A week before Christmas, the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra staged a concert—not a Christmas concert, but a festive concert nonetheless. It paid tribute to the Oxford scientists who had worked unceasingly to come up with their vaccine against covid-19. There was no audience for this concert, except online, around the world. The players and singers were socially distanced.
Singers? Yes, the choir of Merton College, Oxford; Bryn Terfel, the great bass-baritone from Wales; and others.
The program consisted of “feel-good music,” which I would defend in three ways, at least: (1) What’s wrong with feeling good? (2) There is a lot of excellent music that feels good. (3) Feel-good music is called for when you’re hailing a new vaccine, and thanking the men and women who worked to produce it.
Oxford’s program featured one new work, by John Rutter, the renowned Englishman who today is seventy-five. There was a second Rutter piece, too, and it began the concert. This was “Look to the Day,” a choral piece written in 2008. The composer’s website describes it as “a tuneful and uplifting anthem with warm harmonies.” And its level of difficulty? “Very Easy.”
Rutter wrote the words, as well as the music. “Look to the day when the world seems new again.” “Look to the day when the earth is green again.” “Look to the light that will drive out darkness.”
Next on Oxford’s program was a little piece by Elgar, Chanson de matin. The composer wrote it for violin and piano, and later orchestrated it. This Englishman liked to give pieces French titles. The companion to this piece is Chanson de nuit. Elgar also wrote the famous, beloved Salut d’amour. His publisher described it as a “morceau mignon,” which is perfect. All of these pieces are dear. Is that a put-down? It sounds like one, but I don’t mean it that way. Dearness can be desirable.
After the morning song, Bryn Terfel and the Merton choir sang “Abide with Me,” the great hymn whose words are by Henry Francis Lyte and whose music is by William Henry Monk. As the hymn progressed, another solo voice took over for Terfel’s: that of a boy, Alexander Olleson. The bbc named him its Young Chorister of the Year for 2020. The contrast between Terfel’s voice—so big, rich, and renowned—and this treble voice was very sweet.
Plus, Master Olleson will have quite a story to tell, decades from now: how he stood on a stage with the great Bryn Terfel, before a worldwide audience, to sing in tribute to a team of scientists who had labored to produce a covid-19 vaccine.
With a soprano—a full-grown one—Terfel sang some Rodgers and Hammerstein: “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” from Carousel. (Senator Bob Dole’s favorite song, by the way.) The soprano was Alexandra Lowe. Terfel likes R&H, and I imagine Ms. Lowe does, too. Who doesn’t? Twenty-five years ago, Terfel made a whole album of R&H: Something Wonderful (whose title song, as you recall, comes from The King and I).
John Rutter’s new work is Joseph’s Carol, Christmassy indeed—but the composer linked it to the vaccine team. “I feel a strong sense of connection with the team,” he said in a videotaped interview. “I know exactly what it feels like to be working in the back room, which can be a lonely place. You don’t get any public appreciation for your efforts until your work’s all over.” Plus, “there’s a constant deadline pressure.”
In any event, said Rutter, “my thoughts were very much with the team when I wrote Joseph’s Carol, which is my musical thank-you to them.”
Rutter went on to explain that he regards Joseph as “the character in the Christmas story who most often gets overlooked.” Joseph “must have felt that he was treading a very long, dark road, without knowing what was at the end of it.” But “at the end of that long, difficult journey, a miracle took place, and that’s what my carol’s all about: a miracle, which will never be forgotten.”
Joseph’s Carol was sung by Terfel and the choir, accompanied by the orchestra. It is an example of relaxed, beautiful storytelling. The music has a mixture of gravity and hope. It has a lovely lightness of texture. The carol is well made, meaning that everything—notes, words—is in its right place.
The concert ended with the Hallelujah Chorus. It was a little tame, for my taste—without the verve that really makes you say, and feel, “Hallelujah!” But to end with this masterwork—masterwork within a masterwork—was a very good idea, as was this entire concert.
Traditionally, the Metropolitan Opera has a New Year’s Eve gala—and the show went on, though on the Internet, only, and from Augsburg, Germany. Four singers gathered there: two sopranos and two tenors. The first names of the sopranos are “Pretty” and “Angel.” We are speaking, of course, of Pretty Yende, from South Africa, and Angel Blue, from Los Angeles. The tenors were Javier Camarena, the Mexican, and Matthew Polenzani, the American. In this concert, Yende and Camarena were paired, as bel canto singers, chiefly, and Blue and Polenzani were paired, as “lyric” singers, chiefly. Of course, there is ample crossover in these vocal categories.
The men were in smart red bowties. The women looked beautiful. Ms. Blue, incidentally, is a former beauty queen, as well as an opera star. She has a killer smile. Pretty Yende is pretty killer herself. I will give you one biographical fact about her: she got interested in opera when she heard the Flower Duet from Lakmé (Delibes) in a British Airways commercial. You never know how a career will start.
Our four singers were sometimes accompanied by a pianist—Cécile Restier, from France—and sometimes by a string quintet, plucked from the Morphing Chamber Orchestra, of Vienna. Hold that thought, because some people back home in New York weren’t very happy about the presence of the Morphing Quintet, or of Ms. Restier, presumably.
The music on this program was gala music. Also feel-good music? Yes, in the operatic category, you could say. The concert began with excerpts from The Daughter of the Regiment (Donizetti). Javier Camarena sang the “high-Cs aria,” “Ah! mes amis.” He was a little tight on some of those Cs—there are nine of them, by the way—but basically fine. The final high Cs were his freest and best.
It is very strange not to hear applause at the end of this aria, and others like it. Camarena snapped off a nice salute—in character—and smiled hugely. Let me add that piano accompaniments often sound absurd in these bel canto arias. This is no fault of Cécile Restier’s, needless to say.
Pretty Yende sang another aria from the opera, “Chacun le sait.” She was not at her most accurate, but she was more than adequate. At the end, she giggled charmingly (and in character).
How much acting should singers do in galas such as this? If they do too much, they can look foolish. At the same time, you are not presenting an oratorio. Our four singers struck an intelligent balance, neither overacting nor underacting.
When it was their turn to take the stage, Angel Blue and Matthew Polenzani sang excerpts from La bohème (Puccini)—that fabulous 1-2-3 at the end of Act I: the tenor aria “Che gelida manina”; the soprano aria “Sì, mi chiamano Mimì”; and the duet “O soave fanciulla.” How many composers have ever written so successful a stretch? Anyone tempted to sneer at Puccini should think again, or listen again.
Polenzani was “hooked up,” in fine voice. He was at his best, I think, in soft, subtle passages. Angel Blue has a beautiful voice. Was she Italianate in this music? Passably so, I think. Did the two singers pull off the high Cs at the end of the duet? They can do better, but yes, they did.
Later in the program, there was more Puccini, involving all four singers. This was “Bevo al tuo fresco sorriso,” from La rondine. I would describe it as half toast, half hymn. It is noble, stirring, and absolutely beautiful. Our four singers made some nice sounds, of course, but the piece did not have its impact—its thrill. The singers could have used a proper orchestra (no offense to the quintet). Possibly, they could have benefited from a conductor, too.
“Ah! mes amis” is a signature aria for Camarena. So is “Sì, ritrovarla io giuro,” from La cenerentola (Rossini). He duly sang this aria on New Year’s Eve. I often regret that we don’t apply the word “virtuosic” or “virtuoso” to singers—because it would suit Camarena. I have a joke—or an observation, really—to make about Rossini’s aria. The first two notes are on “Sì” and the first syllable of “ritrovarla.” These days, I swear you’d think the tenor were asking Siri for help.
Pretty Yende sang some more Rossini—“Una voce poco fa,” from The Barber of Seville. She sang it winningly, with agility and style. But I often want to caution singers about one thing: don’t so load your arias with ornaments and interpolations that you, or the audience, lose sight of the song. A stellar aria such as “Una voce poco fa” is more than a vehicle for technical display.
Angel Blue did her best singing of the night in a very difficult aria: “D’amor sull’ali rosee” from Il trovatore (Verdi). She was disciplined and focused. She had both vocal focus and mental focus. She succumbed to a little flatting at the end, but this was of no great import. After the aria, she spoke to the audience—the camera—saying that her father had died on New Year’s Eve fourteen years before. He was a great lover of opera, she said, and taught her how to sing. She concluded with, “Thank you, Dad.”
The final, most gala-like portion of this gala started with “Lippen schweigen,” the duet from The Merry Widow (Lehár). As a rule, singers not only sing the duet, they also waltz to it. Blue and Polenzani did not disappoint. Then there were three hits from Naples: “Mattinata,” “Torna a Surriento,” and “O sole mio.” All four singers did commendable things in these songs, but Polenzani stood out, exhibiting the style. The way he toyed with “O sole mio” was especially pleasing.
They said goodbye with “Auld Lang Syne,” which I hope made Guy Lombardo smile, somewhere.
Earlier, I mentioned some upset back home, in New York. The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra issued a blistering statement, saying that its members had been callously treated during the pandemic. “There is no reason why these gala events need to take place in Europe. There are star singers on American soil too.” What’s more, the pandemic “does not need to be so financially devastating to the orchestra, nor so contentious and heartless—that is the choice of Met management.”
In this miserable period, there are a million stories.
The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra has been playing a New Year’s concert since 1939 (not a proud year, to be sure). It starts at 11:15 on New Year’s morning, in the Goldener Saal of the Musikverein. The program is Viennesey: waltzes, galops, polkas, and the like, especially composed by members of the Strauss family. These days, tickets can run as high as 1,200 euros. Families pass down their seats from generation to generation. I’m reminded of the Masters golf tournament in Augusta, Georgia: the waiting list for tickets closed in 1978.
This year, there was no audience in the Musikverein, but the show went on—and it was watched by some fifty million people around the globe. The Vienna Philharmonic underwent a program of rigorous covid testing. Therefore, they were able to play onstage together.
“Without a concert on January 1,” said Riccardo Muti in a press conference beforehand, “the Musikverein would be like a grave. That would be a negative sign to the world.” Muti was conducting the New Year’s concert, for the sixth time. No guest except Lorin Maazel has conducted it more. The vpo is self-run, meaning that the players decide on conductors and programming.
Muti has been conducting the orchestra for fifty years. He first conducted the New Year’s concert in 1993. “I couldn’t sleep for nights,” he said. “I was terrified.” The vpo players are “unique” in this repertoire, he said. “I felt that, with my inexperience, I could only do damage.” Italians have Verdi within them, he said—not Lehár, the Strausses, and the rest. Yet he came through fine.
The Viennesey music is much more difficult to conduct than people imagine, he said. “The boat needs a good pilot, an expert pilot.” It does not go, or even float, by itself. When you conduct a New Year’s concert, said Muti, “you can’t relax until the Radetzky March.” This piece, by iron tradition, is the final encore. The audience claps along. Although this year, there would be no clapping, “so we will finally hear the march as it’s written,” smiled Muti.
He was staying in the Imperial Hotel—and was virtually the only one in it. There was almost no one on the streets. “I have the sense of being in a horror movie,” said Muti, smiling again.
When he took the stage on New Year’s morning, the players clapped vigorously for him. I think they were trying to make up, in part, for the lack of an audience in the hall. They opened with the Fatinitza March, i.e., the march from the operetta Fatinitza, by Franz von Suppé. The players had the lilt, the step, the bounce—everything that makes this sort of music special. As I frequently say, when writing of them, they were good as a unit and good in their solos. They showed technical exactitude. And their patented sound came through, even on your laptop at home.
Muti? He was in good form throughout the concert. He was charismatic and disciplined. He let his hair down—and that hair is famous—while maintaining order. He knew how much conducting to do, by which I mean, he knew when to intervene: when to impose himself, or guide, and when to stand back, letting the players do their familiar thing, and enjoying it. I have never seen Muti do so much dancing on a podium.
I don’t know about you, but, for me, a little of this music goes a long way. Still, it goes down easy. One of the pieces on this morning was Ohne Sorgen! (Without a Care!), a polka by Josef Strauss. That was the mood of the concert at large.
The highlight of the concert, I believe, was more Suppé: the famous Poet and Peasant Overture. The vpo and Muti betrayed no hint of slumming in this piece. They approached it as they would a Schubert symphony. It was precise, beautiful, stirring, and satisfying. There is an extensive cello solo, handled by Tamás Varga (Budapest-born) with elegance.
Let me give you an aside. Out of habit, Muti went to shake the hand of Rainer Honeck, the concertmaster (and brother of the conductor Manfred Honeck). Honeck demurred, and Muti suddenly remembered we’re not shaking hands at the moment. The two nodded at each other with big smiles.
One of the last items of the day was the Emperor Waltz, by Johann Strauss the Younger. It was irresistible in its nobility and pomp, and blessedly unrushed.
Taking a microphone, Muti made a statement to the audience—the audience beyond the hall. The past year was an “annus horribilis,” he said. Yet music has a message to deliver. “Music is more than entertainment,” he said. “It is not only a profession, it is a mission. This is why we do this work: to make society better.” That is a platitude, maybe, and we can argue about it, but such words have particular weight in a time of worldwide distress.
Before the Radetzky March—which is by Johann Strauss the Elder—comes On the Beautiful Blue Danube (the Younger). Tradition so dictates. In the Danube waltz, the horns were incredibly fluid. Don’t they know that horns are supposed to cough, shout, and flub? As for the Neapolitan on the podium, he was unquestionably idiomatic in his conducting.
I must say, I enjoyed the Radetzky March without the clapping. But may the clapping return next year, and the year after that, and on and on.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 6, on page 49
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