If there are twenty-three string players standing on a stage, the work in question may well be Metamorphosen, a twilight composition of Richard Strauss. And so it was at Weill Recital Hall. Did I say “standing”? Yes, but the cellists and double basses (as I recall) were sitting, which is excusable. Conducting this ensemble was Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who is the music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera, both. These twenty-three players before him were drawn from the Met orchestra.

The women were in splendid gowns. It was good to see the twenty-three, because the Met players are almost always in a pit, out of view, unlike the Fabulous Philadelphians and other members of symphony orchestras.

How did Metamorphosen go? It was okay. It had a thrown-together feeling—a feeling of being read through—but it was perfectly respectable.

On the second half of the program, Nézet-Séguin had four of the players join him for the Brahms Piano Quintet. By process of elimination, you will know that Nézet-Séguin was at the piano. He has played in public before—as when he collaborated with Joyce DiDonato, the great mezzo-soprano, in Winterreise (Schubert) at Carnegie Hall in December 2019. Was he imposing himself then? Using his position as The Maestro to put himself at the piano? Was he imposing himself now, in the Brahms quintet?

Lots of conductors have been pianists, or semi-pianists. Bruno Walter accompanied Kathleen Ferrier in recital. Wilhelm Furtwängler accompanied Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in recital. (At the 1953 Salzburg Festival, they performed an all-Wolf program.) George Szell did a fair amount of piano-playing. He was good. Although I once asked Leon Fleisher, “What did you think of Szell’s playing?” and he answered, “It was wooden.” (A fair, or fair-ish, remark.)

The Met Orchestra Chamber Ensemble and Yannick Nézet-Séguin perform in Weill Recital Hall on March 6, 2023. Photo: © 2023 Chris Lee.

Some conductors were real pianists—concert pianists—before they took up the baton. Christoph Eschenbach and Vladimir Ashkenazy come to mind. There are conductors who could have been pianists—“real pianists,” full-time pianists—if they had chosen. Leonard Bernstein, James Levine.

Mstislav Rostropovich, of course, was a great cellist, who then became a conductor. But do you know that he was an excellent pianist, too? A dizzyingly talented person.

In January 2001, Lorin Maazel marked his seventieth birthday by playing the Brahms violin-and-piano sonatas with Yefim Bronf­man at Carnegie Hall. Maazel had been a hotshot violinist when young. But he had spent his life conducting. Was he imposing himself that evening, playing the violin when some “real violinist” could have been doing so? Was Maazel using, or abusing, his position as The Maestro to put himself forward, thereby taking the bread out of some poor fiddler’s mouth?

I think I thought so at the time. (I hesitate to look up my review.) But I have loosened up since then. There is something nice—and often gratifying—about seeing, hearing, a famed conductor play his instrument. Could Maxim Vengerov, let’s say, have done a better job in the Brahms sonatas? Sure. Could Franz Rupp, or Gerald Moore, have done a better job with Schwarzkopf in that Wolf recital? No doubt. But so what? I bet that the Salzburg audience was tickled to see Furtwängler, that once, in that role.

In the Brahms Piano Quintet, at Weill Recital Hall, Maestro Nézet-Séguin did some slightly amateur playing. He was feeling his way along, in some stretches. His fingers were uncertain (even if his mind was not). One morning, several years ago, I interviewed Christoph Eschenbach. I asked, “Have you done any piano playing lately?” He said he had returned to the keyboard that very morning, after a long layoff. He then said, stretching out his hands, “My fingers felt like sausages.” It could be that, in the Brahms, Nézet-Séguin had some of that feeling.

And yet he also did some professional, ready-for-prime-time playing. Always, he played with abundant musicality and abundant heart. Brahmsian heart. He exuded tremendous energy, just as he can be expected to do on the podium. He was leader-like—more than most pianists are, in such a situation.

Between the first and second movements, he gave one of his players a friendly, reassuring wink. On the whole, this was a warm, happy occasion. I’m glad I have loosened up, a little . . .

Into Weill Recital Hall a few nights later came Samantha Hankey, a mezzo-soprano from Massachusetts. She had a big month in New York: two and a half weeks after the recital, she opened in Der Rosenkavalier at the Met (singing Octavian). The Rosenkavalier was wonderful, but the recital was more special, in a sense. Opera performances are common, thank goodness; song recitals seem to be on the wane. They are to be grabbed at, i.e., attended.

Accompanying Ms. Hankey at Weill was Sophie Raynaud, a French pianist. Their program consisted of composers clustered around the turn of the century—the twentieth. The songs were in German and French. The composers were Schoenberg, Zemlinsky, Mahler (Alma), Berg, and Strauss. That’s on the German side. On the French side were Ravel and Satie.

Above, I described Metamorphosen as a “twilight composition” of Strauss. Well, the twilightest of them all, so to speak, is “Malven,” a song that Strauss composed in November 1948. It lay hidden until 1984, when its discovery made worldwide news. Singing the first performance of “Malven” was Kiri Te Kanawa; I believe I first heard it from the mouth of Jessye Norman, on a recording. In Weill Recital Hall, Samantha Hankey sang it too.

Another of her Strauss songs was “Frühlingsfeier,” which sets a poem by Heine. I mention the song, and the poem, because the English translation in our program booklet was rendered by Emma Lazarus—best known for a poem of her own that appears on the pedestal of a certain statue in New York Harbor.

Samantha Hankey and Sophie Raynaud perform at Weill Recital Hall on March 10, 2023. Photo: Lawrence Sumulong.

About Ms. Hankey’s singing, a few generalities. She has a beautiful voice, rich and lush. It has an impressive lower register—contralto-like. She is an intelligent singer, at home in both of the evening’s languages. (Actually, there would be a third, at encore time.) Hankey clearly takes pleasure in singing, and that pleasure is communicated to an audience. Her Shéhérazade (Ravel) was markedly, and rightly, sensual. Hankey was not averse to a little acting—just a smidge. A Schoenberg song, “Erwartung” (not to be confused with his opera, a monodrama, of the same name), ends, “A woman’s pale hand/ beckons him/ from the red villa/ beside the dead oak.” Here, Hankey gave us a little wave of the hand.

I left the hall a little sad, a little wistful. It had been such a satisfying evening. The hall is a small one, and the recital was lightly attended. The song repertoire is hard to beat: in music, in poetry, in emotions, in ideas. It provides banquets of food for the soul. Does the public want it anymore, even in New York? And if not New York—where?

The last of Hankey’s encores was “Speak Low,” by Weill and Nash (Ogden). It was filling and affecting. In the twentieth century, everyone and his brother sang it, in both the popular and the classical worlds. Who wants it now? Well, Samantha Hankey does, and I do, and I bet you do too—and you will forgive my twilighty mood.

One evening at the New York Philharmonic, there was a single work on the program: Messiaen’s Turangalîla-symphonie. Though the work is not a concerto, there is a piano soloist, and he was, on this evening, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, who has taken this part many, many times in his long career. The conductor? Jaap van Zweden, the Philharmonic’s music director.

David Geffen Hall has not only been renovated, it has been reconfigured. There is now seating behind the stage—more specifically, in a balcony behind the stage. This is a whole different perspective. I sat in this area on this particular night, for the purpose of reporting about the experience to our readers.

The Turangalîla, under Van Zweden, was colorful, disciplined, and sensitive, with zero longueurs.

First, though, the briefest of reviews. The Turangalîla, under Van Zweden, was colorful, disciplined, and sensitive, with zero longueurs. The Dutchman is intolerant of longueurs.

David Geffen is a beautiful hall. This is even more evident in the “back balcony,” as I’ll call it, than it is in the regular seats. Furthermore, it’s interesting to look at the audience. In an interview, Renée Fleming once said to me something like this: “We singers are the only musicians who face the audience. We see who’s sleeping, who’s looking at his phone . . .” Throughout the Messiaen, the David Geffen audience was generally attentive. I found that impressive.

It was St. Patrick’s Day, incidentally, and one man sat in a goofy St. Patrick’s Day hat. (He was in a box, I must add, and his headwear was not blocking anybody.)

As soon as the orchestra starts to play, you realize that the sound is not as good as it is in the regular seats. Why would it be? The sound is muted. Brass and woodwind instruments tend to be pointed out toward the audience. The piano lid, when it is up, is angled to direct the sound to the audience. Sometimes, I saw Thibaudet’s hands move without hearing him. The back rows of the orchestra—brass and percussion—I could not see at all.

Jaap van Zweden conducts the New York Philharmonic, performing Messiaen’s Turangalîla-symphonie with soloist pianist Jean-Yvew Thibaudet and Cyntia Millar on ondes martenot at David Geffen Hall, March 17, 2023. Photo: Chris Lee.

Soon, however, you adjust to your new position. You forget that the sound is muted. And you are simply listening to the orchestra. Let me say that Robert Langevin, the principal flute, has never sounded more French than he did in the Messiaen. And he reliably sounds French.

Now to the main event, if I may: Jaap. From where I sat—smack in the middle of the back balcony—he looked like he was conducting me. As he conducted the orchestra, I had the sensation that I, too, was being conducted. That is an instructive experience, and also a pleasurable one. I recommend it.

Van Zweden is precise, angular, and symmetrical.

Van Zweden is precise, angular, and symmetrical. The two halves of him—physical halves—work together. The Turangalîla-symphonie is full of tricky rhythms, and Van Zweden handled them alertly. Also calmly. About him, there was an air of unmistakability. This is how it goes. This is what I want you to do. I imagine that’s a significant help to an orchestra.

The conductor was expressive, always, but never histrionic. He was animated without being over-peppy. He was both a well-oiled technician and an intelligent, feeling musician. He was, in short, a conductor, a real one.

From what I can tell, Van Zweden has not been particularly well received in New York, certainly in the press. Already, people are looking past him to the next music director, Gustavo Dudamel, about whom there’s a lot of hoopla. I say, enjoy the Dutchman while you can.

Alexandre Tharaud, the French pianist, began a recital in Zankel Hall with Mahler. Mahler? For piano? What Monsieur Tharaud has done is transcribe the Adagietto from Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. The Adagietto is one of the most sublime, ethereal, and transcendent things in all of Mahler. Tharaud’s transcription is of a different character. It is virtuosic, Lisztian—practically a showpiece. I found the work too busy, with its floods of notes. But let me record, and confess, one thing: I’m the rare person who does not like Liszt’s transcription of the Liebestod. And Tharaud’s Adagietto is in that vein, so at least, maybe, I have put him in good company.

Elsewhere on the program, Tharaud played Schubert, Ravel—and a giant of the French Baroque, Rameau. Today, Tharaud is probably the foremost pianistic exponent of Rameau, along with Grigory Sokolov. Tharaud is utterly at home in this music—an aristocrat (but not without flash). I often think that Rameau’s keyboard music is over-ornamented. I long for a plainer line or two. Rameau need not be frilly. But à chacun son goût.

Alexandre Tharaud performs at Zankel Hall on March 26, 2023. Photo: © 2023 Stefan Cohen.

Zankel Hall, as you know, is the basement venue of the building known as Carnegie Hall. The program notes for the Tharaud recital told us something interesting. The first official performance at Carnegie Hall took place in the basement venue—then called, simply, the Recital Hall—on April 1, 1891. On the stage was Franz Rummel, a German pianist who lived from 1853 to 1901. He played a Rameau piece and a Schubert piece that were also on Alexandre Tharaud’s program.

Wikipedia gives us a wonderful tidbit: Herr Rummel married a daughter of Samuel Morse, the inventor of the telegraph.

Felipe Lara is a composer born in 1979. He grew up in São Paulo. Today, he is the chairman of the composition department at the Peabody Institute, in Baltimore. According to program notes from the New York Philharmonic, Lara was turned to composing when he attended a rehearsal of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The work they were rehearsing? The Turangalîla-symphonie. In 2019, Lara composed a double concerto, which was programmed by the New York Phil.

The solo instruments are flute—or a battery of flutes—and double bass. But the double-bass player doubles as a singer, and a maker of other sounds with her voice. The soloists with the Philharmonic were the ones for whom Lara wrote the concerto: Claire Chase, flute (or flutes), and esperanza spalding, double bass (plus voice).

As you can see, the latter performer has gone the way of e. e. cummings and bell hooks.

Chase’s bio says that she is “passionately dedicated to the creation of new ecosystems for the music of our time.” As for spalding, many of us first heard of her in 2009, when she was in her mid-twenties. President Obama had invited her to perform at the White House. Her bio describes her as

a being who has grown to recognize love in the abstract and aspirational, and is now fully dedicated to learning how she can serve and embody actualized love through honor for and receptivity to fellow humans, teachers, and practitioners of various regenerative arts.

Both Chase and spalding are employed by Harvard.

Susanna Mälkki conducts the New York Philharmonic in the New York premiere of Felipe Lara’s Double Concerto with flutist Claire Chase and bassist esperanza spalding and also Stravinsky’s “Petrushka (1947 version)” at David Geffen Hall on March 29, 2023. Photo: Chris Lee.

I will take the opportunity to provide a brief sartorial note: on their evening with the New York Philharmonic, Chase wore shiny gold boots and spalding wore a shirt that said “Life Force.”

And Felipe Lara’s concerto? It is in one movement, and it bears many of the hallmarks of music today. There are spooky forest sounds—snaps and rattles. There is much percussion. Evidently, the soloists are asked to do some riffing, in addition to following written notes. I thought the piece was most appealing when it was at its jazziest. The soloists were amplified, and I believe over-amplified. In stretches, my ears hurt, as at a pop or rock concert. Some people find this pleasurable, I think.

On his way out for intermission, a man said to his wife, “Wow-ee!” From his tone, you could not quite tell whether he was approving. Possibly, he was bemused. Speaking for myself, I found the concerto overlong and somewhat tedious, but then, I have made that statement about countless pieces. I have no doubt—none—about the talent and sincerity of all those involved: composer, soloists, and conductor.

Conductor? She was Susanna Mälkki, the Finn. She and the Philharmonic opened the concert with Ives’s Unanswered Question. You want this piece to have beauty, balance, and a certain inevitability. It did. A stunning six minutes or so, this odd composition.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 9, on page 51
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