The New York Philharmonic began its season with a new work by Philip Glass—who is probably the most famous classical composer in the world, if you don’t count John Williams, of Hollywood fame (which you probably should). According to the calendar, Glass is now eighty-two years old. Some of us, however, will always think of him as about forty, the bad-boy and cool kid of classical music.
His new work is called King Lear Overture, which may cause you to ask: “Overture to what?” In a program note, Glass hinted that there may be an opera to come. But, so far, the overture stands alone. It was inspired by incidental music that Glass wrote for a recent production of King Lear on Broadway. None of the incidental music appears in the overture. The previous music was merely a springboard, as I understand it, to the new.
In this new work, can you hear any of King Lear—that is, any of the play? Well, as with a lot of program music (i.e., music meant to depict something concrete or specific), only if you want to. When I heard the overture, I didn’t think for a moment of the king, his daughters, Edmund, and the rest. But the title of a piece tends to steer the listener.
If not like King Lear, what does the overture sound like? Like Philip Glass. The overture would put you in mind of many other Glass works, very much including the Violin Concerto No. 2, which Glass also calls The American Four Seasons. The overture is unrelenting, never resting. It is also very American-sounding. It’s jazzy—and I even thought of John Philip Sousa, during one stretch. (March King meets minimalist?) I further heard a suggestion of the Old West, complete with horse hooves. After about ten minutes, the overture concludes with a downward chromatic wallop.
I look forward to hearing this piece again—and a third time. Which is about as much as you can say about a new work, in my book.
Turn, now, to the organ, and in particular to Paul Jacobs, an American in his early forties. If he is not the best organist in the world, there is no one better. On three successive Tuesdays, in three different venues, he gave recitals exploring “The Great French Organ Tradition.” Some of the composers in this tradition are well known: Vierne, Dupré, and Duruflé, to name three. (Who among us has not confused Marcel Dupré and Maurice Duruflé at some point over the years?) Other composers are much less well known, including two living ones: Naji Hakim and Thierry Escaich.
A nineteenth-century composer, Léon Boëllmann, is little known—but a certain piece by him is almost a hit. That is the toccata that ends his Suite gothique, Op. 25. Sometimes it works out that way: obscurity for the composer but fame for the piece.
Paul Jacobs loves the great French organ tradition, deeply. Do you? I must say, I love individual pieces without loving the tradition altogether. Some of the music is hard going for me. I find a lot of it dull, to be blunt. In remarks to his audience, Jacobs said that he loves Vierne’s (Organ) Symphony No. 6 in B minor “with every bone in my body.” I wish I could love it with maybe two or three bones, or a bone and a half.
Before continuing, I wish to tip my hat to David Crean, who wrote the program notes for the Jacobs series. Crean is a recent Juilliard graduate who now teaches organ at Wright State University in Ohio. His notes were, are, first-rate: deeply informed and informative, and entertaining, too. The lives of organists are interesting, as human lives tend to be. Louis Vierne’s life was very, very hard (and here I am, yawning at his Sixth Symphony, poor man). At an advanced age, he made a comment to a young Jean Langlais, yet another organist-composer in a long, French line. Vierne said, “Everything in life can betray you—health, happiness, money—except for one thing: music.” As Mr. Crean relates, Vierne died with his boots on, playing his 1,750th recital, “with his colleague Maurice Duruflé by his side.”
What makes Paul Jacobs a great organist? Let me count a few of the ways. He is exceptionally smart. He has superb judgment. He is no-nonsense, not fussing over music or cuting it up. He has fabulous fingers, and feet. His performances are virtually unblemished. He has a keen sense of rhythm, which is important for any musician, but maybe especially so for an organist. He knows how to deal with colors, dynamics—all of it.
Let me stress his stringency, that no-nonsense quality. Never will you hear playing less airy-fairy or namby-pamby—yet he is never insensitive, in the least. Sitting in a pew, I thought, “He is like a Szell of the organ.” If George Szell, the great conductor, had been an organist, he would have played like Paul Jacobs. I cannot render higher praise than that.
One more note, in praise of the organ—in praise of being in the presence of an organ, in a church or a hall. A recording really doesn’t cut it. There is no substitute for being in the presence of an organ, which can shake your nerves and rattle your brain, as a song said—and I am speaking literally.
The Metropolitan Opera—the mighty Met, as Martin Bernheimer called it—opened its season with the great American opera, Porgy and Bess. Did I say “the” and not “a”? “The great American opera”? Yes. Furthermore, I regard Gershwin, the composer of the opera, as our greatest composer. The songs—or arias or duets or choruses—from Porgy and Bess are well known. We have them with our mother’s milk, some of us. But chances to see the opera complete are few and far between. The Met first staged Porgy and Bess in the 1980s, and had not again until this season. It can be interesting—and surprising—to hear the songs in context.
Porgy and Bess begins with “Summertime,” that beloved lullaby, which is one of the most famous American songs in the world. Gershwin gives you no chance to applaud after “Summertime”; he moves on with the music. I thought of “Nessun dorma,” in Puccini’s Turandot. Leontyne Price used to sing the great hits of Porgy and Bess, in recitals with piano and concerts with orchestra: “Summertime,” “My Man’s Gone Now,” “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” (which requires a Porgy, to be sure). But do you know that all of those pieces are sung by different characters? Clara, Serena, and Bess.
In fact, Porgy and Bess is a real ensemble piece, with a slew of singers doing important singing. The Met had some good ones. Before turning to them, I wish to tell you something that may amuse you.
In this same period, Kelli O’Hara, the Broadway star, appeared with the New York Philharmonic. She sang Knoxville: Summer of 1915, by Barber. In a review for this magazine’s website, I wrote, “Before O’Hara began Knoxville last night, I made a rule for myself: No fair thinking of Steber, Price (Leontyne, not Margaret), Upshaw, Murphy (Heidi Grant), or any other great singer of this work. Keep your mind wide open for Kelli.”
I made a similar rule for the women of Porgy and Bess: No fair thinking of Leontyne. The leading women were Golda Schultz, the South African soprano, who was Clara; Latonia Moore, the American soprano, who was Serena; and Angel Blue, another American soprano, who was Bess. I have written about the first two frequently. I will never forget Latonia Moore in a song she sang in the mid-2000s. It was extraordinarily touching. The song was “He’s So Wonderful,” by James East (“I’ll trust him to the end./ My Jesus, what a friend!”). Moore acquitted herself admirably as Serena, and Schultz did the same as Clara.
Angel Blue, I don’t believe I have ever written about. She was a first-class Bess. She had the flair, the sympathy—and the voice. Let’s not forget that one! Several years ago, I asked Marilyn Horne, the great mezzo, what was great about Christa Ludwig, another great mezzo. I thought she would say something pertaining to the intellectual, or perhaps the cultural. What she said was, “Great voice.” Ah, true—I had forgotten that, for a moment.
Snubbing the men, in the interest of time, I will jump to the conductor—on whom Porgy and Bess depends, to a large degree. That is true of many, many operas. Our conductor was David Robertson, the veteran American. He was thoroughly competent: prepared, assured. He is also one of the most genial men in music. After arias, he applauded the singers, and with his hands—he did not merely tap his baton on the music stand. The score can be more dynamic than it was on this night. At times, it was a little sleepy, with an air of the routine. But Robertson & Co. got the job done.
The opera enjoyed a fitting new production, overseen by James Robinson, the stage director. When I say “fitting,” I mean that the production fits the opera, as a production should. A special treat was the dancing, choreographed by Camille A. Brown.
I am left to marvel at Gershwin, the Brooklyn Jew, the son of immigrants, who wrote The Great American Opera, and a “black” masterpiece. How did he do it? Talent, rising to genius. I have one further note, regarding this evening. Earlier in the day, Jessye Norman, the great soprano from Augusta, Georgia, had died. The performance was dedicated to her memory.
Like the New York Philharmonic, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra kicked off its season with a new work—by Jessie Montgomery, a composer born and bred in New York (like Gershwin!). She is in her late thirties. Her bio says that her works “interweave classical music with elements of vernacular music, improvisation, language, and social justice, placing her squarely as one of the most relevant interpreters of 21st-century American sound and experience.” Social justice is a murky term. So is relevant, one of the great buzzwords of today. Relevant to what? In my observation, most people treat “relevant” to mean “political.”
In any event, the new piece was Shift, Change, Turn, and Variations, which, according to our program notes, relates to the seasons: the four seasons. The composer herself has described the piece as “a musical exploration of both the external and internal seasons, which at times seem to be changing along the same axis.” The composer’s intention aside, I will tell you what I heard.
The piece begins with a twangy drone. It becomes bluesy, as well as bluegrassy, and something like urban, too. “Appalachia meets New York City?” I thought. The music is soon jazzy—you could even say Gershwinesque—though dissonances intrude on the jazz. There is a scherzo-like section, with clarinet licks. Where is Benny Goodman? There is also a feeling of minimalism, I believe. Something else: the droning in the piece, coupled with wailing tunes, put me in mind of the bagpipes.
Personally, I did not feel shifting seasons, whether internal or external. But I would like to hear the piece again, and again—as I said of Philip Glass’s. Also, both pieces avoid the error of overlength, for which, Bravo.
The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra concert, at which Jessie Montgomery’s work was premiered, took place in Carnegie Hall—but it was not an official event of the hall. I believe it was a “rental,” as they say. A week later, Carnegie launched its 2019–20 season with a concert by the Cleveland Orchestra, under its longtime music director Franz Welser-Möst, the Austrian. Why did Carnegie call on a Midwestern orchestra to open its season? I will answer a question with a question: why not?
Welser-Möst and the orchestra began their concert with a chestnut, the Merry Wives of Windsor overture, by Otto Nicolai. We used to hear this more often than we do now, along with the Poet and Peasant overture (Franz von Suppé) and other tasty chestnuts. The Clevelanders did very well by Windsor’s merry wives. The overture was smoothly executed. It was tight—compact—and clean as a whistle. It also had tremendous verve. I thought, “May the rest of Carnegie Hall’s season go so well . . .”
Taking the stage, at this point, was Anne-Sophie Mutter, the starry German violinist. She played Beethoven—but not the concerto. She played one of the two romances, the one in G major, Op. 40. Mutter did not have her best sound, but she had her usual musical understanding (admirable). Next came more Beethoven—a concerto, in fact. This was the Triple Concerto in C major, Op. 56. It is a popular gala piece, because it allows a presenter to squeeze in more soloists, more stars. The concerto is for piano, violin, and cello (along with orchestra, of course). Joining Ms. Mutter were Yefim Bronfman, the Russian-born pianist, and Lynn Harrell, the American cellist.
Interesting, by the way, that Mutter was afforded the solo piece—the romance. Leaving Mr. Harrell aside, Yefim Bronfman is a big star—and he was content to be part of the trio.
One more aside, please, before I continue. People like to denigrate the Triple Concerto (as the critic sitting next to me in Carnegie Hall did). I have never really understood why. The concerto is not Beethoven’s best work—that is a very high bar—but it is still a Beethoven concerto, and will provide satisfaction for as long as people listen to music.
The concerto was not afforded a particularly good reading, however. Lynn Harrell—a fine musician and player—had a very unfortunate outing. Mutter was adequate, as were the orchestra and conductor. Bronfman was really good. He played with his expected combination of purity, nobility, and masculinity, which is a very Beethoven combination. I keep saying that Bronfman should record all thirty-two sonatas, before his career winds down. During the Triple Concerto, I kept waiting for him to play, and when he did, Beethoven came alive.
Welser-Möst and the orchestra ended their printed program with Der Rosenkavalier—a suite from Strauss’s opera. I have heard Welser-Möst conduct the opera twice, I think, in Salzburg—which means the Vienna Philharmonic. Welser-Möst is marvelous in Der Rosenkavalier. It must be one of his best pieces. He and the Clevelanders dispatched the suite satisfactorily.
Better, though, was their encore—by another Strauss, Johann Strauss the Younger, and this was the Furioso-Polka (quasi galopp), Op. 260. From these forces, it was a whiz-bang joy.
The Carnegie Hall concert, like the night at the Met I mentioned above, was dedicated to the memory of Jessye Norman. I have heard her sing my whole life long, as have many others. I have written about her for about half my life. She was amazingly versatile, in song and opera. She was also a soprano and a mezzo-soprano—both (and she could manage contralto, too). Her album of spirituals, which came out in 1979, is a specially wondrous thing. It has healing properties.
Myron Bloom, too, passed away. He was the principal French horn of the Cleveland Orchestra during the George Szell period, and he was one of the best horn players . . . ever. When he died, I remarked, “Szell’s hornist—what a distinction.” But quite apart from Szell, Bloom was distinct, right? Right. Still: what a distinction.
Also passing away in this same month—September 2019—was Christopher Rouse, the American composer. Before he died, he wrote out a statement, to be issued afterward. “Without music, my life would have had no meaning,” it began. Rouse continued, “It has not only informed my life or enriched my life; it has given me life and a reason for living.” He said that he hoped his music would play a part in the lives of listeners, as composers had played their parts in his own life. “If summoned, I will try to be of use: to sing you a song, to paint you a picture, to tell you a story. Perhaps we can take a journey together.”
Earlier, I quoted Martin Bernheimer, the great critic. He too passed away in September 2019. He was a friend of mine, I’m grateful to say. More generally, he was a model for critics, and for writers, period. He was very smart, very discerning, and very stylish. All of those things are important. But, crucially, he was honest. Honest to a fault, many thought. Bernheimer did not agree. He thought he owed readers his best judgment, come hell or high water. You have heard the expression “without fear or favor”? Bernheimer personified it. He was also loads of fun.
Born in Munich in 1936, he was able to get out, with his family. They lived in Massachusetts. If Martin had a favorite opera, it was Der Rosenkavalier. I thought of him on Carnegie Hall’s opening night, and long will.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 3, on page 54
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