If the musicians come out in white jackets, it must be summertime. And so it was. The Miró Quartet played a concert in Alice Tully Hall, under the auspices of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. The Miró began at Oberlin College—that Midwestern center of music education—in 1995. The quartet is now in residence at the University of Texas, Austin. It is one of the many string quartets named after an artist. Others are the Michelangelo, the Calder, and the Modigliani. There is a famous quartet named after a writer: the Emerson String Quartet, which is now wrapping up its career, a career that began in 1976.

At Alice Tully Hall, the Miró Quartet opened with Mozart: his String Quartet in C, K. 465, nicknamed “Dissonance.” Mozart indeed plays with dissonance in the introductory pages of this work. Composers had long played with dissonance—prominent among them Bach. It was only in the twentieth century that dissonance became the main course, if you will, rather than a side dish, or ingredient. After Schoenberg, everyone felt “air from another planet,” or felt he had to feel it, in order to keep up.

The Miró Quartet. Photo: Naoya Ikegami.

This quartet by Mozart has many marvelous ingredients: humor, storm, sweetness. From performers, each part ought to be clear yet integrated. Sound should be meaty and transparent (which is a little like asking a person to be fat and thin). The music should be tasteful but not dull (which would be in bad taste).

It is often said that Mozart is the ultimate test of singing: if a singer can sing Mozart, he can sing anything. The same might be said of string playing. And of playing in general. (Even of conducting.) Mozart is what separates the men from the boys. In any event, the Miró satisfied on all fronts. The first violinist, Daniel Ching, was at times soloistic, and properly so.

For the next work, the quartet needed a ringer—a guitarist. That work was Boccherini’s Quintet No. 4 in D, nicknamed “Fandango.” This Spanish dance appears at the end of the work. Castanets are required. From Kathryn Bacasmot’s excellent program notes, I learned something interesting: Boccherini, in the 1750s, was “encouraged in his musical development” by Giacomo Puccini, in Lucca. But hang on: Puccini was born in the 1850s. Yes, but Boccherini’s encourager was not the composer of La bohème; he was that composer’s great-great-grandfather.

The Miró’s ringer—its guitarist—was Jason Vieaux, an American who has taught at the Cleveland Institute of Music for almost thirty years, and who, in 2011, co-founded the guitar department at the Curtis Institute, in Philadelphia. Guitar education owes a considerable amount to this man. He is a very fine player. He “got rhythm.” He bites his lip and jams a bit, like a rocker. Technical challenges don’t seem to faze him.

For the Boccherini quintet, the Miró players went almost Baroque, producing a sparer sound than in the Mozart. Amid these players, Vieaux sounded almost rich. The cellist, Joshua Gindele, displayed various gifts, sliding and shivering on his instrument. In the fandango, he was on castanet duty. The entire work was brought off with style.

Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895–1968) wrote many, many a guitar work. He wrote them for Segovia. Segovia did roughly for the guitar literature what Rostropovich did for the cello literature. With Jason Vieaux, the Miró Quartet played Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Quintet in F major, Op. 143. Its markings are interesting. The first movement should be vivo e schiettoschietto meaning “frank.” The second movement is “Andante mesto”—a sad andante. Yet, to my sense, this music expresses a sweet melancholy, more than an outright sadness. The work as a whole is beautiful, intelligent, serene, and classically Italian. It does not try to be more than it is. There is no forced profundity. The music flows naturally. And the Miró did it justice.

The Miró Quartet. Photo: Naoya Ikegami.

I have mentioned the program notes of Kathryn Bacasmot. In our program, there was also a note from one of the violinists, William Fedkenheuer. I would like to quote it at length, and then expand on it.

From the folk music idioms hidden within Mozart’s “Dissonance” Quartet to the Spanish influence in the Castelnuovo-Tedesco and the outwardly bold Boccherini Quintet finishing with the “Fandango” movement—what an adventure! Boccherini throws in the sistrum (an ancient Egyptian musical instrument) and the castanets to keep us all on our toes. Having grown up in Calgary, Alberta, Canada—a region filled with cowboys and fiddle music, similar to my home state of Texas these days—I am thrilled to hear the rhythms and flirtatious themes that I experienced in country-western music showing up in the classical music to which I have dedicated my life. While our world can be so separate and divided, how rich and diverse is classical music as it weaves us through time, cultures, and a global landscape, bringing us all together on a grand tour of the world.

That is very well said. In recent years, there has been controversy over “cultural appropriation.” Tchaikovsky has been judged guilty for the Arabian and Chinese dances he wrote for The Nutcracker. Puccini—the latter-day one—has been judged guilty for Japanese touches in Madama Butterfly, and Chinese touches in Turandot. (There are also French touches in La bohème, and American touches in La fanciulla del West.) Bach himself was a great borrower, or appropriator, or musical explorer. In his suites, there are dances from all over, including jigs from Scotland and Ireland.

When you think about it, what is culture without “appropriating”? Without borrowings and leavenings and influences? Art is meant to cross borders. An insistence that art be confined within borders, or tribes, is anti-artistic, and I would say anti-humane.

In late July—not long after the Miró Quartet concert—Michael Dirda, the literary critic, had this to say in The Washington Post, where he works:

[T]he evolution of literature and the other arts, their constant renewal over the centuries, has always been fueled by what is now censoriously labeled “cultural appropriation” but which is more properly described as “influence,” “inspiration” or “homage.” Poets, painters, novelists and other artists all borrow, distort and transform. That’s their job; that’s what they do.

That’s what they do. And may it ever be so.

A music-lover may hear The Firebird twenty, thirty times in his life—and never see the ballet. Same with another Stravinsky ballet, The Rite of Spring. There are musicians and music-lovers who know every note of those ballets—and not a single step. In fact, they may forget that those works are ballets. Scores to be danced to.

I will confess to you that I have never seen Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt—probably never will. But I have known Grieg’s incidental music to that play since boyhood. Who among us has seen Goethe’s play Egmont? Or The Ruins of Athens, by August von Kotzebue? But musical people know Beethoven’s Egmont Overture and his “Turkish March,” from The Ruins of Athens.

Conductors have often been at odds with dancers. Which has primacy? The music or the dancing? Sir Thomas Beecham, having chosen a particularly quick tempo in Coppélia, laid down his baton and remarked to his musicians, “Made the buggers hop.” A contemporary conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, told me in an interview that he was fired from a ballet job, early in his career. He wanted to conduct with a certain musical freedom, and the ballet company demanded something stricter, or more predictable, understandably.

I think back to the 2003–04 season in New York. In the opening weeks, Lorin Maazel conducted The Rite of Spring with the New York Philharmonic, and Valery Gergiev conducted it at the Metropolitan Opera—with dancers. Gergiev was conducting a Stravinsky triple bill, which began with the ballet, continued with a short opera, Le rossignol, and ended with an opera-oratorio, Œdipus rex. Maazel conducted the more interesting and satisfying performance, from a musical point of view. But I should not compare apples and oranges: Gergiev had to work with the dancers.

Go back to an even earlier season—1997–98, this time in Washington, D.C. The aforementioned Rostropovich conducted the National Symphony Orchestra in Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, with dancers. I’m sure I went for Rostropovich and the Prokofiev. Although I knew the score pretty well, I had never seen the ballet before. The orchestra was on the stage (not in a pit). Members of the orchestra had their backs to the audience. Rostropovich was at the back of the stage, facing the orchestra, and the audience. The dancers were at the front of the stage and also at the back, on an elevated platform. This was an unusual configuration. But the musical experience, the balletic experience? The artistic experience? Overwhelming. I could scarcely imagine a better fusion of music and dance, or music and anything.

Googling to ascertain the date of the performance—or its season—I happened upon a review in The Washington Post by Tim Page. This is interesting to read:

There were times when I found the dancers, lithe and liquid though they were, something of a distraction, particularly when the sound of their leaps and falls blunted the orchestral playing. But there were other times when they enhanced the evening and one scene—the death of Tybalt at the end of Act II—when the choreography added genuine theatrical power.

Ballet people would be aghast, no doubt. The dancing is not supposed to enhance the evening; it is the evening. But Mr. Page wrote from the point of view of a musical person, and I understand him.

Every season, I believe, the American Ballet Theatre stages Romeo and Juliet, and also Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. No doubt these ballets put fannies in the seats. But they are also masterpieces. Sometimes, the public is right. Age cannot wither these ballets, nor custom stale their infinite variety. (Those words just occurred to me.) The team for the Romeo and Juliet production passed from the scene many years ago: Sir Kenneth MacMillan (choreography), Nicholas Georgiadis (scenery and costumes), and Thomas Skelton (lighting). No matter. Their production is fresh as a daisy, un-staling indeed.

Catherine Hurlin in Romeo and Juliet. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor.

On a Wednesday afternoon, the orchestra started lamentably. Wrong notes abounded. “Good enough for government work,” goes an old expression. Was this playing good enough for ballet work? No. But the playing improved, in the second and third acts. And Prokofiev wove his magic. If there is a better example of storytelling in music than his Romeo and Juliet, I don’t know it. (I would also nominate two operatic scores, as storytellers: Verdi’s Falstaff and Strauss’s Rosenkavalier.)

Romeo and Juliet were danced by Calvin Royal III and Catherine Hurlin. Their backgrounds are different: he is a black Floridian who did not begin ballet until age fourteen—which is practically fifty, in ballet years; she is a New Yorker, essentially, who did ballet from the cradle. But an impressive pair they made. After a while, I forgot them as individual dancers and thought of them as Romeo and Juliet. I could get specific. But I should leave ballet criticism to the pros.

I sometimes say of an opera production, “It looks like the opera.” In other words, it looks like the score, the libretto, and the story. That is high praise. In a similar vein, I will say that the dancing on this Wednesday afternoon looked like the score, and the score sounded like the dancing.

Scene from Romeo and Juliet. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor.

Above, I quoted an old expression, and here is another one: “Ask me no questions, and I’ll tell you no lies.” Please don’t ask me whether my face was wet as I watched the ballet (and not merely during its dénouement in the crypt). This fusion of music and dance is, as I’ve said, overwhelming.

Obviously, there is no “greatest work of art.” One could serve up candidates, however. Paul Johnson said that Hamlet was the greatest. That is as good a nomination as any. But, more than once, I’ve left the theater after Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet thinking, “That’s the gwoa” (the greatest work of art). “I’ve just seen it, and heard it.”

In November 2006, I went to Carnegie Hall to hear a curiosity: Dom Sébastien, the last opera of Donizetti (who wrote almost seventy of them). It was being performed in concert by oony, which is to say, the Opera Orchestra of New York. Dom Sébastien is well outside the standard repertory. I figured it must be . . . inferior Donizetti. It is not, I assure you. Why it gathers dust, I have no idea.

This summer, Teatro Nuovo presented another Donizetti opera, Poliuto, in a semi-staged performance. The venue was the Rose Theater, part of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Poliuto is not unknown, exactly. It was a vehicle for Maria Callas and Franco Corelli, way back. But today it is known mainly by specialists, and Will Crutchfield, who heads Teatro Nuovo, is definitely that.

Let me pause to mention that I really should not have put Callas’s name before Corelli’s. He sang the title role. But it seems unnatural not to lead with Callas (as I think she would agree).

Chelsea Lehnea and Santiago Ballerini in Act II of Poliuto. Photo: Stephen Pisano.

“Poliuto” is the Italian name of the saint whom we know in English as “Polyeuktos.” He was a Roman officer and Christian martyr in third-century Armenia. Corneille wrote a play about him: Polyeucte. On this play did Donizetti base his opera. Gounod did the same, twenty-five years later. Fifteen years after that, Dukas wrote a Polyeucte overture.

I can’t say that Poliuto is cruelly and incomprehensibly neglected. I can say that I am glad to have heard it. Singing the title role was Santiago Ballerini, a tenor from Buenos Aires; singing the role of Paolina—the Callas role—was Chelsea Lehnea, a soprano from Chattanooga. Each singer exhibited talent, competence, and commitment. So did Jakob Lehmann, leading the opera from the pit, often with a violin in hand.

Chelsea Lehnea and Santiago Ballerini in Act III of Poliuto. Photo: Stephen Pisano.

In this same week, the Chamber Music Society staged a concert with Juho Pohjonen at its center. He is a Finnish pianist. Are Finns allowed to be anything but conductors? A few are. Pohjonen played in a Haydn trio, a Mozart concerto (the Piano Concerto No. 12 in A, K. 414), and Fauré’s C-minor piano quartet.

But wait a minute: did an orchestra appear for the concerto? No, this was the version of K. 414 for piano and string quartet. I associate this work, this version, with Alicia de Larrocha, the late, great Spaniard. She bade farewell to Carnegie Hall in it. She played with the Tokyo String Quartet in November 2002.

Pohjonen is a good, honest pianist, which may sound like faint praise but is far from it. Good, honest pianists are thin on the ground. Pohjonen reminds me of, among others, Ivan Moravec and Murray Perahia. He is balanced, sensible, and without falsity. He is also versatile, as he proved in jumping from Haydn and Mozart to Fauré.

There is less music in the summer than there used to be in New York. (There is less music in the regular season too.) This makes what music there is, all the more gratifying.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 42 Number 1, on page 57
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