The New York Philharmonic is back in business. That is, the orchestra filmed a concert, in Alice Tully Hall (rather than its home, David Geffen Hall, across the way). There was no audience, but it was still a bona fide concert. On the podium was the Philharmonic’s capo, Jaap van Zweden. And they had a starry concerto soloist.
All the musicians were masked, except for the wind players. The masks were elegant and black (unlike the medical masks that some of us wear). The players dressed in black, too. And everyone observed “social distance.”
The concert began with music for winds alone, brass alone: choir pieces by Giovanni Gabrieli. In last month’s chronicle, I wrote that a presentation by Chicago Symphony Orchestra players had begun with Gabrieli. A veteran bass trombonist in the orchestra, Charles Vernon, said beforehand that the Chicago brass had “a tradition to uphold.” Yes, the cso has been known for that section. But what about the New York Philharmonic’s? They acquitted themselves very well in their Gabrieli. They were smooth, mellifluous, and united. They also played with character.
One more thing: they played in tune. Can this be taken for granted? Not necessarily. And a little imperfection of pitch can be like a hint of sourness in milk, spoiling the whole glass, bowl, or dollop.
Quite possibly, these Gabrieli pieces don’t need a conductor, and can be played like chamber music—but they had a conductor in Jaap van Zweden. It was nice to see him in the saddle again, after a year or so. It was also nice to hear music for brass alone. The strings often have their moment in the sun, by themselves. The brass, rarely.
The concerto on this program was one for violin, by Mozart: No. 5 in A major, K. 219, known as the “Turkish.” Why? Because in the closing rondo, there is a spasm of “Turkish” music, a kind of music that Mozart got a kick out of, and that his audiences got a kick out of, too.
As the orchestra began the concerto, Van Zweden made sure that the music had punchiness, precision, and bite. The sheer unsloppiness of the playing was a joy. And I had a thought: here is a violinist conducting a violin concerto. Van Zweden, remember, was appointed a concertmaster of his hometown orchestra, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, at age eighteen.
During the opening tutti, the soloist swayed, and listened keenly, and semi-conducted, as always. He was Joshua Bell.
He played his Mozart beautifully. Beautifully. Soupily? Romantically? No. With a right Mozartean beauty. You don’t want a Mozart tenor to sing his arias unbeautifully—a Don Ottavio, let’s say, singing “Dalla sua pace” and “Il mio tesoro”—and you don’t want a Mozart violinist playing the music in question unbeautifully. Also, the music was vivid, from both soloist and orchestra. The notes were never dead on the page.
Here’s a secret about Mozart, or an open secret: Usually, he does not play himself. You have to play him. You have to make the notes jump or slink or dance off the page. Year after year, decade after decade, century after century, there are dull Mozart performances, and they are not the composer’s fault. They are the performers’.
A little detail, about the last notes of the first movement: Van Zweden had the strings play them with a tapering that was not la-di-da but actually stylish.
In the second movement, Adagio, Bell sang, as the composer asks him to. This movement was not unblemished, but we were listening to a live performance, thank goodness, or “live to tape.” The last movement has an interesting marking: “Rondeau (Tempo di Minuetto).” You don’t want to rush it—yet the music ought to be jaunty. Bell, Van Zweden, and the orchestra complied. Throughout the movement, Bell was playful without being vulgar. And he gave us his familiar Kreislerian lilt. Or should I say “Mozartean lilt”?
The “Turkish” portion had plenty of spice and zest. Every violinist has some Gypsy in him, really. It comes with the instrument. By the way, a friend of mine—a singer and writer—used the word “Gypsy” in a music forum recently. He was admonished not to say the word. If you take the Gypsy out of music—including opera (Il trovatore?)—you take out too much. Think of that marvelous marking, “alla zingara”!
Bell and Van Zweden ended the “Turkish” Concerto with a beautiful matter-of-factness, allowing zero slowing down.
Under usual circumstances—with a cheering audience—Bell would have played an encore. Yet there was none, in this film. Still, the concerto had been a pleasure: two musical beings—Bell and Van Zweden—playing a masterpiece by a third musical being, than whom there has never been anyone more musical. As for Joshua Bell, he is now in his mid-fifties, which is slightly hard to believe. It seems just yesterday that he was fourteen, playing with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Yet Bell is still a hotshot, somehow.
Closing out the Philharmonic’s program was Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, i.e., his String Sextet in D minor, Op. 70, in an arrangement for string orchestra. (The brass had had their turn—that rare turn—earlier in the concert.) I am both a fan and a defender of transcriptions. But I must say, this sextet from a string orchestra seemed to me too heavy. A larger group alters the character of the music. The texture is transformed, and transparency sacrificed. Do you get used to it, as the piece wears on? You do, yes. But, to my ear, it never sounds quite right, truly natural.
Nevertheless, the New York Philharmonic did its job. In the second movement, Carter Brey, the principal cello, made his usual sound: noble, beautiful, aristocratic. It was good to see him again, and so many other familiar faces—faces I have seen, some of them, since the 1990s. And I continue to be amazed that Jaap van Zweden is the music director of the New York Philharmonic. So far as I know, he brings you nothing politically sexy. He is simply a first-rate musician. Is that enough, in this day and age? Apparently so, in this case, for now.
Online, Tippet Rise held a spring festival, comprising ten short films. The films were shot in New York. Yet Tippet Rise—the Tippet Rise Art Center—is in Montana. It sits on a 12,000-acre ranch, not far from Fishtail (population: about 500). In music, “Tippet” makes you think of Michael Tippett, the late British composer. Yet Tippet Rise is named after the mother of one of the center’s founders. Those founders are Peter and Cathy Halstead. Cathy’s mother was nicknamed “Tippet.” Cathy’s father, Sidney Frank, was the business impresario behind Grey Goose vodka and Jägermeister.
The spring festival had a multimedia accent. Richard Goode, the pianist, read a couple of poems. One of them was “If Bach had been a beekeeper,” by Charles Tomlinson. In music, “Charles Tomlinson” puts you in mind of Charles Tomlinson Griffes, the American composer, who lived from 1884 to 1920. Charles Tomlinson was a British poet (1927–2015). His poem about Bach refers to “the honey of C major.” After reading the poem, Goode played the C-major prelude and fugue from Book II of The Well-Tempered Clavier.
Hometown, or home-magazine, pride impels me to note that “If Bach had been a beekeeper” was first published in these pages. The year was 2002. For 2002–03, Charles Tomlinson was the winner of the New Criterion Poetry Prize, the third such winner. The first was Donald Petersen, the second Adam Kirsch. Today, Mr. Kirsch is the magazine’s poetry editor.
In addition to Bach, Debussy, and Brahms, Goode played Mozart: the Sonata in F major, K. 533 (one of the three F-major piano sonatas that Mozart wrote, the most famous being K. 332, beloved of Vladimir Horowitz and others). I love to think of an old saying, usually attributed to Artur Schnabel, sometimes attributed to another Artur, Rubinstein, or someone else: “Mozart is too easy for children, too hard for adults.” Richard Goode is still relishing his Mozart. The esteemed American pianist is now in his late seventies. I might point out that he uses sheet music, seeming to look at every note. There is precedent for this: Myra Hess, for one; Sviatoslav Richter, for another. Goode is in good company.
He has miles to go, Richard Goode does—if you consider one of his teachers, Mieczysław Horszowski. Horszowski died in 1993, just before his hundred-and-first birthday. He gave his last performance at ninety-nine. When he was eighty-nine, he got married, to a woman forty years his junior. Mieczysław Horszowski can perhaps serve as an inspiration to many.
In its spring festival, Tippet Rise presented many new or recent pieces, including The Haunted Orchard, for flute and electronics. Its composer is Bora Yoon, who is better described by her bio than by me: “an interdisciplinary artist who conjures audiovisual soundscapes using digital devices, voice, and found objects and instruments from a variety of cultures and historical centuries—to formulate an audiovisual storytelling through music, movement, and sound.” The soloist was Claire Chase, who has many distinctions, including this: she is the first flutist to have won a MacArthur “genius” grant.
A piece called The Haunted Orchard ought to sound haunting, and this piece does. As I have long chronicled, today’s music specializes in spooky sounds; The Haunted Orchard has lots of them. It could accompany a movie, a TV show, a documentary. You can see it—hear it—as a soundtrack. I must say, the piece demands patience of the listener, which I, personally, may be short on. I must also say that Claire Chase played it with skill, imagination, and big commitment.
Arlen Hlusko is a Canadian cellist who embarked on a pandemic project: asking for miniatures, composed for solo cello. More than twenty composers delivered. For Tippet Rise, Hlusko played four of these pieces, including one by India Gailey (wonderful name). That piece is Mountainweeps, billed as a commentary on climate change, particularly where “glacial environments” are concerned. Years ago, I coined a term: “greenpiece.” I was hearing a slew of them. India Gailey’s work has three parts, labeled “glacial light fluttering in the wind”; “naked of an ancient watery sheath”; and “leaking fauna and stones.”
Obviously, such a thing is ripe for mockery. But let me not mock—and instead say that Mountainweeps is interesting and engaging, with a stream-of-consciousness quality. It is also sincere, which goes a long way in music. The three movements are balanced against one another, in traditional and desirable fashion. For instance, the middle movement is slow, the last one fast.
You think that Mountainweeps is a greenpiece because of the words that the composer attaches to it. In fact, you know it’s a greenpiece. But what if you were ignorant of the words? Would you guess that Mountainweeps was “about” climate change, leaking fauna, and all that? Of course not. The piece would be “about” whatever you wanted it to be about, or nothing. Ned Rorem, the venerable American composer, made this point to me in an interview twenty years ago. Take La mer, he said. What if you were told that the piece was “about” episodes in Paris, rather than aspects of the sea? Would you believe it? Oh, sure.
Tippet Rise gave us some singing, provided by Tyler Duncan, a baritone from British Columbia. He was accompanied by Erika Switzer, a pianist who teaches at Bard College, in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. They began with a Brahms song and ended with a Schubert song. In between, they offered a few rarities, which I would like to comment on.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor seems to be in the air. He was a British composer, the son of an Englishwoman and a man from Sierra Leone. The composer lived from 1875 to 1912. I wrote about him in our April issue, as Chicago Symphony members had played his clarinet quintet, written when he was a student at the Royal College of Music. Tyler Duncan sang Coleridge-Taylor’s “You Lay So Still in the Sunshine,” which sets a poem by Radclyffe Hall (an Englishwoman who lived from 1880 to 1943). A song full of charm, expressing what I would like to call “simple sophistication,” or an easy, casual sophistication.
Darius Milhaud was a big name when I was growing up. I don’t see it much anymore, or hear his music. He taught at Mills College, in Oakland, California, and he had a long roster of students. Three of them were Burt Bacharach, William Bolcom, and Dave Brubeck (three Bs). The last of these named his first child “Darius.” Tyler Duncan sang Milhaud’s Two Love Poems, Op. 30. The poems are by Tagore—Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali. He too was a big name when I was growing up. Is he still? Musicians, poets, and others go in and out of fashion, often for mysterious reasons. In any case, the Milhaud-Tagore songs are winners, and they were winningly performed by Duncan and Switzer.
Paul Jacobs is a leading organist, the chairman of the department at Juilliard. He played a recital in Philadelphia, under the auspices of the Philadelphia Orchestra. An orchestra, presenting an organ recital? The orchestra’s hall, Verizon, has a significant organ, called “the Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ.” Mr. Cooper was an amateur organist, and his grandson, Frederick Haas—an organist himself—supplied the organ. Mr. Haas has long been important to the Philadelphia Orchestra. He is a scion of a major business-and-philanthropy family in the city. Mr. Haas has lent particular support to organists and their world. (An organ donor?)
Mr. Jacobs played three pieces, all of his own arrangement. Organists are called on to be improvisers; it goes with their territory. They are arrangers, too. Paul Jacobs began with selections from a Handel organ concerto and ended with another Handel organ concerto, complete. One advantage of a filmed organ recital is that you can see everything—including feet. A disadvantage is that there’s nothing like the sound of an organ in the hall, or in a church. Of all instruments, it is probably the organ that “transfers” least well.
Jacobs is a confident player, with much to be confident about. Like Steph Curry with a basketball in his hands, he knows what he is doing. There is no fuss, no muss, when Jacobs is at the console. I want to say that he is “business-like,” but that might make him sound unmusical. He is very musical. It’s just that he goes about his work without any silliness.
Handel is such a fluid composer, isn’t he? He flows like water (even outside the Water Music). Jacobs conveyed this fluidity in exemplary fashion.
In the course of this recital, he took time to explain some whys and wherefores of the organ: its stops, pistons, “bell stars,” and the like. He is a good, clear, and patient teacher. Frankly, he is an ambassador of the organ. Should this old, magnificent instrument—the King of Instruments—need an ambassador? No, but in 2021, it does.
Between his Handel concertos, Jacobs played his arrangement of Bach’s “Air on the G String,” i.e., the second movement of Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, bwv 1068. This is one of the most arranged or transcribed pieces in history. I love hearing it sung by the Swingle Singers. I would hear it on the kazoo.
Not long ago, I had a question about Mozart, and his creativity: When he finished, say, the Clarinet Concerto, did he pause and say, “Whoa, that was a good one. That touched a great height. It will live forever”? Or was it just his latest piece, another entry for what would be the Köchel catalogue? In the same spirit, I ask: When Bach wrote that air, did he think, “Whoa, that’ll leave ’em swooning down the ages”? Or was it just the second movement of the suite he was working on?
I honestly don’t know. But I suspect those guys knew they had received bolts from the blue.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 10, on page 52
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