece is heartfelt and affecting. The last item on the program was another piece by Esenvalds, “A Drop in the Ocean,” which pays tribute to Mother Teresa. It includes her words, “My work is nothing but a drop in the ocean, but if I did not put that drop, the ocean would be one drop the less.” This piece, like one of its predecessors, involves blowing, whistling, etc. I could have done without such effects. But the sincerity of the piece—like that of “Chu Dal,” for that matter—counts for a lot.
So, this was a concert out of the everyday. Virtually any choral concert is something out of the everyday. Is the choral tradition in America in good health? I hope so, but have my doubts.
Into Carnegie Hall came Marc-André Hamelin, the piano virtuoso from Montreal. He is a throwback to the Romantic era, or, if you like, a descendant—of Busoni, Paderewski, et al. He began, in fact, with some Busoni, or at least a Busoni arrangement. What he played was Busoni’s treatment of the Chaconne from Bach’s D-minor partita for violin. As it happened, the Chaconne had a few good weeks in New York. Igor Levit, the Russian-born pianist, played the lefthand-alone arrangement by Brahms in Zankel Hall. Hilary Hahn, the American violinist, played the real McCoy in Alice Tully Hall. (She played the whole partita, and she played the Chaconne twice—because she presented it as an encore.) And, as you know, Hamelin played Busoni’s arrangement, for two hands, in Carnegie Hall.
Later in his program, he played a curiosity, or set of curiosities—much more curious than Busoni’s treatment of that D-minor chaconne. Hamelin played Six Arrangements of Songs Sung by Charles Trenet. Trenet was the Frenchman who wrote and sang, among many other songs, “La mer,” which in America became “Beyond the Sea,” a hit for Bobby Darin in 1959. This is one of the greatest popular songs ever. Alas, it is not among the six arrangements, though “Coin de rue” is. This arrangement was included by Leif Ove Andsnes in his distinguished 2006 album of encores, Horizons.
Who wrote these arrangements, anyway? For years, the arranger was anonymous, dubbed “Mr. Nobody.” Then we learned that the arranger was Alexis Weissenberg, the pianist (born in Bulgaria) who lived from 1929 to 2012. Marc-André Hamelin is now the principal champion of these arrangements, and he plays them with virtuosity, refinement, and panache. That virtuosity is almost unseemly. I think of a phrase: “casual facility.” Hamelin plays the most difficult music as though he were rolling out of bed. I should also say that he plays his Trenet-Weissenberg with affection—an affection that shines (or smiles) through his playing. Almost always, Hamelin demonstrates taste. And he never condescends to this kind of music, ever.
Another piece on the program—another curiosity, or at least rarity—was Cipressi, or Cypresses, by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, the Italian who got out at the beginning of the war and found refuge, and work, in Hollywood. Cipressi is Impressionist, I would say, reminding me of “Pagodes,” a piece in Debussy’s Estampes. Castelnuovo-Tedesco writes with a fond contemplation. I think he would be terribly pleased to know that Cipressi was played in 2018, in America’s foremost concert hall.
Afterward, Hamelin played some Chopin: the Polonaise-fantaisie in A flat and the Scherzo No. 4 in E major. This is the last of the scherzos, and is it also the least? I would say not, but it is programmed the least. I was glad to hear it. Earlier on the program, there had been Schumann: the Fantasy in C, Op. 17. I have a question for you (another one): Is this Schumann’s best piano piece? Would you put Kreisleriana or the Symphonic Etudes or some other piece in front of it? I think the Fantasy is arguably Schumann’s very best. In any case, all the great pianists have played it, since the day it was written.
I have heard them all, or many of them, whether on recording or in recital. I have never heard better than Hamelin. As good, yes, but better, no. His understanding of the piece is utterly sound, and he has the fingers to execute the understanding. After he played the piece, no one was standing, and I felt guilty about remaining seated myself. So stand I did.
A concert of the New York Philharmonic began with a warhorse—but a warhorse that can be made to stand up and gallop, freshly. And it did. I am speaking of the Carnival overture by Dvořák. It was thrilling, as when you first heard it, whenever that was. It had its flow, order, and sweep. Also, it was decidedly Czech. The tender parts were not too slow, and they were blessedly unsentimental. And the fast parts were not frenetic, not mindless, as though spat out by a computer. Too many conductors do this. They mistake freneticism for energy, and it is dull.
The conductor was a guest, Manfred Honeck, the Austrian who has long served as music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. The New York orchestra first played the Carnival overture in 1892, a year after it was written, with the composer himself on the podium.
Next on the concert—the recent one, I mean—was a rarity of a concerto: the Violin Concerto No. 1 by Bohuslav Martinů. Like Dvořák, he was a Czech, living from 1890 to 1959. This concerto was commissioned by Samuel Dushkin, the violinist so closely associated with the Stravinsky Violin Concerto. Dushkin never played the Martinů concerto, apparently just ignoring it. Indeed, it did not have its premiere until 1973, almost fifteen years after the composer’s death. Meanwhile, Dushkin championed the Stravinsky concerto like a fiend.
Personally, I find this puzzling. Not to keep picking on Stravinsky, but I wrote of this concerto of his in my November “Chronicle.” “In my opinion,” I said, “the Stravinsky Violin Concerto is a lot of work with little musical payoff.” The Martinů concerto, on the other hand, has plenty of payoff.
Joining Honeck and the New York Philharmonic for the concerto was Frank Peter Zimmermann, the German violinist. He made a convincing advocate of the work. He showed “freedom within discipline,” as I often say. He was both correct and musical, or imaginative. When the concerto called for singing, he did it. And when it called for a major technique—as it does most of the way through—he supplied it. I wish Bohuslav Martinů could have been at this concert, to hear the worth of his concerto, if he had any doubts.
A personal aside: I thought of someone I knew, or knew of, long ago—Ángel Reyes, a Cuban-American violinist who wound up teaching at the university in my hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan. I went to school with his daughter, Lisa. Mr. Reyes had ties to Martinů, having premiered that composer’s Violin Sonata No. 3.
After intermission in New York, we had a pops concert, of a high order: pieces by two of the Strauss brothers, Johann II and Josef. Maestro Honeck is to the manner born. He sat for years in the Vienna Philharmonic as a violist. He communicated to the New York Phil. what he knew: charm, grace, line, rhythm, spirit. His gestures were marvelously clear. As Lorin Maazel would say, he found the “gestural equivalent” of each idea he wished to convey. The New York Philharmonic sounded positively Viennese, except for one thing, and a big thing, I’m afraid: they could not give Honeck, or the music, the warmth of sound that is necessary.
In any event, a woman in the row in front of me could not keep still. She kept dancing in her chair, and conducting, and tapping her finger on her cheek. That was a rave review of the performance.
Manfred Honeck is one of the best conductors in the world. Another of those conductors, Mariss Jansons, led the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra from 1996 to 2004. Then he moved on to greater glory in Amsterdam and Munich. When will Honeck, who took over in 2008, move on to greater glory? That will be a sad day for Pittsburgh, but I look forward to seeing who they will incubate next.
The Italian word trittico means “triptych,” and Il trittico is Puccini’s trio of one-act operas from 1918. The first is Il tabarro, meaning “The Cloak.” The second is Suor Angelica, or Sister Angelica. Last comes the scherzo, if you will, the comedy Gianni Schicchi, whose title role belongs to a baritone but whose hit aria belongs to a soprano. They always luck out, don’t they? (Even when they die.)
Il trittico had its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera, a hundred years ago, and the Met revived it this season in a production by Jack O’Brien (2007). Conducting was Bertrand de Billy, the Frenchman. He applied intelligence and passion, head and heart. He did the necessary, in other words. There has been a lot of good conducting at the Met lately—by de Billy, Carlo Rizzi, Emmanuel Villaume, and others. The Vienna Philharmonic has never had a music director, just an endless series of guests (top conductors). I wonder whether the Metropolitan Opera could do the same. Why not?
Il tabarro was superbly sung (in addition to superbly conducted, and superbly played by the orchestra). Amber Wagner was the soprano, pouring forth tons of sound, beautifully. Some high notes were imperfect, but this mattered little. The soprano sang with wondrous freedom, like Deborah Voigt, back when. Singing his heart out—with good sense, too—was Marcelo Álvarez, the tenor. George Gagnidze was the baritone, demonstrating his usual explosiveness but also a touching lyricism. He was perfect—I will go that far—as the wronged, and ultimately murderous, Michele.
This is a short opera, of course, but it has many characters, and each was portrayed aptly. After Il tabarro was over, I thought, “This is what people expect from opera. It’s what they want from opera, certainly grand opera, certainly verismo. This performance was The People’s Idea of Opera.” It packed a great punch.
So did Suor Angelica, though in a less blood-and-guts way. The title role was taken by Kristine Opolais, the Latvian soprano mentioned above (far above). You have heard more beautiful or sweeter Angelicas. You have seldom heard a smarter or more moving one. The aria, “Senza mamma,” was almost overwhelming. Reprising her role as the Princess was Stephanie Blythe, the veteran American mezzo. She was a study in icy villainy, and her voice was huge and sepulchral, as ever. That sound is really one of the wonders of the world. I was with someone who was hearing it for the first time. My cousin was honestly, literally, open-mouthed.
Speaking of veteran American mezzos: taking the little role of the Mistress of the Novices was Jane Shaulis. Google tells me that I first reviewed her in the 2003–04 season, when I called her a “savvy veteran.” She has gotten no less savvy and no less veteran. I also reviewed her in 2012–13, when she was Mother Jeanne in The Dialogues of the Carmelites. I now tend to picture her in habits.
Did I say “savvy veteran”? Gianni Schicchi was Plácido Domingo, himself. He had the touch, theatrically and vocally. You could not take your eyes off him, or ears off him. The voice was handsome, loud, and—this is kind of a Mystery of Science—wobble-free. He has been wowing audiences since the late 1950s. He must be unique in opera history. Singing that hit aria—“O mio babbino caro”—was Kristina Mkhitaryan, a soprano from Russia. It was not cloying at all. Rather, it was fresh as a daisy. The aria sounds different in context, somehow. You must not gild the lily (to switch flowers) while the opera is in progress.
Whom do I have left to praise? Giacomo Puccini, who in Il trittico is masterly. These three little operas will live forever, along with his other and bigger operas. They have craftmanship, inspiration, and genius. People like to laugh at Puccini—ignoramuses, enviers. He will laugh eternally, or, better yet, not even hear his critics.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 5, on page 53
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