At the end of last season, I began a chronicle with a note on a harpsichord recital, which took place in Weill Recital Hall. Here I go again. This time, the performer was Jean Rondeau, a Frenchman in his late twenties. He has a musical name, and a poetical name. Perhaps he should one day give a recital of rondos, or rondeaux. In the press, he has been described as a “bad-ass virtuoso” and a “sex symbol”—also, more plainly, as “hip.” Well, then.
In Weill Recital Hall, he played a program of Bach and Scarlatti (Domenico Scarlatti, the keyboard genius, not Alessandro Scarlatti, his father, also a composer, who is best known for vocal works). This program bore a title, indicating a theme: “Italian Recycling.” It included, for example, Bach’s Italian Concerto. But no one needs a theme, except administrators and critics: the public simply wants music.
Rondeau’s instrument—that harpsichord—was beautiful to look at. The performer himself was interesting to look at: with masses of hair, including a bushy beard. I can’t judge him as a “sex symbol” or not, but I can tell you that he looks more like a folk musician than a classical performer, to say nothing of a harpsichordist.
He did not treat his instrument with kid gloves. He had no compunction about whaling on that thing. I appreciated his boldness, but sometimes Rondeau was more aggressive than the music called for. He did some intelligent, refined, and exciting playing. He also did some overly blunt playing, I would say. There was also the matter of accuracy. The harpsichord is an “exposed,” or exposing, instrument, and missed notes stick out like sore thumbs. At least we knew we were not listening to a studio recording.
I find it interesting that the harpsichord is still a going concern, and that young people—even the hip!—want to play it. I will confess to you that, most of the time, I would rather hear Bach, Scarlatti, and others played on a piano—a modern piano—than on a harpsichord. Perhaps I am insufficiently conservative. I tend to think of harpsichord recitals as historical excursions rather than normal, modern events.
But let me tell you something about the second movement of the Italian Concerto, the Andante: it is surely made for the harpsichord, with those pluckings underneath the melody. A pianist rightly imitates the harpsichord in this movement. And the last movement, the Presto? Most pianists, and harpsichordists, take it like the wind. They play it so fast, they’re liable to scant the music. Jean Rondeau took it at a shockingly deliberate pace. I liked it.
Over at the New York Philharmonic, there was a new concerto, a double concerto, for pipa and cello. That former instrument is “a short-necked fretted lute of Chinese origin.” I have quoted a dictionary. The word “pipa” means “loquat,” a fruit that the instrument resembles, in shape. The pipa is not to be confused with the erhu, another string instrument, which tends to whine or twang. I once heard a man play “Amazing Grace” on this instrument in Central Park. Nice.
The new concerto has a name, apart from “concerto”: A Happy Excursion. The name comes from a chapter of the Zhuangzi, a foundational text of Taoism. The composer—of the concerto, not the text!—is Zhao Lin, born in 1973. His father, too, is a composer, well known for film scores. In the past, Zhao Lin has written for the Silkroad Ensemble, Yo-Yo Ma’s outfit. And, as you might guess, Ma was the cellist in the concerto. The pipa player, meanwhile, was Wu Man, who does her instrument proud. On the podium was Long Yu. From what I can tell, he is the chief conductor in China.
Zhao Lin’s concerto is in three movements, marked simply “Movement I,” “Movement II,” and “Movement III.” Accompanying those designations are what appear to be metronome markings. But, according to Yo-Yo Ma, who spoke to the audience before the downbeat, the concerto has a program. If I heard him correctly, the first movement depicts tribe against tribe, anciently; the second reflects a golden age of peace, art, and literature; and the third movement is now. Whatever the case, I’ll tell you what I heard, unguided by Ma or anyone else.
The first movement does indeed sound like it’s trying to tell a story, from the distant past. It is colorful and panoramic. It is “lushly Romantic,” to use a common critic’s phrase. It could serve as film music. I thought of an adjective, “Korngoldian.” When the pipa and the cello play, the orchestra hushes, as a rule. The cello aside, the pipa is too soft to have much orchestra behind it. This is what a composer must bear in mind when he writes a double-bass concerto, too. As Zhao Lin’s concerto continued, I thought of another adjective: “Coplandesque,” I swear. The music suggests wide-open spaces.
The second movement is beautiful, tinged with magic. The solo instruments blend nicely with each other. This movement, too, is broad, open, and friendly. I found it a little monotonous—but pleasantly so. The final movement is busy, determined, and slightly fearful. Moreover, Zhao Lin can convey the sensation of flying, as John Williams, of Hollywood fame, can.
Yo-Yo Ma is a desirable advocate of almost any work, and here he contributed, among other things, his marvelous sound. On the pipa, Wu Man was nimble, precise, and stylish. Zhao Lin has written an enjoyable piece. Years ago, I wrote about the encounter of Chinese composers with Western music. The title of that piece was “The Twain, Meeting.” In Zhao Lin’s Happy Excursion, they do again.
In Carnegie Hall, Anne-Sophie Mutter, the German violinist, gave a recital with her longtime collaborator, the American pianist Lambert Orkis. They played a new piece—but before that, they played Mozart and Debussy. The Mozart was that familiar opener of violin recitals, the Sonata in E minor, K. 304. From these performers, it was competent—respectable and respectful (of Mozart). But it was also on the retiring side, even on the pedestrian side. Mutter and Orkis can do much better, and they would, happily.
Let me pause for a sartorial note. Several years ago, a violinist, unhappy with Mutter’s playing, said, “I only go for the dress now.” What he meant was that he attended Mutter performances only to see what she was wearing. Well, I can report (if I saw correctly) that she was wearing a black-and-orange number, almost Halloweeny. Her shoulders were bare, of course, as they have always been. And it was very cold outside (which is never a consideration).
Next on the program was the Debussy Sonata—and it was utterly alive. In fact, the first movement is marked Allegro vivo, and vivo it was. Throughout the sonata, Mutter made her instrument talk. She was stylish, accurate, and compelling, and her pianist was hardly less so. This perked up the afternoon.
The new piece was a piano trio, i.e., a piece for piano, violin, and cello. Mutter and Orkis brought on Daniel Müller-Schott, a German cellist. The piece is called Ghost Trio and its composer is Sebastian Currier, an American born in 1959. I’ve sometimes joked that you could do a program of Currier and an earlier American composer and call it “Currier & Ives.” My groaners aside, the title of this new piece obviously alludes to Beethoven, whose Piano Trio in D major, Op. 70, No. 1, is nicknamed “Ghost.”
In a program note, Currier writes that few are composing piano trios these days. The genre “appears to have become a relic of the 19th century.” In view of this development, “I decided to write a piano trio that would create a dialogue with the form in its heyday.” As his trio unfolds, Currier quotes Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Brahms—their piano trios, specifically. These quotations come and go like ghosts.
Currier’s trio is in nine movements, each relatively short. They bear titles that describe the music. The first movement, for instance, is “Lyrical.” It is indeed lyrical, and it also has some ghostly shudders and dissonances. The second movement is “Energetic.” There is some jazz in this movement, and some madness too, I think. The movement ends with upward squiggles on the violin. Before long, there is “Ghost Scherzo.” It, like the other movements, is true to its name (and such an evocative name it is).
Later, there is “Syncopation.” While listening to this movement, I thought of a phrase from an American musical (The Music Man): “this elegant syncopation.” The last of the nine movements—following “Forceful”—is “Gentle.” In the middle of it is something like a pop song.
Ghost Trio is an accomplished work, written by somebody who loves music. But don’t they all? Don’t all composers love music? Not so that you would know it, frankly. To me, Ghost Trio felt a little long, but I must confess two things: (1) a great many pieces, especially new pieces, feel too long to me; and (2) I was ready for intermission. If Ghost Trio had begun one of the halves, rather than following two sonatas, I might have felt differently.
When our three performers stopped playing, the man sitting behind me stomped his feet in appreciation. He turned out to be the composer, Sebastian Currier, who then went to the stage to bow—and to turn pages for Lambert Orkis, as the three players repeated one of the movements as an encore.
After intermission, Mutter and Orkis played another Mozart sonata: the one in B flat, K. 454. They were bold, Classical, and exemplary. I believe Mozart would have purred. So would Poulenc, to have heard his sonata played by these two. They captured the gaiety and weirdness of the piece. (You can hear “Tea for Two” rise from it, or at least I can.) Mutter reminded us why she became famous in the first place, and Orkis was her “full partner,” as critics and PR writers say.
So, that was the printed program. It was followed by two encores, both by André Previn, who had died the week before. Anne-Sophie Mutter was married to him in the 2000s. For the first encore, the cellist, Mr. Müller-Schott, returned to the stage. The performers gave us a movement from one of Previn’s piano trios (speaking of those). When it was over, Orkis kissed his hand (his own hand) and patted the sheet music in front of him. Mutter was utterly stoic. The second encore was the middle movement from Tango, Song, and Dance, for violin and piano. Müller-Schott stood at the side of the stage, with his cello, listening. He did not want to miss it. It was beautiful and moving.
André Previn was a triple threat: pianist, conductor, composer. So was Leonard Bernstein. So is Thomas Adès, the Brit born in 1971. He conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Carnegie Hall. The concert started with Liszt and ended with Tchaikovsky. In between came a new work by Adès himself.
The Liszt was the Mephisto Waltz No. 1, which we usually hear as a piano piece. (Liszt wrote an orchestra version, a piano version—and, for good measure, a piano-duet version.) From Adès and the bso, the waltz was vivid. It was also a little smudgy, which is to say, error-prone. But this was of little importance. I found the rubato in slower sections a little stilted. But this, too, was a minor concern. The Tchaikovsky was his Fourth Symphony—which began with a bad entrance. There were further smudges in the movement, and others. Plums in the pudding (as someone once described errors)? The second movement had some unusual rubato from the oboe—the solo instrument—which could not have been to everyone’s taste. I thought it was interesting, if not quite successful. Regardless, the orchestra at large (including the oboe) was smooth and beautiful. They really are a royal instrument, the bso. The third movement, with its pizzicatos, was fine. And the Finale was loud and driving. Did it give off the electricity it should? Not to me.
But Adès is a competent conductor—more than competent—and he is a very, very good pianist. Indeed, he probably could have had a piano career, if he had wanted. I also appreciate his appreciation of Tchaikovsky. Years ago—is it still true?—Tchaikovsky was un-cool with the cool kids. Thomas Adès is a very, very cool kid in the music biz. And, no dummy, he knows that Tchaikovsky is great.
His own work on the program was a piano concerto. He himself did not play it; he conducted. Playing was Kirill Gerstein, an American pianist born and raised in Russia (or the Soviet Union). The concerto is in three movements, which have Italian markings, plus metronome markings.
The first movement is Allegramente (and a quarter note equals 112, for those keeping score). It is percussive, athletic, and raucous. It tends to be jagged in its rhythm. “I Got Rhythm,” the Gershwin song, comes up a few times. There are yawps in the orchestra (whether barbaric or not). The music gets zany. Overall, there is a Romantic sensibility, I would say. The second movement is marked Andante gravemente—an interesting marking. The music is ruminative, moody. Then it is more like dreamy. There are creative colors in the orchestra. Things are gauzy and mysterious. The final movement—Allegro giojoso (with an old-school “j,” in place of the “i”!)—brings more zaniness. I believe I heard a chorale in the orchestra while the pianist played scales. The music is splashy, rhapsodic. It gets cacophonous and maybe a little tedious. But . . .
I must say, this concerto is not boring. That may sound like faint praise. It is not, trust me. Furthermore, the concerto is about the right length. This too is noteworthy, which is why I note it. Earl Wild, the late pianist-composer-arranger, said, “Music ought to say what it has to say and get off the stage.” The new Adès piano concerto observes this. Finally, it is not sad. Often, modern composers think they have to write sad music, or disturbing music, in order to write good and interesting music. Not true.
Over the years, I have asked, “Why didn’t the performer memorize the music? Why do people think they don’t have to memorize music, just because it’s new? Shouldn’t they do new music this courtesy?” Kirill Gerstein did. (The conductor and composer—for good reasons, no doubt—used the score.)
Beginning at a late hour—nine o’clock!—Juho Pohjonen played a recital at the 92nd Street Y. It lasted about an hour, with no intermission. He is a Finnish pianist, as his name will tell you. (Granted, it won’t tell you the pianist part.) His program started with Rameau: the Suite No. 2 in G. Should this be played on the piano or the harpsichord? Eether-eyether. Grigory Sokolov, the Russian pianist, is a great player of this suite, and of Rameau in general, as was Georges Cziffra, the legendary Hungarian.
Comparisons are odious, or odorous, someone said. But let me compare a bit: whereas Sokolov is smooth and lapidary in this music, Pohjonen was crunchier. (It sounds like I’m talking about peanut butter.) He favored a detached touch, pedaling lightly. He moved on to a Scriabin sonata, No. 8, providing a great contrast. This sonata is Russian Impressionism, so to speak. Pohjonen handled it with great beauty and intelligence. Technical demands were no impediment to his expression of the piece. I have never heard a finer rendering—or an equal one, for that matter—even from legendary pianists. Pohjonen ended his printed program with a work by his countryman Esa-Pekka Salonen, completed in 2000: Dichotomie. For this one, Pohjonen used sheet music, appearing on a computer tablet. He had the fingers for the piece—and fingers, it requires—and achieved the animal passion that minimalism, or quasi-minimalism, can sometimes have. For an encore, he played more Rameau: a sarabande in A major, which was a model of grace and civilization.
I wish to offer three footnotes. First, what is it about Finland—and Hungary as well? Those countries, with small populations, produce an incredible number of musicians. Second, I am all for hour-long recitals—and if they started at seven, rather than nine, all the better. Third, have you ever noticed that, when someone coughs in an auditorium, other people stare or glare at him, as though that would stop him? So human, evidently, and so perverse.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 9, on page 49
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