Music April 2020
New York chronicle
On Tread Softly by Nina C. Young, a performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto with Janine Jansen, Stride by Tania Léon, the nine Beethoven symphonies at Carnegie Hall, and a recital of personal interest.
Out trooped Jaap van Zweden, the music director of the New York Philharmonic, in the company of another person. Both had microphones in their hands. The other person was the composer who had written the concert’s opening piece. We saw this a lot during the tenure of Alan Gilbert, who led the Philharmonic from 2009 to 2017. But I had not seen it in the time of Van Zweden. The tradition continues.
Van Zweden explained to the audience that the orchestra was embarking on “Project 19,” the “19” having two meanings. This year marks the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gave women the right to vote. The Philharmonic has commissioned nineteen female composers to write pieces for the orchestra.
In recent years, people in the music business have grumbled that female composers have not been programmed enough. So Project 19 looks like redress. I could not help thinking how I would feel, however, if I were one of the composers approached. How would you feel? Would you be glad of the commission, no matter what? Would you feel entitled? Would you feel slightly insulted, knowing that sex (or “gender,” as we say today) played a role? Would your feelings be mixed?
I am not judging those who have accepted the commissions—for one thing, I haven’t walked in their moccasins. But I am wondering. And as I sat in David Geffen Hall, I thought of Edward MacDowell, the American composer of the late nineteenth century. American classical music was just getting off the ground. And MacDowell was invited to participate in a concert of American music. He declined, refusing to allow any of his music to be performed. The reason? If a piece of his deserved to be performed, the nationality of its composer had nothing to do with it.
That is very far from the spirit of our own age.
In any case, the composer on this Philharmonic evening was Nina C. Young, an American born in 1984. She was charming in her remarks to the audience. Our program notes informed us that she had an extraordinary education, culminating in a Ph.D. in music from Columbia. That is not extraordinary, maybe, and neither is her undergraduate degree in music from mit. But she earned another undergraduate degree from that institution—in ocean engineering.
Her new piece is called Tread softly, and those program notes said the following: “Nina C. Young’s official biography states that her current artistic interests focus on ‘collaborative, multidisciplinary works that touch on issues of sustainability, climate change, historical narratives, and women’s rights.’ Tread softly represents a clear intersection of a number of these areas . . .” Honestly, I don’t understand this at all, much less regard it as “clear.” In any event, I will tell you some of what I heard, when listening to Young’s piece.
It bears some of the hallmarks of today’s music: anxiety, for example. I’ve often said that our era in composition ought to be called another “age of anxiety.” The piece has plenty of soft percussion, and a “wash,” at least for a while. I’m talking about an aural sheen. From the brass section, there are interesting sounds, including shudders, mutings, and slidings. There are some fluttering, Debussyan woodwinds—and an extended violin solo, almost a cadenza. It smacks of the Gypsy, and I wrote in my notes, “Czardas?”
There are many musical ideas in Tread softly, and whether they cohere, I’m not sure. The work is about ten minutes long—our program booklet said so—but it sounded longer to me. Then again, many new works do (and not a few old ones, to be sure). I also had the feeling that the music was deeply personal to the composer, in ways a listener could not imagine.
In a composer’s note, Ms. Young writes, “One hundred years after the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, it still seems radical that I can have a voice, that women can be heard, and taken seriously as equal weavers of the tapestry of American culture.” Is it really as radical as all that? Whatever our own answer, a person’s individual feelings are hard to gainsay.
It bears some of the hallmarks of today’s music: anxiety, for example.
As you may have gathered, the title of the piece comes from Yeats’s poem “The Cloths of Heaven”—whose final line goes, “Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” In that program note, Young writes, “In coming seasons, nineteen women will work with this illustrious orchestra. And so I ask you, as we spread our sounds into your minds, tread softly, because you tread on our dreams.” A lovely sentiment. I can say, however, that I will review these works—if I review them—exactly as I do others. Which is what most composers would want, I feel sure, including Ms. Young.
In this same period, Sally Matthews, the British soprano, gave a recital in Weill Recital Hall with Simon Lepper, a British pianist. There was no British music on the program, which disappointed me. I thought, “Maybe she will sing some at encore time.” She did indeed, starting with “The Cloths of Heaven,” Thomas Dunhill’s setting of the Yeats poem. Dunhill is barely known, yet I regard this as one of the most perfect songs in the entire repertory.
On another evening, the Philharmonic began a concert with the Brahms Violin Concerto. The soloist was Janine Jansen, the outstanding Dutchwoman. And the conductor, once more, was Jaap van Zweden, an outstanding Dutchman. Van Zweden, you may remember, is a violinist. In fact, at eighteen, he became a concertmaster of the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. (It was not until 1988 that the name of the orchestra acquired a “Royal.”) So, in a sense, you had two Dutch violinists, traversing the Brahms.
Years ago, a violinist gave me a clue about orchestral life. After a concerto, string players in the orchestra often tap their stands with their bows, in approval of the soloist. If they put down their instruments and clap with their hands—they really approve. When Janine Jansen took the stage to play the Brahms, many, many of the string players were clapping with their hands. Already. Before Jansen had played a note. I had never seen this before, in a lifetime of concertgoing.
Looking back on it, I thought, “These players obviously knew what we were about to get.”
With his baton, Van Zweden shaped the opening of the concerto superbly. He did not smother the music, at all, but his shaping was clear. The orchestra’s sound was full and rich. The music was positively exciting. When Jansen came in, you could tell that she was excited to be playing the concerto. It was not a tired warhorse to her—another Brahms, another dollar (or whatever her fee is).
She was “involving,” to use a cliché. Neither she nor we, in the audience, were ever bored. She often played with a “melting tone,” to use another cliché. Soloist and orchestra were firing on all cylinders. They rode the contours of the music, with every climax right. There was always passion, whether quiet or louder. Jansen played the cadenza—Joachim’s—with interpretive imagination. The overall quality of this first movement was warm-heroic. That is Brahms, isn’t it?
After the movement, many in the audience applauded, and quite rightly. The soloist did not ignore or scowl at them. She smiled and nodded as she tuned her instrument—which was classy.
Brahms gives the oboe a melody to sing, in his Adagio. The Philharmonic’s Sherry Sylar sang it ably. When it was Jansen’s turn, she sang ably herself. This whole movement, shown to best effect, is enrapturing—and so it was from the forces onstage this evening.
In the final movement, the rondo, Jansen gave almost a definition of con slancio. She played with dash, flair, enthusiasm. There was some imperfect coordination between soloist and orchestra, but this mattered little. The coda began on little cat feet—it tingled with anticipatory excitement. Then it roared on big cat feet.
When the concerto was over, the entire orchestra, it seemed to me, clapped with their hands. I had never seen this. And seldom have I ever heard a violin-and-orchestra performance so good.
Neither she nor we, in the audience, were ever bored.
Two seasons ago, Janine Jansen played with Jean-Yves Thibaudet, the French pianist, in Carnegie Hall. Here in my chronicle, I used the P-word. “Ladies and gentlemen,” I said, “the Debussy Sonata was perfect. . . . I’m sorry I missed Thibaud and Cortot (that famed duo from the first half of the twentieth century). But, honestly, I would not trade what I heard from Jansen and Thibaudet for any other pairing.” In like fashion, I would not be eager to trade for another Brahms concerto. Sometimes, the good ol’ days are now.
Having played a D-major concerto, Jansen played some D-minor Bach for an encore: the sarabande of the relevant partita. It had purity and soul, those Bach requirements.
This concert did not have an oomp, i.e., an obligatory opening modern piece—but the second half opened with an entry in Project 19. Van Zweden, microphone in hand, talked to the audience. He said that the orchestra had enlisted the services of “nineteen phenomenal female composers.” Phenomenal, every one of them? There is PR in music, even when conductors speak. The composer on this evening was Tania León, who also had a microphone in hand. I had seen her on New York stages before, speaking about her pieces. She is a lovely and gracious presence.
She also has a highly interesting biography. Ms. León was born in Havana in 1943. She was able to come to American shores as a refugee in 1967. In Cuba, she had earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music (plus a certification in accounting, by which I am especially impressed). In New York, she did it all over again—earning a bachelor’s and a master’s from nyu. In the mid-1990s, she had the position of “new-music adviser” at the Philharmonic.
Her entry for Project 19 is called Stride. As she explained to the audience, she was inspired by Susan B. Anthony, whose two hundredth birthday happens to be this year. León imagined her “striding forward,” unstoppably. Of course, “stride” has a musical meaning too, as in “stride piano” (exemplified by James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, among others). Perhaps the composer had this in mind as well. She intends her piece to be a tribute to American music.
It is Bernsteinian in parts, reminiscent of West Side Story. Listening, I thought of the term “jazz-tinged modernism.” There are clarinet licks and the like—riffing and noodling. There is also a great deal of percussion. Obviously, the piece is composed with fondness. Fondness counts for a lot, and so does sincerity. But did Stride seem long to me? I’m afraid it did, as my regular readers would expect.
In our program notes, there was a marvelous anecdote, told by Tania León.
When I came here, the only composers I knew anything about were Leonard Bernstein and George Gershwin. . . . The night I arrived at Kennedy, I was picked up by a Cuban couple from the Bronx, who allowed me to stay on their sofa. I looked at the stairs outside of their building, and I started crying “Maria!” They were confused, and I explained that in Cuba I’d heard the song by Bernstein.
This concert by the Philharmonic ended with Richard Strauss, namely the Rosenkavalier Suite. How do you want it? Stylish, sexy, strange, virtuosic, Viennesey—thrilling. It was. Yes, the good ol’ days are now, and I hope Jaap van Zweden stays for a bit.
Sir John Eliot Gardiner is one of the outstanding musicians of the world. Like Tania León, he was born in 1943. Known for the Baroque—and Bach in particular—he is a conductor for all seasons, or most seasons. Sir John is a combination of English scholarship and musical vitality. (The second is rarer than the first, I would say.) He is also an institution-builder—founding the Monteverdi Choir, the English Baroque Soloists, and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. Why he gave this third group a French name, I don’t know.
With this very orr, Sir John conducted the nine Beethoven symphonies in Carnegie Hall. We are in a “Beethoven year,” as the composer was born 250 years ago. Isn’t every year a Beethoven year? Yes, but the music world is addicted to anniversaries. I looked greatly forward to the concert I was attending. It would present the Fourth and Fifth symphonies.
The Fourth began in frightful fashion—with a botched entrance. The orchestra was not a model of precision in subsequent measures either. This surprised me, because Sir John is a disciplinarian. Worse, this opening Adagio lacked tension. The transition to the fast part of the first movement (Allegro vivace) is one of the great moments in music: Beethoven breaks out into mirth and smiles. The transition was nothing special on this occasion. And that “happy” music sounded more angry than happy, frankly.
In the second movement, I wanted to ask for more beauty. There was whininess from the winds. The orr sounded all too period-bandy, if I may put it that way. But the principal clarinet contributed some first-class playing. As for the third movement, it was nicely accented, although you have heard more incisive. And the fourth movement, I’m glad to report, was Gardiner-like. It had his vitality and musicality, and Beethoven’s as well.
At intermission, I thought of a phrase—a lyric, I thought: “no better than okay.” In my judgment, the Fourth, overall, had been no better than okay. The lyric I was thinking of is from West Side Story, and I got the wording a little wrong: “no better than all right,” Mr. Sondheim wrote (because he had to rhyme with “tonight”).
How about the Fifth? Better than okay, better than all right? Yes, I suppose. I will provide just a few details. From the beginning, the string players stood. (I mean, all who could, which would except the cellos.) I had not seen this since Teodor Currentzis’s band, from Russia. In the final movement, everyone stood. (Again, all who could.) I thought this was slightly stunt-like, but it was kind of nice, regardless.
In the second movement, the woodwinds as a group were shaky. And the third movement was so fast, I thought it was somewhat graceless. The finale, for me, did not have its pomp and majesty. It did have some scary horn glitches. Did I hear singing, from this orchestra? I mean, real singing, from throats? I believe I did, yes, for a spell.
The Fifth is famous for a reason.
I can tell you, with confidence, that the audience adored this Fifth. They cheered for Sir John and the orr as though for rock stars. Your critic was crabby. Concert life, like so much of life, is an expectations game. I have sky-high expectations for Sir John; I know the heights he can reach. At any rate, it was thrilling to hear the Fifth (whatever one thought of the performance). “The thing about Shakespeare,” said Robert Graves, “is that he really is good.” Likewise, the Fifth is famous for a reason. There is no better piece of music, and not many as good.
Eric Simpson is an alumnus of The New Criterion. He was an editor of these pages for five years. He is a man of parts: a writer and editor, of course; a music critic, specifically; a classics scholar; an actor; and a violinist. At a church—St. John’s in the Village—he gave a recital, unaccompanied. The program consisted of two Bach partitas and two sonatas of Ysaÿe. One of the partitas was the D-minor, from which Janine Jansen played the sarabande, and which ends in the monumental, transcendent Chaconne. For dessert—for an encore—Eric played Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst’s Last Rose of Summer variations, a fiendish exercise. A critic does not review friends, of course. But I will not refrain from saying that Eric played with understanding, agility, and heart. He held the room in his hand. We were all rapt. (Let me add that the guy’s program notes were perfectly—perfectly—written.)
I would not have thought that I could be more impressed by my multi-talented friend. But, as I left the church, I was.
A Message from the Editors
Support our crucial work and join us in strengthening the bonds of civilization.
Your donation sustains our efforts to inspire joyous rediscoveries.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 8, on page 63
Copyright © 2023 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com