Last spring, I traveled to Chicago to record a podcast with Riccardo Muti, the music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He was concluding his tenure in Chicago (which began in 2010). Today, his title with the cso is “music director emeritus for life.”
We met in his studio at Orchestra Hall, right after a concert he had conducted. Before we sat down to talk, he gave me a tour of the studio: its walls, with its photos and other memorabilia. There were his cherished teachers: Nino Rota and Antonino Votto. There was Arturo Toscanini, the very model of an Italian conductor.
There was also a picture of a castle: Castel del Monte, in Apulia, built by King Frederick II in the 1240s. Seven hundred years later, Riccardo Muti was taken to see it. He was five or six years old. It is pretty much his first memory: the sight of this castle, strange and breathtaking. One of the things that make the castle unusual is its shape, which is octagonal.
Over the years, Muti hatched a plan: one day, he would buy a piece of land near the castle, so that he could sit in his retirement and gaze upon it. That is exactly what he has done.
In February 2022, Muti conducted the cso in the Symphony No. 11 of Philip Glass. He gave the composer the same tour he would give me the following year: the tour of his studio’s walls. Evidently, Glass was taken with the castle, and he soon conceived a piece—to be titled The Triumph of the Octagon.
Muti and the cso premiered this piece in Chicago, at the beginning of the current season. Days later, they brought it to Carnegie Hall. The composer was present in the hall for the occasion. Born in 1937, he is now a senior statesman of music. Only yesterday, he was a hotshot. He still is, in a way.
The Triumph of the Octagon is Glassian, in a word. As a piece by Philip Glass should be. It is well constructed. Lulling, pleasant, involving. It is apt to take a listener out of his current thought. One question I often ask about minimalism is, “Does the drug take?
Is the spell cast?” In The Triumph of the Octagon, the answer is yes, I believe.
The word “triumph” in the title is interesting. I might have thought “mystery” or “allure.” But Glass builds his piece into triumph—an understated triumph, however. His piece is largely intimate and undemonstrative. It is modest in a positive sense. Also—this is crucial—it is a right length, not overstaying its welcome.
When I listened to this piece, did I think of the Castel del Monte, or a castle in general? Of course—I had been steered that way. I knew the “backstory.” But what if you did not know the backstory or any story at all? Can a piece of music without words be “about” anything?
In a composer’s note, Glass observes that “while I have written music about people, places, events, and cultures, I cannot recall ever composing a piece about a building.” There’s that word, “about”—a controversial word, a fighting word. But Glass goes on to say the following: “What became clear was that I was not writing a piece about Castel del Monte per se, but rather about one’s imagination when we consider such a place.”
The night after the Chicago Symphony Orchestra played in Carnegie Hall, the New York Philharmonic played a concert that featured a new work—by Steve Reich. That was a remarkable coincidence. Glass and Reich are America’s lions of minimalism. They were born a few months apart. And, in their mid-eighties, they are still at their desks, or their computers, or whatever they use.
(I recently had a talk with Thea Musgrave, the Scottish American composer, who is ninety-five. She thinks she may be the only composer still working with old-fashioned pen, or pencil, and paper.)
Reich’s new piece is Jacob’s Ladder. He has long written religious pieces, or, perhaps better to say, pieces inspired by the Bible. There is Tehillim from 1981. During the pandemic, he wrote Traveler’s Prayer, which premiered in 2021. It sets passages from Genesis, Exodus, and Psalms. Jacob’s Ladder is—self-explanatory. It sets Genesis 28:12, which in Reich’s own translation goes,
And he dreamed,
and behold a ladder set up on the Earth,
and its top reached heaven,
and behold messengers of G-d ascending and descending on it.
That is one thing composers do: ascend and descend, with notes. Reich’s piece is for chamber orchestra plus four voices (two sopranos, two tenors). As The Triumph of the Octagon is Glassian, Jacob’s Ladder is Reichian. The motor is running—Reich’s pulse. Instruments interact jauntily. Much of the piece is beautiful and life-affirming. I can’t say that my mind didn’t wander, but I am happy to be faulted, rather than the composer.
Our age in composition is an age of anxiety. Music is worried, glum, horrified, horrifying. I have often thought that people are afraid to express happiness in music, for fear that critics and colleagues will judge such music trite or unserious. Even offensive. Steve Reich, however, is not afraid to write happy music. I think of his You Are (Variations), from 2004. That music is an upper, when you need it (and who doesn’t?).
Reich was present at Lincoln Center, in David Geffen Hall, for his Jacob’s Ladder. He was wearing his trademark ballcap. Reich and Glass have been present all of our lives, really—mainstays of our classical-music scene. It is reassuring, I feel, that they are still themselves. Their gifted and productive selves.
Raminta Šerkšnytė is a composer in her late forties. A week after Reich, she was in David Geffen Hall, to hear a piece of hers: De profundis, from 1998. What is it? A study? A tone poem? It is a piece for orchestra, whatever label one would care to apply. The title of the piece comes from the Bible—from Psalm 130: “Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, o Lord.”
Commenting on the piece, Šerkšnytė says, “This dramatic music, full of contrasts, reflects a certain worldview of a young person.” When you are young, she says, “life is perceived in an extreme, ‘severe’ way, where euphoria quickly changes to disappointment.” You could indeed cry from the depths.
De profundis is the first orchestral work that Šerkšnytė ever wrote. It was her graduation piece, from the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theater. Šerkšnytė was in her early twenties. It remains the work for which she is best known. It is her calling card. Gidon Kremer, the Latvian violinist, has gone so far as to say that it is “the calling card of Baltic music.”
What is the most successful graduation piece in history? The nomination that leaps to mind is Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 1, penned in the mid-Twenties, when the composer was nineteen.
De profundis is a very good work, utterly mature. It is transparent and incisive. It reflects a variety of moods, in that young person’s way (or any person’s way?). I will count a few of the moods: storminess, tranquility, bemusement, piquancy. There is often a measured churning. Also, the composer likes to play with thirds and other intervals, rocking back and forth. Her rests are meaningful. The piece ends, not with a bang or a show, but in a discreet, graceful, ambiguous way.
The main thing to say about De profundis is this: it is ever interesting, I think. And it is complete, hanging together. Scarcely a note is wasted. On the podium for the New York Philharmonic was Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, the composer’s fellow Lithuanian. Maestra Gražinytė-Tyla was born in 1986, about a decade after the composer.
To say it again, De profundis is Raminta Šerkšnytė’s most performed piece—which makes me slightly sad. What if, in a long life of composing, she is still best known for her graduation piece? There are worse fates, of course—many and much.
I didn’t recognize her,” said a man at intermission. “I’m used to seeing her in pants roles.” He was talking about Kate Lindsey, the American mezzo-soprano, who had come to the Park Avenue Armory—its Board of Officers Room—to sing a recital. I, too, had never seen or heard Lindsey in recital. In a slew of opera roles (pants or otherwise), yes. But in a recital, no. What a superb recitalist she is.
The first half of her program was German; the second was French, with a dose of English—nay, American—at the end. Lindsey was partnered by the pianist Justina Lee.
The recital opened with Schumann’s cycle Frauenliebe und -leben. Lindsey sang it with understanding and sensuality—with intense realism. You and I could pick at some interpretive choices. I thought the rubato in “Er, der Herrlichste von allen” was foolish, depriving the song of its momentum. But Lindsey sang so well—with such sovereignty—she was entitled to her choices.
Her voice was wondrous—and, in the Board of Officers Room, you were very close to it (or to its source, namely the singer’s mouth). It was dark, lush, warm, enveloping. Her breathing was exemplary. And she relishes the German language. (“Enjoy those consonants, those juicy consonants,” I once heard Leontyne Price say in a master class.)
The second half of the recital began with a cycle by Fauré: La chanson d’Ève. Before she sang, Lindsey said, “I would like to dare to speak.” “Dare”? If she had not spoken, she would have been the only one in America to refrain. Speaking from the stage is de rigueur now. Lindsey said (I paraphrase), “I thought you might be wondering how I put this program together.” Bad old me, sitting in his chair, thought, “No, no, no! Not a single person in this room is wondering that, I guarantee you!” Anyway, Lindsey gave a little speech—and then she sang the Fauré.
She sang it in fine French fashion—cool and hot. Some of her straight tones made my ears tingle (literally). She was clean, correct, tasteful—but plenty sensual, as in the Schumann. Also, I heard a dog not barking: the absence of poor intonation. Lindsey showed a gift for being in the center.
I have met a number of opera singers, or classical singers, who are, at heart, Broadway girls. Kate Lindsey closed her printed program with three songs of Stephen Sondheim. She sang them with unmistakable affinity.
Her one encore was “Morgen!” (Strauss). As the pianist, Ms. Lee, was playing the (long) introduction, I was not looking forward to the song. Why? It’s a great song, right? But singers—especially when they use it as an encore—often draw it out, making it a woozy, formless, precious thing. Lindsey avoided this error. She sang “Morgen!” with keen musicality and vocal control.
I have nothing against opera, trust me. But I wish Kate Lindsey, and others, could sing recitals regularly. I wish that the market could bear it.
A concert by the San Diego Symphony, in Carnegie Hall, began with a new work by Carlos Simon, an American born in 1986. The work is styled Wake Up: A Concerto for Orchestra. “My goal in writing this work,” the composer has commented, “was not only to wake a sleeping hall with the sound of an orchestra, but to leave those who hear the piece with the question: Am I asleep?” There is a social purpose behind the music.
I think of the late Frederic Rzewski (whose pieces almost always have a social, or political, purpose behind them). The last of the eight pieces in his Dreams, for piano, is “Wake Up,” which takes off from the song of the same title by Woody Guthrie.
Simon’s concerto is earnest and varied. Though in one movement, it has distinct sections: propulsive, lyrical, etc. Many of the hallmarks of contemporary composition are on display. There is lots of percussion. There is anxiety (an “age of anxiety,” remember). There are tinklies, rattles, barbaric yawps, Munchian screams. There is busyness.
For me, the concerto went on far too long. I’m afraid the composer lost me, woken up as I was supposed to be. It is clear, however, that he has something to say, and a lively mind is not to be disdained.
Elena Firsova, too, has a lively mind, with something to say. She was born in the Soviet Union in 1950. When she was in her late twenties, she was blacklisted by the composers’ union (a badge of honor, surely). Since 1991, she has lived in Britain. Three years ago, she composed a piano concerto, dedicated to Yefim Bronfman. He premiered it with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in 2022. More recently, he played it with the New York Philharmonic.
The concerto is in three movements, in an unusual order: not fast–slow–fast but Andante, Allegro, Andante. The piece has the hallmarks I mentioned above, writing about Carlos Simon’s concerto. I might add to the list: swarming insects, angry birds, sound clusters, extremes (including delicate ripples and savage outbursts). At different junctures, there is a questioning quality. Firsova plays with Beethoven’s famous query “Muss es sein?” (Must it be?).
I have a feeling that this new concerto is deeply meaningful to the composer. I imagine it would become more meaningful to me, with further listenings. The piece gets quite simple at the end, almost childlike. There is a tick-tock, tick-tock, from the percussion. A meditation on time, apparently.
Maybe I could supply a footnote: Mr. Bronfman used sheet music—proper sheet music, not a computer tablet. He had pages spread out on the rack. When one of them was in danger of falling, the concertmaster, Sheryl Staples, thrust out her bow, holding the page in place. A concertmaster must be alert to many things.
There are people alive today who heard the Million Dollar Trio. That was the trio of Artur Rubinstein, piano; Jascha Heifetz, violin; and Gregor Piatigorsky, cello. (Heifetz would want his name to go first, but that’s another story.) The original cellist in this trio was Emanuel Feuermann, but he died in 1942, at age thirty-nine. Carnegie Hall just hosted a trio that is a million-dollar trio itself—though the relevant figure today must be ten million or so.
At the piano was Jean-Yves Thibaudet; the violinist was Lisa Batiashvili; the cellist, Gautier Capuçon. We are talking about two Frenchmen and a Georgian. Their program was nicely, appetizingly varied: a Haydn trio (the one in E major, Hob. XV:28); the Ravel trio; and Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 2 in C minor. I could give you a measure by measure—or at least a movement by movement—description. But suffice it to say that the Haydn was Haydnesque, the Ravel Ravelian, and the Mendelssohn Mendelssohnian. “But that’s the way it ought to be,” you might argue. Sure. But such a standard is very hard, very high. Our three musicians slipped into the skins of all three composers, all three pieces. You would expect Thibaudet to be superb in the Ravel. (He is one of the best Ravel pianists of all time.) But he was equally good—swear—in the Haydn and Mendelssohn.
Throughout the evening, Thibaudet would often look at his partners between movements as if to say, “That was good.” D’accord, Jean-Yves.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 42 Number 4, on page 55
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