The new music director of the Metropolitan Opera is Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and his first opera, as title-holder, was La traviata, Verdi’s masterpiece (one of them). The prelude was tentative and mannered. Nézet-Séguin has been this way before. I thought, not for the first time, “It’s gonna be a long forty years.” (The maestro is relatively young, at forty-three, and he enjoys an excellent press.) As the prelude continued, it was imprecise, almost clumsy. I thought, “This is no longer James Levine’s orchestra.”
Remember him? He was a colossus, a few minutes ago. Levine was the music director at the Met from 1976 to 2016. Last year, he was removed from any position whatsoever at the Met after being accused of grave sexual misconduct. (These accusations are all too credible.) In the same week as the Traviata conducted by Nézet-Séguin, there was an Otello at the Met, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. In a review, I did some reminiscing about old Otellos at the Met—headlined by Plácido Domingo. And conducted by Levine. I wrote, “Pretty much the greatest conductor who ever lived sits at home, presumably, just blocks from the Met, unthought about and untalked about, as far as I’m aware. This oblivion is perhaps deserved. It is also understandable. But it’s also a stunning development, isn’t it?”
I know a fellow critic who regards Levine as one of the all-time greats. He says he finds himself unable even to listen to recordings by Levine. Many others know this feeling.
In any event, I received an email from a friend, after my review of Otello appeared. He said, “I am a very big fan of Maestro Levine’s, but ‘pretty much the greatest conductor who ever lived’? Don’t you think that’s going a little too far?” I had some fun in my reply. “Nope. You’re lucky I put the ‘pretty much’ in.”
As that Traviata continued, the new music director, Nézet-Séguin, found some discipline and verve. Flaccidity was overcome. There were incisive pages—many of them. I would have liked more underlying tension here and there, but Nézet-Séguin was effective. Act III’s prelude was nicely shaped. At the very end of the opera, I like more anger—even savagery—than most conductors deliver, but Nézet-Séguin delivered plenty. This was a well-conducted Traviata, and, for me, a reassuringly conducted Traviata.
Outstanding in the orchestra was the clarinet, who has an important role in the opera. That was Anton Rist, a young American, recently appointed a co-principal of the section.
In the two leading roles of the opera were two light (or lightish) lyrics: Diana Damrau, the German soprano, who sang Violetta, and Juan Diego Flórez, the Peruvian tenor, who sang Alfredo. In an interview with me several years ago, Marilyn Horne voiced a common complaint: singers are cast in roles too big for them. This has been a trend in opera for a long time. In a sense, this Traviata at the Met was a micro-Traviata. At the same time, the two voices matched. As a friend of mine pointed out, it might have been awkward if one voice had been of traditional size and the other not.
There have been undersized—or at least non-big—Violettas before. I think of Hei-Kyung Hong, the Korean-American soprano, at the Met. She was a beautiful and affecting Violetta. A phrase such as “Amami, Alfredo” should be overwhelming. Hong could not make it so, and neither can Damrau. But there are compensatory qualities.
In the course of the opera, the ear adjusted to the size of Damrau’s voice (a famously beautiful and elastic one). Damrau sang with great finesse and intelligence. I thought of Yuja Wang, the Chinese pianist, in the Liszt Sonata. (Bear with me.) At Carnegie Hall one night, she could not play this piece with the proper sound: big, rich, lush—deep into the keys. She played with what she had, and the piece has never sounded more nimble. Also, it was practically Debussyan in spots. I liked this performance, unorthodox as it was. Damrau, too, was extraordinarily nimble. She also sang in long, long lines. Her technical control was unquestionable. Her high pianissimos—not pianos, mind you, but pianissimos—were exemplary. Her soft, inward singing was superb. In “Non sapete,” she exhibited that hunted quality, which Callas had. Damrau’s acting was better than opera acting—it was more like theater acting. And she had that ingredient she has always had, from the first day she stepped onto a stage, and which I have noted many, many times: lovability. Violetta is one of the most lovable, pitiable characters in opera, and she was doubly so as portrayed by Diana Damrau. I have never seen a more effective Violetta.
Juan Diego Flórez? He was an effective Alfredo, singing stylishly, aristocratically. In a recital at Carnegie Hall the month before, he sang arias belonging to roles that he would not ordinarily sing on the opera stage (because those roles are too big for him). “Che gelida manina” (Rodolfo in La bohème) was one of them; “Nessun dorma” (Calàf in Turandot) was another. Is he too small for Alfredo? Yes, but, like his Violetta, he has compensatory qualities.
The Germont had no problems with volume. He was Quinn Kelsey, a baritone from Hawaii. He owns a big, handsome instrument. He acquitted himself admirably—but, in the future, he may sing the role with more refinement and suavity.
On the stage was a new production, overseen by Michael Mayer, of Broadway fame. He directed the Met’s Rigoletto, which premiered in the 2012–13 season. This is the one that transfers the action to the Rat Pack’s Las Vegas. The first thing one might say about Mayer’s Traviata is that it is beautiful to look at. Some people might scoff at this, but I say it counts. The costumes (by Susan Hilferty) are splendid; the lighting (by Kevin Adams) is utterly apt. You could complain that there is not much variety in this Traviata; then again, you might commend it for continuity. As far as I can remember, Violetta’s bed never leaves the foot of the stage.
The dancing at the party in Act II is excitingly choreographed (by Lorin Latarro). And this production has something I had never seen before—or rather, someone: Alfredo’s sister, who haunts the proceedings like a fleshly ghost.
In Weill Recital Hall, there was an unusual program, performed by a singer with an unusual name. She is J’Nai Bridges, a mezzo-soprano from Washington state. She once seemed destined to be a professional basketball player. A 2016 article about her was titled “The rising opera star who traded layups for librettos.” In Weill, she was accompanied by Mark Markham, who proved a very capable partner.
I would like to pick on his bio for a second—not to pick on him, but to make a general point about bios, a point I have made before. This is not so much a point as a peeve! In concert programs, bios aren’t really bios. Often, they fail to include basic biographical information, such as nationality. Instead, they are pieces of PR, prone to absurdity. Listen: “Pianist Mark Markham is considered one of the finest artists of his generation.” Okay. By whom? “The breadth of his repertoire is unrivaled.” Not just unsurpassed, but unrivaled? By Marc-André Hamelin, for example? By Antonio Pappano? This is embarrassing—and it should be embarrassing not least to Markham himself. I wish the music world would cut this out.
Bridges and Markham performed a program of American music—a hymn, art songs, an opera excerpt, and spirituals—along with cycles by Mahler and Ravel. Oh, this leads me to another peeve: music administrators and others love or need a theme—some organizing principle—and if there is not a natural one, they will force one. Listen to our program notes: “two European song cycles . . . align with the themes of the songs that surround them.” Come on. Can’t you just sing or play music because you want to sing or play it? Can’t you do it without apology, or fakery? I say yes.
When J’Nai Bridges took the stage, there was whooping from the audience, and a man behind me said, “She’s beautiful.” She and Markham opened with “I Love to Tell the Story,” the old rugged hymn, in an arrangement by the performers themselves (both singer and pianist). This was a rare and arresting way to begin a recital. A wonderful way, too. A bit later, there was an excerpt from Margaret Garner, the 2005 opera by Richard Danielpour. The opera is based on Beloved, the novel by Toni Morrison, who wrote the opera’s libretto. Danielpour attended the recital, by the way. He owns (a) one of the most beautiful names in music and (b) one of the most impressive heads of hair—Muti-level hair.
I will make some general remarks about the singing of J’Nai Bridges. She has a very good voice, rich and beautiful. Also smoky (as may befit a mezzo). She can offer a variety of colors. On this night, her top notes were often frayed, but she explained at the end of her recital that she was suffering from a cold. She said she was simply glad to “get through” the evening. As a rule, she sang with dignity and feeling. Also sincerity. Sincerity is key for a performer, and maybe especially for a singer, as the act of singing can be so personal.
That Mahler song cycle was the Kindertotenlieder, or Songs on the Death of Children. I thought of something that Christa Ludwig said, in an interview with me four years ago. Indeed, let me quote from the piece I wrote:
When she was young and childless, she got very emotional in the Kindertotenlieder. One night, in Brussels, she was singing “Wenn dein Mütterlein” and had to leave the stage. “I was crying. I couldn’t sing anymore.” But when she had a child of her own, she had no such problems in the Kindertotenlieder.
“I was too sentimental when I didn’t have a child. You have not to be sentimental in Mahler. That’s it. No, because if it is sentimental, it is not right.”
How did J’Nai Bridges sing these songs? I think I will use the words I used above: “with dignity and feeling.” With sincerity, too. Her Ravel cycle was Shéhérazade, which, for my money, requires some French coolness. Bridges emphasized the sensuality of the work: its passion. But I thought of Vladimir Horowitz in L’isle joyeuse, the Debussy piece. (Bear with me.) He did not play it in what you might call the classic French manner. He played it more like he played his Rachmaninoff and Scriabin. But I liked it, loved it.
On the second half of the recital, there was a new spiritual—yes, a new spiritual, something I did not think could be. Called “Oh, Glory,” it’s by Shawn Okpebholo, a composer born in 1981. He teaches at Wheaton College, in Illinois. His spiritual is composed from the point of view of a slave (new spiritual or not): “I’ll see my child that was once sold away. In mansions bright, we’ll dwell for endless days.” This is a moving song.
Then came a song—an art song—we used to hear Leontyne Price sing: “Minstrel Man,” by Margaret Bonds. Then came another spiritual, a classical spiritual, arranged, like the opening hymn, by Bridges and Markham. It was “Plenty Good Room.” And since I have picked on the program notes, let me cite a wonderful note from them: this spiritual is “about the radical inclusiveness of God.” Indeed. It goes, “Plenty good room, plenty good room—good room in my Father’s kingdom. Plenty good room, plenty good room, so won’t you choose your seat and sit down?”
The printed program ended with “Ride On, King Jesus,” in the arrangement by John D. Carter. It is a fine arrangement. But my ear wants the Hall Johnson arrangement, which is the one I grew up with, and next to which everything else sounds wrong, I’m afraid.
J’Nai Bridges returned to the stage clutching roses, which meant that she would sing the Habanera, which she did. (The previous month, another mezzo-soprano, Elīna Garanča, sang the Habanera as an encore, and, before she did, she exclaimed to the audience, “Now you’ll know why I’m wearing a red dress!”) From J’Nai Bridges and her excellent partner, Mark Markham, this was a feel-good evening, and it can feel good—very good—to feel good.
A concert of the New York String Orchestra in Carnegie Hall began with Lyric for Strings, by George Walker. (The composer himself used to call it, simply, “the Lyric.”) Walker was born in 1922 in Washington, D.C.; he died last summer in Montclair, New Jersey, where he had long lived. He was ninety-six. Walker had many “firsts” to his credit: the first black person to graduate from the Curtis Institute of Music, the first to earn a doctorate at Eastman, etc. His sister, Frances, had some firsts of her own. She was the first black woman to achieve the rank of full professor at Oberlin. She was a pianist (as George was, too). Like George, she died last summer, at ninety-four.
The Lyric is George Walker’s best-known piece, by far. And he wrote it early on, when he was but twenty-four. Although he chafed at the comparison (believe me), it has something in common with Barber’s Adagio for Strings. (By the way, both men studied with the same composition teacher at Curtis, Rosario Scalero.) Barber drew his Adagio from his string quartet; Walker drew his Lyric from a string quartet of his own. In Carnegie Hall, at the nyso concert, I discussed this with Barber’s esteemed biographer, Barbara Heyman.
Walker called the Lyric “my grandmother’s piece.” He dedicated it to his maternal grandmother, Malvina King, who lived with the family when George was growing up. She was an ex-slave. She had had two husbands. She lost the first when he was sold at auction. Mrs. King never talked about the experience of slavery, ever—except once, when her grandson pestered her about it. She spoke one sentence, only: “They did everything except eat us.”
I knew George in the last couple of years of his life. It started when I went to his home in Montclair to interview him. Listening to the New York String Orchestra play the Lyric, I felt I had a connection to it, somehow.
The nyso is composed of players from age sixteen to age twenty-three. They gather in New York at Christmastime to train and perform. Young people have been participating in this program for fifty years now. I sat with a friend and critic who attended the first concert. The difference between then and now? Then, the participants were mostly Jewish, probably; now they are Asian. Once, I asked Lorin Maazel (who had been a violin prodigy himself) about the future of classical music. The first words out of his mouth were, “Thank God for China.”
This year’s participants came from institutions all over America. Most of the older students are at prestigious conservatories, but a few are at humbler places. As for the high-schoolers, at least one is being home-schooled. (Were we doing that in 1969?)
Conducting the Lyric for Strings was Karina Canellakis, who is awfully young herself, or looks so. She is an American who is set to take over the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra in Holland. She conducted the Lyric smoothly and ably, without a baton, as probably befits so sweeping and, well, lyrical a piece. The kids’ pizzicatos weren’t together, but whose are? Not the Berlin Philharmonic’s, not anybody’s.
Next on the podium was Jaime Laredo, who has long been associated with the nyso. He conducted the Brahms Violin Concerto, in which the soloist was Joshua Bell. Laredo is a violinist too, and a distinguished one. Both he and Bell studied with Josef Gingold. Meaning no disrespect whatsoever to Maestro Laredo: can you imagine how thrilling it was for these young musicians, especially the violinists, to play with Joshua Bell? I had a little fun with math. The sixteen-year-olds in the orchestra were born in 2002. Going strictly by the numbers, Bell is to them what violinists born in 1932 were to him. Laredo is to the sixteen-year-olds what Enescu or Thibaud was to him.
Anyway, Bell played the Brahms concerto in his typical fashion. He was both serious and swashbuckling (or seriously swashbuckling). I could go into detail, but let me tell you something about the cadenza in the first movement: Bell gave an example of Romantic and violinistic heroism. I watched the players watching him. They were (duly) enthralled. And at the end of the concerto, they both applauded and stamped their feet for Bell. You felt almost parental, looking on.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 6, on page 53
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