I remember an evening in 2015—extraordinary. I had not looked forward to it. Mark Padmore, an English tenor, was to sing Winterreise, the Schubert song-cycle, in Alice Tully Hall. He was to be accompanied by Kristian Bezuidenhout, a South African—and on the fortepiano (rather than a standard, modern piano). Frankly, I did not particularly want to hear an English tenor and a fortepianist doing Winterreise. It proved to be a great experience. I wrote in my chronicle,
Mark Padmore did not sing Winterreise as though he were a tenor performing a holy piece of classical music. He was not a classical musician singing a collection of art songs. He was plenty refined, don’t get me wrong. But mainly he was a guy telling a story: a bleak, terrible story. It was natural, immediate, human, and raw. I have never heard Winterreise more moving, in years of hearings.
This season, I was very much looking forward to hearing Padmore’s recital in Zankel Hall—Beethoven on the first half, Schubert on the second. He was to be accompanied by a major pianist—a solo artist, Mitsuko Uchida. By the way, when I say “accompanied,” I am not meaning to slight the piano. Far from it. Once, in an interview, Craig Rutenberg took exception to the word “collaborator,” or the phrase “collaborative pianist.” “You don’t have to call me that,” he said. (I am paraphrasing, going from memory.) “I’m an accompanist. Collaboration reminds me of wartime France.” In any case, Uchida is superb alongside singers. I remember a recital she did with Magdalena Kožená, the Czech mezzo-soprano, at the Salzburg Festival in 2009. First-rate.
One may not associate Beethoven with songs, but he wrote hundreds of them (about two hundred and fifty). You hear a tenor sing An die ferne Geliebte now and then. This is a song-cycle, a very early example of the genre. Jessye Norman used to sing the Six Sacred Songs, Op. 48. I’m not sure I’ve heard them since. Padmore indeed sang An die ferne Geliebte. The cycle was preceded by three songs: “An die Hoffnung,” “Resignation,” and “Abendlied unterm gestirnten Himmel.” Marvelous little creations.
Padmore, as expected, was poised and intelligent—very intelligent. He knows music, he knows poetry, he knows singing. He gave a little speech during the first half of his program, related to the horror in Ukraine. He felt the need, I thought, to justify singing a song recital at such an hour. He quoted Brecht: “In dark times, will there be singing?”
Uchida, also as expected, was very, very poised and intelligent herself. She kept an ear on her singer and an ear on her own part. When I say she was “sensitive,” I don’t mean that she was demure. No. She could be arrestingly assertive. But she was always appropriate, whatever she was doing. When she imitated the birds in An die ferne Geliebte, you practically looked around for them, expecting to see them.
Anything wrong with this recital, at least in the first half? The tenor’s voice was not in its best shape. It was rough, weathered—not always in a pleasant, serviceable way. Voice is not everything in vocal music; it is not nothing either. How the second half went, I’m afraid I can’t tell you. (Padmore and Uchida’s Schubert was Schwanengesang.) I was unable to stay, although “unwilling” would be more honest, honestly.
A footnote, of a light nature: Ms. Uchida, now in her seventies, maintains the deepest bow in music. Olga Korbut and Nadia Comăneci, at their lithest, could not perform a deeper bow.
The next night, the Boston Symphony Orchestra rolled into Carnegie Hall, with its music director, Andris Nelsons. Dominating the first half of the program was a new work: a violin concerto by Unsuk Chin. She is from South Korea, and has long lived in Germany. She studied with György Ligeti in Hamburg. The new violin concerto is her second, the first having appeared in 2001. Chin also made an opera out of Alice in Wonderland (2007). Not only did she write the music, she also co-wrote the libretto, with the playwright David Henry Hwang.
This new concerto is formally titled Violin Concerto No. 2, Scherben der Stille (“Shards of Silence”). It was inspired, Chin says in a composer’s note, by Leonidas Kavakos: his playing and his overall musicianship. Kavakos was the soloist in Carnegie Hall, with the bso and Nelsons. The concerto takes about thirty minutes to play. It is in one movement, or maybe it’s better to say there are no pauses. In her composer’s note, Chin says that the concerto “consists of different sections that merge seamlessly.” Is it for her to say “merge seamlessly”? Regardless, she is right. “The grand form of the work,” she adds, “resembles a labyrinth.” I will tell you some of what I heard.
The concerto begins with an extended violin solo. He (or she) plays what sounds like a folksong, from East Asia. Eventually we hear something in the percussion that sounds like rain. The rest of the orchestra begins to participate, unobtrusively. There is a churning, and then a stretch of peace. It’s hard to guess the mood of this work: happy or sad? Or in between? There is clearly some anxiety, which is a hallmark of modern composition. The violinist does some Romantic soaring, very high on the instrument. The music is fast, slow, fidgety. The rain I have referred to—is it, instead, snakes? The texture of the concerto tends to be light and transparent. In the main, soloist and orchestra are closely coordinated, rather than oppositional. The violin part is occasionally virtuosic, but not showily so: virtuosity is not the point. A storm brews, stirringly. The piece has a smart crescendoing ending.
In this concerto are both craft and soul. Unsuk Chin obviously loves orchestral sound and its possibilities. I not only enjoyed the work in the hall, I listened to it again, in a recording. I do not do this every time with a new work. I don’t do it every fiftieth time. Leonidas Kavakos can be proud to have inspired this work, and he did it proud, as did his partners: the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Andris Nelsons.
After intermission, Nelsons conducted the Symphonie fantastique, Berlioz’s pathbreaking hit. Every time I see the date on this piece—1830—I blink. Romanticism was in its infancy, yet, here, it struts around like a hormonal teenager. Nelsons is a young conductor, as conductors go—forty-three—and he seems to get better every year. With economy of gesture, he gets a lot out of an orchestra. The bso played like a royal machine. We gush over the Philadelphia Orchestra for its sound, and the Vienna Philharmonic for its—but the bso merits some gushing as well. It used to be called “The Aristocrat of Orchestras,” and I thought of this during Berlioz’s second movement, that waltz: it was a valse noble. The fourth movement, the “March to the Scaffold,” was positively frightening (commendably so). My only complaint is with the fifth and last movement, the “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath.” To my taste, it should have been wackier. I thought it was a little tame.
I must say, I was impressed with the audience. How so? Instead of bolting for the exits, they applauded and applauded, as Nelsons had members of the orchestra stand, for individual and sectional acknowledgement, and as he returned and returned. It was downright . . . European. We Yanks usually say, “Thanks and see ya.”
Gabriela Montero played a recital in Zankel Hall. She is a Venezuelan pianist, and she spoke to the audience about the torment of her country—also about the torment of Ukraine. The first half of her program had a theme, namely childhood. It began—suitably enough—with Schumann’s Kinderszenen. Montero is an easy, natural pianist. There is surely effort, or discipline, behind her art—a great deal of practice, for example. But she wears it lightly. You may wish to know how “Träumerei,” in Kinderszenen, went. It was blessedly free of sentimentalism—and not too slow. It really hit the mark.
Montero then played selections from Children’s Songs by Chick Corea—yes, the American jazz pianist (1941–2021). These songs, these little pieces, are simple and guileless. Ingenuous. But they are not stupid or silly. They are thoughtfully conceived—and Ms. Montero gave them a fitting treatment.
To conclude her first half, she turned to a work of her own creating, having Schumann’s title: Scenes from Childhood. Those scenes—five—are “Sunrise in Caracas,” “The Crazy Parrots,” “The Drunk,” “Missing Home,” and “My Mother’s Lullaby.” But wait a minute: these pieces are not written out. They are improvised by the pianist, on the spot. They come from the moment’s inspiration. In advance, Montero has specified the ideas—the sunrise and so on. But every time she sits down to play her Scenes from Childhood, she plays different things. That is my understanding, at least.
Honestly, each movement of her suite was coherent, and the five cohered together. They were not pianistic doodles or streams of consciousness. They sounded more like proper pieces. If you had told me they were written down, I would have believed you. The final two movements were lovely songs—touching. As she bowed to the audience, Ms. Montero was obviously emotional, and I believe the audience was, too.
The second half of the recital began with something dark—a wartime sonata, written in 1943, by Dmitri Shostakovich. This is his Piano Sonata No. 2 in B minor (a key known in music history as a “death” key). It is not played very often, which is strange for a substantial work by a canonical composer. Earlier this season, Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang (the pianist) played Shostakovich’s Violin Sonata—his only one. That is a death-haunted work, written toward the end of the composer’s life. It is not a crowd-pleaser. You almost never hear it in concert. The Piano Sonata No. 2 is not a crowd-pleaser either—but it is Shostakovich, it has a lot to say, and Montero said it well.
“Let’s come out of the darkness,” she said after. It was time for improvisations—rather, more of them. Montero’s tradition is to take requests from the audience. They call out tunes, and she improvises on them. On this evening, we had “Yankee Doodle,” the Star Wars theme, etc. She is a breath of fresh air, Gabriela Montero, and she marches to the beat of her own drum. She also has talent to burn.
In Alice Tully Hall, a concert of the New York Philharmonic began with a piece by Julia Perry, written in the early 1950s and revised thereafter: Study for Orchestra. Perry, an American, lived from 1924 to 1979. “In a more just world,” said the evening’s program notes, “Julia Perry’s name and music would by now be widely known, celebrated for her blending of African American traditions and European classical forms, capped with a touch of mid-twentieth-century influences.” Fair enough. But, you know? In a more just world, the music of a lot of people would be more widely known. I’m trying to remember whether I’ve ever heard a work by Vincent Persichetti in a concert hall. I know I have never heard a symphony of Walter Piston. (He wrote eight of them, and I have a special love for about three of them.) I have heard more Perry, live, than I have Persichetti or Piston.
But, yes—a worthy composer, and the Study for Orchestra represents her well. The Philharmonic, under Jaap van Zweden, gave the piece an admirable reading. Robert Langevin, the principal flute, contributed his fetching, stylish playing. Let us have more Perry, and as many others as can, and should, be unearthed too.
Seong-jin Cho, the young Korean star, was on hand to play Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat, the “Emperor.” I will not go movement by movement on you, much less page by page. But let me remark on the pianist’s opening measures: they were very well calibrated (and such calibration is not guaranteed, in the piano world). They had bravura, but also elegance. They were masculine—virile—but not blunt. Cho handled the rest of the concerto in the same mature, musical way. The “Emperor” combined nobility and poetry. Cho committed some banging in the slow movement. There were a few departures from singing. But this was forgivable, and the closing movement, the rondo, was a magnificent romp. The rondo can be unwieldy, but Cho wielded it, artistically.
On the second half of the program, there was a symphony, as you might guess. It was Shostakovich’s Ninth. He did not want to do a grand, epic Ninth, like some Ninths before him (especially one). So he wrote something like a Classical symphony, a smaller-scaled symphony. It is right up Jaap van Zweden’s alley. The music is angular, jocular, high-spirited, military, sardonic, graceful, smart. It requires absolute precision (or as close to the absolute as possible). Van Zweden was at the top of his game, and so was the orchestra. The woodwinds had a field day, and so did the principal trumpet, Christopher Martin, among others. Van Zweden and the Philharmonic made me appreciate Shostakovich’s Ninth as never before—and I always appreciated it.
The maestro’s tenure as music director of the Philharmonic will end after the 2023–24 season. Some of us have started mourning early.
At the Metropolitan Opera, they revived Madama Butterfly, the Puccini opera, in the 2006 production by Anthony Minghella, the late British director. For a Butterfly, you need, not least, a Butterfly. She was Eleonora Buratto, an Italian soprano, who is a favorite of Riccardo Muti. He was not in the pit. Alexander Soddy, a young Brit, was. Signora Buratto appears to be in her prime. (Shame on me for giving an age, but she’s forty.) In Act I, she was respectable. But, starting with Act II, she came into her own. She was every inch a Butterfly, in “Un bel dì,” “Che tua madre,” and everything else she had to sing. She was a lyric soprano and a dramatic soprano, in combination. Her musical instincts were well-nigh unerring.
Her tenor was Brian Jagde, an American—beautiful voice. In the first act, particularly, that voice seemed contained, closed in, hiding itself from the public. It opened up to a considerable degree later. In the role of Sharpless was David Bižić, a baritone from Serbia (as those diacritics may tell you). Such a beautiful voice. Every time he sang, you sat up a little straighter. Further vocal beauty was supplied by the mezzo singing Suzuki: Elizabeth DeShong, another American. I would have liked to hear the Flower Duet, between Buratto and DeShong, encored.
Every time I hear Madama Butterfly—every five years?—I’m amazed at how well constructed it is. How inspired it is, melodically and otherwise. And how devastating—utterly devastating. Lorin Maazel, the late conductor, told me that, when he was in the pit, he could not look at the stage for the last several minutes of the opera.
Let me end on a footnote. I have something unusual to report. After the curtain closes on an opera, there is some traditional choreography, as cast members and others take their bows. The prima donna goes to one wing or the other to bring the conductor onto the stage. He greets her and congratulates her, often with a kiss on the hand. He acknowledges the orchestra. Then he retreats to the cast line, where everyone is holding hands. He places himself between the leading lady and the leading man, usually.
On this particular night, soprano and conductor barely looked at each other. They certainly didn’t touch each other. When he joined the cast line, she did not offer her hand (and he did not offer his). I had never seen this before, in hundreds of evenings at the opera. Something was up. Ordinarily, as you know, sopranos and conductors are the gentlest and most agreeable of creatures . . .
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 9, on page 52
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