Archive for the ‘Why I Left Muncie’ Category

Bye-Bye, Spring for Music

Friday, May 23rd, 2014

By Sedgwick Clark

The critics’ darling series “Spring for Music” had four good years of thoughtful, sometimes innovative programs played by first-rate American orchestras from the provinces for a mere $25 a ticket in Carnegie Hall, no less. But none of our country’s billionaires or blue-chip companies was willing to chip in a couple mils for another season.

“This began as a three-year experiment which stretched into four fully funded years,” explained publicist Mary Lou Falcone, one of the series founders, along with David Foster, president of Opus 3 management, who had the original idea, and Tom Morris, artistic director of the Ojai Festival and consultant to various orchestras. “The challenge was sustainability and the need ultimately for an umbrella organization to shepherd this forward. We looked, we explored, and the right organization did not surface. The fact of life is that each organization has its priorities, driven by its own original ideas.”

In the 1970s and early ’80s unpopular oil and tobacco companies supported the non-profit arts to curry favor with the presupposed politically-liberal arts audience. Then they changed their minds. Greed became good, and now the big bucks are earmarked for company shareholders and politicians. What’s to say?

Seattle Symphony/Ludovic Morlot

I already weighed in on Christopher Rouse’s Requiem, with the New York Philharmonic under Alan Gilbert (5/5), two weeks ago. The second SfM orchestra was the Seattle Symphony, conducted by Ludovic Morlot in his third season as music director (5/6). The concert began with a programming coup: the New York premiere of John Luther Adams’s Become Ocean, which had won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for music only a month before. Forty-two minutes of undulation proved to be one of the audience hits of the four out of six SfM concerts I heard this season. In his excellent notes, Paul Schiavo quotes the Pulitzer committee’s citation, which calls it “a haunting orchestral work that suggests a relentless tidal surge, evoking thoughts of melting polar ice and rising sea levels.” Okay; a bit fanciful, perhaps, but okay. I found wisps of Debussy’s La Mer and Ligeti’s Atmosphères inescapable.

Adams’s briny minimalism was paired well with Varèse’s Déserts (without the electronic music interludes) and La Mer. Those who recall Pierre Boulez’s performances when he was the New York Philharmonic’s music director, however, may have found comparisons wanting. I thought Seattle’s Varèse was pretty tepid, especially the timpani, and the La Mer and Fêtes (encore) soggy.

Meanwhile, the Seattle Symphony has released the first three CDs of its own recording label, all conducted by music director Ludovic Morlot and recorded live in concert at Benaroya Hall: an all-Dutilleux CD of Symphony No. 1, Tout un monde lointain, and The Shadows of time. A second CD of three works by Ravel and Saint-Saën’s Organ Symphony. And a third CD of Ives’s Symphony No. 2, Carter’s Instances, and Gershwin’s An American in Paris.

Rochester Philharmonic/Michael Christie

Did I really need to hear a concert performance of Howard Hanson’s sole opera, Merry Mount, I wondered? Not long into the piece I thought, “My god, this is gorgeous!” And by the end I was ready to organize a Hanson revival.

Of all the major American composers of the last century, Hanson (1896-1981) seems the most forgotten. Born of Swedish émigrés, his music was resolutely tonal in a century of dissonance. He was dubbed “the American Sibelius.” In 1924, still in his twenties, he was named director of the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. He stayed for 40 years, during which there came to be known the “Eastman Sound,” which in reality was the “Hanson Sound.” In 1925, he established an annual festival devoted to American classical music. During the 1950s and early ’60s, he recorded many of those works—his and others’—for Mercury Living Presence. His most enduring work is his Symphony No. 2 (“Romantic”), commissioned in 1930 by Serge Koussevitzky for the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony. Hanson recorded the “Romantic” three times commercially—for RCA, Columbia, and Mercury—and the New York Philharmonic released a 1946 composer-conducted live broadcast in a ten-CD set of American music.

Given their close proximity of creation, there’s a lot of the “Romantic” in Merry Mount, especially in the last scene of Act II and Act III. Hanson’s depiction of Indians may be more Polovtsian than 17th-century New England, but it’s so good natured that only the terminally politically correct will blanch. Sure, it’s dated and naïve, but none of today’s neo-Romantics would—or could—wallow in such luscious harmonies and melodic beauty. The real problem with Merry Mount is that its protagonist, the Puritan preacher Wrestling Bradford, is such a cad. The fact that Lucifer is always just around the corner doesn’t make him any more appealing. The work was commissioned and staged by the Metropolitan Opera in 1934. It received nine performances, one of which still holds the Met record of 50 curtain calls, but critics were lukewarm, and it was never revived by the company. Kathryn Judd’s notes set the scene: “Full of Puritanical hellfire and brimstone, the quintessentially American story centers on the conflict between religious fanatics and hedonistic, free-thinking cavaliers, exploring the age-old dichotomies between piety and desire, restraint and excess—and exposing the dire consequences of repression.”

The large cast sang well, for the most part, but the real stars of this concert were the Rochester Philharmonic, which not surprisingly played Hanson to the manner born, and conductor Michael Christie. His brief stint as music director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic some time ago was not encouraging, but his conducting on this evening revealed total emotional conviction, natural long-line phrasing, and mastery of orchestral color. Rochester may have found its new music director.

A resounding “yes” to a Hanson revival!

Cincinnati Symphony and May Festival Chorus/James Conlon

We may smile at Merry Mount’s evocations of kinky reborn Southern televangelists, but R. Nathaniel Dett’s The Ordering of Moses is no laughing matter. It is difficult to imagine a more persuasive performance of Moses than that of the Cincinnati Symphony and May Festival Chorus under the committed leadership of James Conlon, music director of Cincinnati’s 141-year-old May Festival since 1979, on May 9th.

Conlon and the fine Festival Chorus, directed by Robert Porco, who celebrates his 25th year in that position, were joined by four extraordinary vocal soloists who sang their dramatic hearts out, full throttle: soprano Latonia Moore (Miriam), mezzo Ronnita Nicole Miller (The Voice of Israel), tenor Rodrick Dixon (Moses), and baritone Donnie Ray Albert (The Voice of God and The Word).

All I had heard previously of  Dett’s music was Percy Grainger’s ancient recording of the catchy little Juba: Dance. Young Nathaniel (1882-1943) began formal lessons early and in 1908 graduated in piano and composition studies from Oberlin College. He had a distinguished career as a teacher and choral director, pursuing further studies at many universities during summers. In 1932 he earned his master’s degree from Eastman; his graduation thesis was the composition of The Ordering of Moses. He also studied in France with Nadia Boulanger and at Harvard. His style combined the music of the European Romantics, such as Dvořák, with that of the American spiritual.

The Ordering of Moses received its premiere at the 1937 Cincinnati May Festival. Eugene Goossens conducted a chorus of 350 and a quartet of noted oratorio and operatic singers. It was, writes Richard E. Rodda in his program note, Dett’s “most ambitious creative effort,  . . . formed around iconic episodes of the biblical Exodus—the lament of the Israelites held captive in Egypt, the divine calling (“ordering”) of Moses, the parting of the Red Sea and the pursuit by the Egyptians, and the rejoicing of the freed Israelites—with a text he drew from the books of Exodus and Lamentations and the words of traditional spirituals, most notably “Go Down, Moses,” whose melody recurs as a motto throughout the work. . . . The event was Dett’s greatest triumph.”

The 1937 performance was broadcast live nationwide on NBC radio, but under controversial circumstances: About three-quarters into the work, the music was interrupted by the announcer, saying, “We are sorry indeed, ladies and gentlemen, but due to previous commitments, we are unable to remain for the closing moments of this excellent performance.” The reason for the interruption remains a mystery, but conjecture has it that the network response was due to callers objecting to the broadcast of a work by a black composer—and the heresy, I would guess, of a work that combined European classical music with spirituals.

The original acetates of the broadcast still exist, and Conlon chose to have that 1937 introduction precede his performance. Moreover, at exactly the moment the music was cut off, the broadcast announcement was inserted. Some audience members in post-concert conversation objected, but I felt it added to the historical nature of the work’s genesis and self-evident triumph 77 years later.

There was no question about the Spring for Music performance. A large, diversified audience roared its approval at the work’s conclusion and simply wouldn’t leave. After several curtain calls, Conlon turned to the cheering crowd and said that it’s a tradition for the orchestra, chorus, and audience to sing Handel’s “Hallelujah” Chorus at the close of each May Festival. He launched into the music, and I daresay there were few dry eyes in Carnegie Hall.

The concert began with an expert performance of John Adams’s half-hour Harmonium, on texts by John Donne and Emily Dickinson. It’s an attractive work, and on another occasion it would certainly not be so overwhelmed by the rest of the program.

For the Spring for Music Record

I missed two of this year’s Spring for Music concerts. The first, on May 8th, by the Winnipeg Symphony under Music Director Alexander Mickelthwate, was a program of music by Canadian composers R. Murray Schafer, Derek Charke, and Vincent Ho. The second, on May 10th, by the Pittsburgh Symphony under Music Director Manfred Honeck, was a program of music by Bruckner, Poulenc, James MacMillan, and a presentation of Mozart’s Requiem, billed as “Mozart’s Death in Words and Music.”

(Relatively) Short Takes

Thursday, May 15th, 2014

By Sedgwick Clark

New York Philharmonic/Christoph von Dohnányi; Paul Lewis, piano, April 10—If you like your Brahms Germanic, the British pianist Paul Lewis is not your cup of schlag. He has been praised for his Schubert and Beethoven performances in small venues hereabouts and on Harmonia Mundi recordings, but this was his first appearance with the Philharmonic in the 2700-seat Avery Fisher Hall. Moments after his first entry in Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1, PK wrote a demanding note of frustration to me: “Why am I here??? This is precious and stultifying—his playing is twee.”

I know what she was talking about, but I found Lewis’s shaping of notes perceptive and musical (her favorite descriptive word when she likes an artist), and he really tried for a massive sound in all the big moments, even if his tone lacked the weight PK desired. The Philharmonic’s playing was surprisingly scrappy. An impeccably played, comfortably paced, unfussy Schumann Second Symphony after intermission left no doubt where Dohnányi spent his rehearsal time.

Richard Goode, piano, May 1—This was the esteemed American pianist’s first Carnegie Hall recital since retiring last summer from his 14-year co-artistic direction with Mitsuko Uchida of the Marlboro Music School and Festival. The centerpiece of the recital was as satisfying a Schumann Davidsbündlertänze as one could imagine, never allowing the music to seem overstressed and repetitive. Moreover, the composer’s trademark compositional moods of the introverted Eusebius and impetuous Florestan appeared natural rather than contrived.

Goode’s attractive Carnegie Hall program began with four selections from the ten pieces of Janáček’s On the Overgrown Path, Book I. I’ve listened over and over to this inimitable composer’s piano music, hoping to be as entranced as I am with his orchestral and operatic works. I’ll keep trying.

Many years ago, Goode played a duo concert of French music with soprano Dawn Upshaw. I recall his accompaniments and solo performances as being magical. On this occasion, however, his playing of Debussy’s Préludes, Book I, after intermission, was disconcertingly brisk and monochromatic, devoid of mist or mystery. Perhaps he was hewing to the metronome marks, I don’t know, but this wasn’t the Debussy I love.

The Philadelphia Orchestra/Yannick Nézet-Séguin; Lisa Batiashvili, violin, May 2—If ever an orchestra and a piece of music were made for each other, it is the Philadelphians and Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Nézet-Séguin’s tempo was perfect and the players’ incomparable legato breathtaking. I want never to hear this piece by anyone else again.

Bartók’s early two-movement Violin Concerto (1907-08) is as rarely played as Barber’s Adagio is ubiquitous. The Straussian first movement is the most nakedly beautiful music the Hungarian ever composed, a love letter to a young violinist, Stefi Geyer, with whom he was smitten. The relationship was short-lived, writes Paul Griffiths in his insightful program note: “[B]y September 1907, they were already at loggerheads over the question of Bartók’s atheism. In 1911, he salvaged the first movement of the concerto for a new work, Two Portraits, with a different finale, after which the original score remained with Geyer.” It only came to light after her death in 1956, and “was at last heard on May 30, 1958, with Paul Sacher conducting and Hansheinz Schneeberger as soloist, breaking its silence of more than half a century.” Isaac Stern and the Philadelphia under Eugene Ormandy introduced the work in America and made its first recording—an excellent one—in 1961. Ormandy also made a fine recording of the Two Portraits in 1964 with the orchestra’s concertmaster, Anshel Brusilow, as soloist. Lisa Batiashvili’s rapturous performance with this new generation of Philadelphians—half a century later—may be the best of all.

Nézet-Séguin is clearly a Bruckner conductor to watch. His admirably cohesive yet always expressive interpretation of the Austrian composer’s Ninth Symphony never lost sight of the final bars in his broadly paced (64 minutes) performance. I was troubled once again, however, by an occasional coarsening of the strings and uncomfortably glaring brass in loud passages (cf., my February 2 blog regarding the Dvořák Sixth). The sumptuous Philadelphia, of all orchestras that play in Carnegie, has no difficulty filling the hall with glorious sound, as it demonstrated in a downright plush Beethoven “Eroica” three weeks after that unfortunate Dvořák performance. Last month I heard the orchestra on its home ground, Verizon Hall, and it was clear that the string balance has not been solved in all locations, by all conductors. I’m no acoustician, but my guess is that N-S is asking for more sound from the strings, which subliminally causes the brass to blow louder. This may produce good results in Verizon, but not in Carnegie.

Alec Baldwin Hissed at New York Philharmonic Concert

New York’s perennial bad boy Alec Baldwin was hissed last night, May 15, at a New York Philharmonic concert just before Dutch conductor Bernard Haitink walked onstage to conduct Mahler’s Third Symphony. The mild reaction began as soon as he mentioned his name during his usual pre-recorded, pre-concert announcement (“Good evening, this is Alec Baldwin . . .”) requesting Philharmonic audience members to please turn off their cell phones. The award-winning actor, classical-music lover, ardent supporter of the arts, New York Philharmonic board member, and announcer of the orchestra’s radio broadcasts has been in the news this week for riding his bicycle the wrong way on Fifth Avenue and then arguing with a police officer and being arrested.

The concert was excellent.

Looking Forward

My week’s scheduled concerts (8:00 p.m. unless otherwise noted):

5/15 Avery Fisher Hall at 7:30. New York Philharmonic/Bernard Haitink; Bernarda Fink, mezzo; Women of the New York Choral Artists; Brooklyn Youth Chorus. Mahler: Symphony No. 3.

5/16 Carnegie Hall. Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Mariss Jansons. John Adams: Slonimsky’s Earbox. R. Strauss: Don Juan. Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique.

5/17 Carnegie Hall. Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Mariss Jansons; Mitsuko Uchida, piano. Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4. Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5.

5/18 Carnegie Hall at 2:00. Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Mariss Jansons; Gil Shaham, violin. Ligeti: Atmosphères. Berg: Violin Concerto. Brahms: Symphony No. 2.

Requiems, British and American

Friday, May 9th, 2014

By Sedgwick Clark

In the space of a single week, New Yorkers were treated to a pair of requiems at Carnegie Hall that combined the traditional Mass for the Dead text with modern-day poetry to create strikingly personal visions of final rest. In 1961 Benjamin Britten composed his War Requiem, interspersing anti-war poems by Wilfred Owen, a British Army officer during World War I who was killed in battle a week before the Armistice. American composer Christopher Rouse followed Britten’s lead in including poems by six authors in his Requiem, which received its New York premiere on May 5 as the first offering in Carnegie’s lamented final season of Spring for Music concerts.

Robert Spano led a bracing, well-prepared performance of the Britten on April 30. One could understand virtually every word sung by the expressive soloists: tenor Thomas Cooley (replacing an indisposed Anthony Dean Griffey at the last minute), baritone Stephen Powell, and soprano Evelina Dobračeva. No less impressive for their articulation were the Atlanta Symphony’s peerless Chorus, initially trained by the legendary Robert Shaw and expertly maintained by Norman Mackenzie since 2000, and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus directed by Dianne Berkun-Menaker. Conductor Spano’s aplomb, when a cell phone tinkled away down front during the pause preceding the work’s moving conclusion (“Let us sleep now . . .”), was admirable. He simply held his arms out and waited patiently until the infernal machine stopped before cuing the tenor and baritone. The extended fermata may even have added emotional weight to the moment. Britten’s War Requiem grows in stature with every hearing, and the Atlanta performers did it proud.

I like Christopher Rouse’s music. It’s visceral, exciting, and delights in employing unfamiliar percussion, usually at full-throated fortissimo. And yet his 90-minute “magnum opus” is quite capable of affecting lyricism, as in the Requiem’s soft final choral moments. Rouse selected his texts from poems by Seamus Heaney, Siegfried Sassoon, Michelangelo Buonarotti, Ben Jonson, John Milton, and John Ellerton, in addition to the German chorale “Es ist ein’ Ros’ entsprungen” and the words of the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead.

The Carnegie Hall performance, with Alan Gilbert leading the New York Philharmonic, baritone soloist Jacques Imbrailo, Westminster Symphonic Choir, and Brooklyn Youth Orchestra, was only the work’s second outing anywhere. Rouse was halfway through the composition when terrorists flew hijacked airplanes into New York’s World Trade Center. However he had conceived the work, it’s difficult to imagine that the national upheaval of the event did not find itself into the piece, at least subconsciously. He finished it in July 2002, revising it in 2012. Its premiere was conducted by Grant Gershon in Los Angeles on March 25, 2007. L.A. Times critic Mark Swed called it “the first great traditional American Requiem.”

I wish I could agree.

All too often, such as in section No. 15, Rouse overloads his scoring and descends into undifferentiated noise when the huge percussion section unloads unmercifully against the chorus. Was the resulting chaos intentional?

Alan Gilbert has probably conducted and recorded more Rouse works than anyone else in the world. Unaccountably, the Westminster Symphonic Choir seemed ill-prepared, failing to articulate throughout even in the traditional Mass sections. Hardly a word was understandable—a criticism I heard from many fellow audience members during intermission. The most frequent audience comment was that there should have been surtitles. Baritone Jacques Imbrailo was often covered, and the Philharmonic players were no help in this regard, ignoring conductor Gilbert despite his repeated motions for softer playing. Another rehearsal might have made all the difference.

Even the program’s layout of the text was wanting: It would have been clearer in Carnegie’s dim lighting if, like the Atlanta’s Britten text, the translation of the Mass had been in italics.


Looking Forward

My week’s scheduled concerts (8:00 p.m. unless otherwise noted):

5/8 Avery Fisher Hall at 7:30. New York Philharmonic/Bernard Haitink; Leonidas Kavakos, violin. Webern: Im Sommerwind. Berg: Violin Concerto. Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 (Eroica).

5/9 Carnegie Hall at 7:30. Spring for Music. Cincinnati Symphony/James Conlon. R. Nathaniel Dett: The Ordering of Moses. John Adams: Harmonium.

5/10 Zankel Hall. Ensemble ACJW/Susanna Mälkki; Topi Lehtipuu, tenor. Schoenberg: Chamber Symphony No. 1. Jukka Tiensuu: Mora. George Benjamin: Three Inventions. John Adams: Chamber Symphony.

5/12 Meredith Willson Hall at the Juilliard School. Francesca Rose dePasquale, violin; John Root, piano. Mozart: Sonata for Violin and Piano in C major, K. 303. Beethoven: Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 7 in C minor, Op. 30 No. 2. Chausson: Poème, Op. 25. Bartók: Rhapsody No. 1, Sz 86/BB 94.

5/15 Avery Fisher Hall at 7:30. New York Philharmonic/Bernard Haitink; Bernarda Fink, mezzo; Women of the New York Choral Artists; Brooklyn Youth Chorus. Mahler: Symphony No. 3.

April in New York

Thursday, May 1st, 2014

By Sedgwick Clark

Last week’s blog (April 24) was written, but for some reason in the posting process didn’t reach this stage. I wrote about the New York Philharmonic’s performance of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, a recital by Murray Perahia, and a Philharmonic concert in which Manfred Honeck deputized for Gustavo Dudamel. It is available now on my list of blogs, reachable by clicking on Why I Left Muncie on the desktop. Herewith a few words on some concerts I heard in April.

First Impressions of SubCulture – April 1

For a time, classical concerts in the downtown, downstairs nightclub Le Poisson Rouge were reviewed often in the Times by Allan Kozinn. But LPR’s visibility lessened when the paper changed his beat from that of critic to reporter. In its stead, a new venue called SubCulture has sprung up. Open for seven months now, it has impressed many as a more acceptable venue for classical music than its model. Both are in Greenwich Village, on Bleecker Street, and some concert impresarios believe they’ll find their future audiences in such places. The ambience is informal, and their modest capacities (150 seats in the case of SubC) allow presentation of lesser-known artists who couldn’t fill Kaufman Auditorium at the 92nd Street Y, for instance, which produced the concert I heard. Drinks are available at the bar but not served by waiters during performances, nightclub style, as is the case at LPR. (The difference is sort of like McDonald’s reducing the fat content of its French fries.) No bother, really, because neither strikes me as an acoustically acceptable concert venue. The main sonic advantage of SubCulture is that its ventilation system is less obtrusive than LPR’s roar.

On this evening, the young Cypress String Quartet played four of Dvorák’s Cypresses and Schubert’s G major Quartet, D. 887, sandwiching the New York premiere of George Tsontakis’s ruminative Sixth Quartet, which only stirred itself into a spurt of energy at its conclusion. Members of the Quartet affably talked about the music before each performance, which is what some presenters think is desirable in connecting with audiences. I would like to welcome the Cypress foursome for the melting European lyricism its players described, but I mainly heard American aggression. Sitting in the fourth row didn’t help; a colleague who moved down to the third row at intermission said that the sound was more flattering in the rear. Intimacy is nice, but it requires a certain refinement.

The quartet’s new recording with cellist Gary Hoffman of Schubert’s Quintet on Avie may offer a kinder perspective.

Heras-Casado’s New York Philharmonic Debut – April 2

The 37-year-old Spaniard Pablo Heras-Casado, principal conductor of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and Musical America’s Conductor of the Year for 2014, wowed the hard-to-please New York Phil with my favorite program of the year: Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto, and Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony. While I enjoyed the entire well-played concert, Peter Serkin’s solo playing in the Bartók struck me as quite the most expressive, tonally colorful pianism I’ve ever heard from him. Heras-Casado showed himself to be a crack accompanist. I look forward to more Bartók from him.

American Composers Orchestra – April 4

There’s a lot of wonderful, neglected American music that the ACO used to play—by composers like William Schuman, Howard Hanson, Paul Creston, Ned Rorem, Peter Mennin, Morton Gould, and many others. I stopped attending ACO concerts many years ago after they ceased playing such works. I want to know where the new pieces grow out of. So I was happy to hear Silvestre Revueltas’s Alcancías, sort of a wrong-note film score for a western in three movements, and Gunther Schuller’s Contours, his first “third-stream” piece. George Manahan’s conducting struck me as spot on.

I had run into the ACO’s new artistic director, Derek Bermel at the Heras-Casado concert two days earlier and expressed my opinion in no uncertain terms; I strongly hope this concert was no aberration. The New York premiere of Bermel’s own quirky Mar de Setembro, to five mildly sensual poems by Eugénio de Andrade (pseudonym of José Fontinhas), was sung by Luciana Souza with what seemed the worst wobble I’d ever heard. But maybe it was a stylistic choice, for the composer gives “special thanks” to her in his program note, saying that his “collaboration with her has been nothing short of joyful,” so what the hell do I know?

“Destination America” at CMS – April 6

I finally caught up with violinist Daniel Hope, and I assure you that the praise is richly deserved. His equally adept collaborators were clarinetist Romie de Guise-Langlois and pianist Gloria Chien in Bartók’s Contrasts; Guise-Langlois and pianist Wu Han in Ives’s Largo; Wu Han in Prokofiev’s Sonata in D major, Op. 94a; and Chien, violinist Yura Lee, violist Paul Neubauer, and cellist David Finckel in Korngold’s Piano Quintet, Op. 15. Hope’s beautiful tone and Wu Han’s solid rhythmic pulse made the Prokofiev sonata the high point for me. Mahler proclaimed the 10-year-old Erich Wolfgang Korngold “a genius,” but I’ve always thought that Korngold’s Hollywood period redeemed him as a composer. Not even these expert players could save this thick-textured, awkward piece from his mid-20s.


Looking Forward

My week’s scheduled concerts (8:00 p.m. unless otherwise noted):

5/1 Carnegie Hall. Richard Goode, piano. Janáček: On the Overgrown Path, Book I (sel.). Schumann: Davidsbündlertänze. Debussy: Préludes, Book I.

5/2 Carnegie Hall. Philadelphia Orchestra/Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor; Lisa Batiashvili, violin. Barber: Adagio for Strings. Bartók: Violin Concerto No. 1. Bruckner: Symphony No. 9.

5/5 Carnegie Hall at 7:30. Spring for Music. New York Philharmonic/Alan Gilbert; Jacques Imbrailo, baritone; Westminster Symphonic Choir; Brooklyn Youth Chorus. Christopher Rouse: Requiem (N.Y. premiere).

5/6 Carnegie Hall at 7:30. Spring for Music. Seattle Symphony/Ludovic Morlot. John Luther Adams: Become Ocean (N.Y. premiere). Varèse: Déserts. Debussy: La Mer.

5/7 Carnegie Hall at 7:30. Spring for Music. Rochester Philharmonic/Michael Christie; singers from the Eastman School of Music Opera Department. Hanson: Merry Mount (complete concert performance).

5/8 Avery Fisher Hall at 7:30. New York Philharmonic/Bernard Haitink; Leonidas Kavakos, violin. Webern: Im Sommerwind. Berg: Violin Concerto. Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 (Eroica).

Sweeney, Perahia, and Honeck

Thursday, April 24th, 2014

By Sedgwick Clark

I often attend some 20 concerts a month, with many going unreported. The death on April 2 of my long-time friend and colleague Harris Goldsmith occupied my thoughts completely, and my tribute to him appeared as a news story on April 7. Instead of several separate reviews, last week’s blog dealt with a single conductor I admire, Gianandrea Noseda, who led three orchestras in different venues in the New York area: The Met Orchestra in two Met productions, the Israel Philharmonic in Newark, and the Philadelphia Orchestra on its home territory, Verizon Hall. So let’s try to catch up some of those concerts I’ve neglected in the past month, beginning with three in March.

The NYPhil’s Sweeney Todd

Some old poops think the Philharmonic should stick exclusively to the symphonic repertory. That’s balderdash—at least regarding classic American music theater, which is so much a part of our heritage. When the Phil can gather the superb likes of Bryn Terfel (Sweeney), Emma Thompson (Mrs. Lovett), and Audra McDonald (the Beggar Woman), along with a topnotch supporting cast, marshalled by Music Director Alan Gilbert at his best, in a semi-staging of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney, I’ll savor that any day over another Dvořák “New World,” which the orchestra has been playing to death for the past 25 years. (I know the Phil has a certain imprimatur on the symphony, as it premiered it in Carnegie Hall in 1893, and it is a great piece, but come on, guys.) Sweeney was taped for a Live from Lincoln Center broadcast on PBS, soon to be announced. Don’t miss it.

Murray Perahia

Once again, Perahia offered the most satisfying recital I heard all year, on March 9 at Avery Fisher Hall, a venue whose drier, more focused acoustics I prefer for solo recitals over Carnegie Hall. Among the American pianist’s exquisite performances were a reflective Bach French Suite No. 4, a Beethoven “Appassionata” Sonata with expressive hills and dales yet all the requisite fire one could desire, a playful Schumann Papillons (over which I recall Harris especially enthused; he always loved Perahia’s playing), and three Chopin Etudes and the Scherzo No. 2 that benefitted from the pianist’s refusal to overpower the works’ virtuosity. There was a time when Perahia unfortunately reacted adversely to critical descriptions of his performances as “small scale” by playing more forcefully, which may have led to the injuries that caused a temporary suspension of his career. For the third season in a row such tendencies appear happily to be in the past. There is no other pianist I would rather hear.

Honeck, not Dudamel, at the Phil

What a spate of conductor cancellations in New York of late. At Carnegie Hall’s Vienna Festival, Daniele Gatti cancelled Wozzeck on February 28 due to “acute inflammation of the tendon in both shoulders,” with Franz Welser-Möst stepping in [blog 3-14-14]. Gatti’s appearance in a Vienna Philharmonic concert on March 15 was also cancelled, with Christoph Eschenbach subbing. Two weeks ago, Lorin Maazel cancelled two Munich Philharmonic all-Strauss concerts at Carnegie due to “illness” (after he had stood in for Gatti in a Vienna Phil concert in Los Angeles). Valery Gergiev, Maazel’s controversial successor as music director in Munich next year, flew in from London for one day to conduct the first Carnegie concert, cancelling a concert in Siberia in the process. Fabio Luisi, in town to rehearse the Met’s La Cenerentola, led the second Carnegie concert.

At the end of March, Gustavo Dudamel cancelled a highly anticipated (for once the phrase is accurate!) engagement at the NYPhil due to “severe flu,” not long after a Los Angeles Philharmonic American tour that included a pair of Lincoln Center concerts [blog 3-20-14]. In his stead was Pittsburgh Symphony Music Director Manfred Honeck leading Dudamel’s program, Claude Vivier’s Orion and Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony. I’ve been waiting for Honeck to impress me as much as he apparently does my colleagues. This time I walked out thinking he must be deaf, or at least soon will be. The ferocity with which he unleashed the Philharmonic brass in Avery Fisher Hall was unmerciful to the audience, the players’ longevity, and to Bruckner’s reputation.  The night I attended, an audience member let go with a loud “whew” during the long silence following the triple-forte onslaught before the third-movement coda.  A couple of sensitive moments, such as the velvety string attack in bar 155 of the finale, were reminiscent of the 1966 Karajan recording, but otherwise I yearned for Erich Leinsdorf, who knew how to get a warm, idiomatic tone from this traditionally anti-Bruckner orchestra. I enjoyed the Vivier piece, despite or perhaps because of its nods to Varèse, Messiaen, and the opening of Das Rheingold and would not mind hearing it again.


Looking Forward

My week’s scheduled concerts (8:00 p.m. unless otherwise noted):

4/25 Metropolitan Opera at 7:30. Rossini: La Cenerentola. Fabio Luisi, cond. Joyce DiDonato (Cinderella), Javier Camarena (Don Ramiro, the prince), Alessandro Corbelli (Don Magnifico, the wicked stepfather), Patricia Risley and Rachelle Durkin (Tisbe and Clorinda, the wicked stepsisters), Luca Pisaroni  (Alidoro).

4/28 Symphony Space at 7:30. Cutting Edge Concerts/Victoria Bond. Performances by Sequitur, loadbang, and Mivos. New works by Harold Meltzer, Andy Kozar, Carlos Cordeiro, Jeffrey Gavatt, William Lang, Victor Lowrie, Josh Modney, Olivia De Prato, and Mariel Roberts.

4/29 Zankel Hall at 6:00. Augustin Hadelich, violin; Steven Schick, percussion; Paul Lazar, actor. David Lang: Mystery Sonatas (world premiere). John Cage: Indeterminacy and 27’10.554” for a percussionist.

4/30 Carnegie Hall. Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Robert Spano. Brooklyn Youth Chorus. Evelina Dobracheva, soprano; Anthony Dean Griffey, tenor; Stephen Powell, baritone. Britten: War Requiem.

5/1 Carnegie Hall. Richard Goode, piano. Janáček: On the Overgrown Path, Book I (selections). Schumann: Davidsbündlertänze. Debussy: Préludes, Book I.

5/2 Carnegie Hall. Philadelphia Orchestra/Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor; Lisa Batiashvili, violin. Barber: Adagio for Strings. Bartók: Violin Concerto No. 1. Bruckner: Symphony No. 9.

5/5 Carnegie Hall at 7:30. Spring for Music. New York Philharmonic/Alan Gilbert; Jacques Imbrailo, baritone; Westminster Symphonic Choir; Brooklyn Youth Chorus. Christopher Rouse: Requiem (N.Y. premiere).

5/6 Carnegie Hall at 7:30. Spring for Music. Seattle Symphony/Ludovic Morlot. John Luther Adams: Become Ocean (N.Y. premiere). Varèse: Déserts. Debussy: La Mer.

5/7 Carnegie Hall at 7:30. Spring for Music. Rochester Philharmonic/Michael Christie; singers from the Eastman School of Music Opera Department. Hanson: Merry Mount (complete concert performance).

5/8 Avery Fisher Hall at 7:30. New York Philharmonic/Bernard Haitink; Leonidas Kavakos, violin. Webern: Im Sommerwind. Berg: Violin Concerto. Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 (Eroica).

Gianandrea Noseda Scores in the Outskirts

Friday, April 18th, 2014

By Sedgwick Clark

My introduction to Italian conductor Gianandrea Noseda was his emotionally devastating performance of Britten’s War Requiem with the London Symphony Orchestra at Lincoln Center in October 2011. Since then I’ve made a point of hearing as many of his New York concerts as possible. He has been hereabouts for the past three months, leading a glowing, ambitious new edition of Borodin’s unfinished Prince Igor and a warmly expressive Andrea Chénier at the Met, a revelatory Israel Philharmonic tour concert on March 29 at NJPAC in Newark, and Saint-Saëns’s Third Symphony (“Organ”) with the Philadelphia Orchestra on home territory in Verizon Hall on April 13, which I happily heard for the first time with a genuine pipe organ.

Let’s deal with the revelation straight off—the first time in my experience that the Israel Philharmonic, of which Noseda is principal guest conductor, has sounded like a decent orchestra. What is an orchestra supposed to do: play together, right? For at least 35 years, to my ears, the IPO has sounded like an orchestra at odds with itself—a group of aspirant soloists, to be kind; or as a fellow music lover used to say, a ragtag bunch of gypsies. With coarse, arid tone besides. Wonder of wonders, Noseda had these musicians playing an all-French program not only precisely but also beautifully in NJPAC’s warm, clear acoustics.

I arrived late for Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande suite (an indication, perhaps, of my trepidation at hearing the IPO after years of avoidance). But Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye (Mother Goose) suite and the second suite from Daphnis et Chloé instantly put me at ease with their excellent ensemble, transparent textures, and tonal beauty. The IPO’s heretofore unruly strings positively shimmered under their conductor’s leadership. Now, Maestro Noseda, how about Ravel’s complete ballet scores of these works with the Israelis?

Pungent woodwinds and dynamic timpani were only some of the welcome details in Noseda’s Berlioz Symphonie fantastique. He took the first-movement repeat but not the usually ignored one in the brief March to the Scaffold; I would have loved the repeat because of the delightfully grotesque blat of the trombone (or was it an actual opheclide, as Berlioz requests?). I heartily approve that he included the optional cornet in the second movement, but I thought the player too reticent to fully register the cackling ostinato rhythms and military color of the instrument. The balance was the same on a live recording Noseda made with the IPO in January, released by Helicon in time for the tour, so it was evidently what he intended. If the malevolence of the Witches’ Sabbath finale seemed a bit tame to me, I nevertheless found much instrumental detail to savor. Noseda’s accomplishments with this orchestra remain amazing.

Two weeks later he was on the podium of one of the world’s great ensembles, the Philadelphia Orchestra, leading Saint-Saëns’s “Organ” Symphony. Astonishingly, neither of New York’s major concert halls has a real organ. One must travel to Philly or Boston to hear one in a proper-size hall. Noseda certainly has the measure of this glorious Romantic masterwork. Moreover, no recording ever made, in any living or listening room I know, no matter how capacious and acoustically treated, can beat the Verizon Hall pipe organ’s fortissimo outburst in the flesh.

In the program’s first half, Noseda led Symphonic Fragments from the opera La donna serpente by Alfredo Casella. The conductor has performed and recorded works by Casella and other lesser-known 20th-century Italian composers. The music is tuneful and pleasant when so expertly performed. But Respighi he is not, except when parts of Fountains of Rome creep into the beginning of the second fragment.

Canadian violinist James Ehnes’s reputation for beautiful tone was vividly on display in Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto, a lyrical work contemporaneous with Romeo and Juliet. Where some fiddlers find traces of diablerie and sarcasm from the composer’s earlier style, Ehnes emphasized the creamy melodies and long line to luscious effect, ideally accompanied by Noseda. The two have recorded all of Prokofiev’s violin music for Chandos.

Noseda will conduct Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (“Choral”) in New York at the Mostly Mozart Festival in August, and on December 7 at Carnegie Hall he will lead the Teatro Regio Torino, of which he has been music director since 2007, in a concert performance of Rossini’s William Tell.


Looking Forward

My week’s scheduled concerts (8:00 p.m. unless otherwise noted):

4/21 Symphony Space at 7:30. Cutting Edge Concerts/Victoria Bond. Blue Streak Ensemble. Robert Paterson: Sextet. Margaret Brouwer: Inner Voices (premiere). Victoria Bond: Clara (excerpts). David T. Little: descanso (waiting). Jonathan Tunick: Trio (premiere). Margaret Brouwer: Shattered Glass (N.Y. premiere).

4/23 Zankel Hall at 6:00. Tuvan Throat Singing. Pärt: Passio.

Here’s Whoopi!

Friday, March 28th, 2014

By Sedgwick Clark

Just as New York Philharmonic audiences had gotten used to hearing Alec Baldwin’s subdued tones asking them to turn off their cell phones, they were surprised to hear Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson making a Sweeney-themed plea before the orchestra’s five performances of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd (3/5-8). And then, before Alan Gilbert conducted an all-Carl Nielsen concert the following week, none other than Whoopi Goldberg urged us to check those noisy cell phones.

These seemingly innocent changes in the Philharmonic’s anti-cell phone crusade made me wonder if Baldwin had become too hot to handle? After all, in a lengthy, testy, scatological tirade in New York magazine (February 24, 2014), he explained in no uncertain terms why he was saying “good-bye to public life” in the city in which he has lived since 1979, citing predatory paparazzi, loathsome, prevaricating, and despicable media, media hounding of his wife, and endangerment of his baby daughter, while also admitting that some of his own comments and behavior may have brought on some of his problems. Los Angeles, with its gated communities to segregate movie stars from their fans and the media, which he once scorned, was looking more attractive than it once did.

Baldwin, an avid classical music lover and supporter of the arts, has been host of the Philharmonic’s national broadcasts for five years, when he was riding high and winning Emmy awards for his role on 30 Rock, but his recent problems made me curious to know if he was including the Philharmonic in the “public life” he was threatening to leave. So I called Katherine E. Johnson, the orchestra’s director of media and public relations, to get the skinny:

“Whoopi Goldberg was elected to the New York Philharmonic’s Board of Directors in January 2013. In addition to recording our new cell phone announcements—which will play in rotation with those recorded by our radio host, Alec Baldwin—we are exploring other ways in which she might be involved with the Philharmonic’s activities that align with her interests, such as in the area of education.”


Why Are Opera Companies Tanking? reported on March 20 that the San Diego Opera will close its doors on June 30 after 28 consecutive seasons of balanced budgets. The piece continued with other companies that have closed their doors in recent years (and editor Susan Elliott sent me others that date back further): Opera Hamilton, Ontario (January 2014), the New York City Opera (2013), Opera San Antonio (2012), Opera Boston (2011), Lyric Opera of San Diego (2011), Cleveland Opera (2010), Spokane Opera (2010), Connecticut Opera (Hartford, 2009), the Baltimore Opera (2009) and Opera Pacific (Orange County, 2008). Yesterday’s website (3/26) reports that Indianapolis Opera has just announced cancellation of its fourth and final opera of the season, Britten’s Albert Herring, due to slow sales. Rather ominous.

Undoubtedly, the reasons are complex, including the proliferation of arts organizations such as the National Endowment of the Arts in 1965. Also, opera on video became a contender in the ’80s. One incredible success story shines out, however: The Met in HD, which began in its 2006-07 season. Concurrent with the Met’s HD success is the fall-off of its own live-opera ticket sales. Some opera-aficionado friends in New York tell me they often prefer seeing Met productions in HD—and not just due to higher ticket prices.


Looking Forward

My week’s scheduled concerts (8:00 p.m. unless otherwise noted):

3/28 Carnegie Hall. Kronos Quartet and Friends; Wu Man, pipa; Pannonia Quartet; Face the Music Quartet; Brooklyn Youth Chorus. Additional guest artists tba. Works by Terry Riley, Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, Philip Glass, Aleksandra Vrebalov, and more. 40th Anniversary Celebration.

3/29 NJPAC at 8:30. Israel Philharmonic/Gianandrea Noseda. Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé, Suite No. 2; Ma Mère l’oye, suite. Fauré: Pelléas et Mélisande, suite. Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique.

4/3 Avery Fisher Hall at 7:30. New York Philharmonic/Pablo Heras-Casado; Peter Serkin, piano. Britten: Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes. Bartók: Piano Concerto No. 3. Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10.

Dudamel and Gilbert Score

Friday, March 21st, 2014

By Sedgwick Clark 

I’ve heard nearly every one of Gustavo Dudamel’s New York concerts. At first I had my quibbles, but I always walked out of the hall with a smile. His music-making made me feel good to be alive.

In two concerts at Avery Fisher Hall this past weekend, his Los Angeles Philharmonic played better for him than ever. The strings had greater strength and unanimity, and the conductor unerringly balanced cross rhythms and accompaniment figures in the winds and brass to keep textures moving. The solo horn, Andrew Bain, played with eloquence and warmth in his many solos, and Joseph Pereira, a student of the New York Philharmonic’s late, great timpanist Roland Kohloff, provided dynamism and rhythmic punctuation to passages that in other hands too often turn soggy.

Leading off the LA’s first concert was John Corigliano’s 1988 Symphony No. 1. While not exactly new, its brand of dissonant tonality fits well into today’s current style. It memorializes three of the composer’s friends who succumbed to AIDS and received a slashing, uncompromising performance. It should be played every year. Dudamel’s commitment to contemporary composers is genuine, and he programs new works on nearly all his LA programs. After intermission came Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. I never thought I could love it again, but Dudamel proved me wrong.

In the second concert, wispy, little Yuja Wang played Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto with her usual mind-boggling virtuosity, and she played it uncut, as is usual these days. A curious line on the program page said, “Ms. Wang will perform cadenzas by Rachmaninoff.” Well, of course. But which of the two he composed for the first movement did she play—the lighter, rather mercurial one favored by the composer in his recording or the heavy, chordal alternative? Wang chose the first, lighter version. Dudamel’s accompaniment in the Rachmaninoff was ideal, sticking to her fleet fingerwork like flypaper through every più vivo and meno mosso. Composers usually know best, and I’ve always wondered if all the pianists who indulge in ostentatious “expressive” emphases, rubati, ritards, etc. did so because they couldn’t play the piece as written, in tempo—but Wang can and did, and the performance built naturally, with no eccentricities.

After intermission, Dudamel conducted an affectionate Brahms’s Second Symphony, which in its moderately brisk tempos and lovely singing lines reminded me of the 1945 San Francisco recording by Pierre Monteux, which is how I came to know the work on my parents’ 78s. Dudamel even allowed himself a few subtle tenutos, which he will probably expunge as time goes by but which made me smile on each appearance.

Alan Gilbert’s Nielsen “Inextinguishable”

Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic are in the process of recording the symphony cycle of Denmark’s greatest composer, Carl Nielsen (1865-1931), for the Danish label, DaCapo. So far only one CD, recorded in concert and containing the Second and Third symphonies, has been released, but last week the orchestra performed an all-Nielsen concert that will constitute the second CD: Helios Overture, Op. 17; Symphony No. 1, Op. 7; Symphony No. 4 (“The Inextinguishable”), Op. 29.

It’s hard to beat Nielsen’s Fourth for concert hall drama, with its dueling timpani placed on either sides of the orchestra. This was Gilbert’s and the orchestra’s finest Nielsen performance so far, on Friday afternoon, March 14. Clearly this was a master “take,” and the conductor could take chances on Saturday evening—such as when Nielsen indicates “Glorioso” twice in the score, and Gilbert’s response struck me as cautious.

Leonard Bernstein placed the timpani on the front of the stage when he performed the symphony with the Philharmonic in 1970, but it was disappointingly ponderous interpretively and thin sonically on LP. The CD remix vastly improved the sound, but it still couldn’t compete with the supercharged Martinon/Chicago recording on RCA. Gilbert followed the composer in placing the timp at the back of the stage. Mike placement will take care of any recording concerns. I feel secure in predicting that the Gilbert will be considered one of the best Fourths upon its release.

Gilbert’s performance of the First Symphony, however, seemed less certain—perhaps like the composer, who took four years to write it. Gilbert links the symphony to Brahms, but I hear Bruckner in the final movement.

The third CD, to be recorded at the October 1-3 concerts in the fall, will include Symphony No. 5 and Symphony No. 6, presumably to be released by the anniversary of the composer’s 150th birthday in 2015.

Looking forward

My week’s scheduled concerts (8:00 p.m. unless otherwise noted):

3/26 Zankel Hall at 7:30. Ensemble ACJW. Ives: The Unanswered Question. John Adams: Shaker Loops. David Lang: pierced. Copland: Appalachian Spring.

3/27 Avery Fisher Hall at 7:30. New York Philharmonic/Gustavo Dudamel. Vivier: Orion. Bruckner: Symphony No. 9.

Two Wozzecks and a Salome in Concert

Friday, March 14th, 2014

By Sedgwick Clark

Which is more important, asks Richard Strauss’s opera Capriccio: the music or the words? With the Vienna Philharmonic onstage at Carnegie Hall and surtitles cuing every vocal line, the question (and answer) may be less whimsical than ever.

Franz Welser-Möst led New York’s favorite visiting orchestra on February 28 at Carnegie Hall’s Vienna Festival in the most beautiful rendering of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck I’ve ever heard, and the next evening Andris Nelsons led Strauss’s Salome with the same orchestra in a performance that made the composer sound like an amateur orchestrator, which we all know him not to have been.

So, pace Georg Solti who maintained that the VPO was utterly intractable, conductors do have an effect on this fabled orchestra after all. I fretted that Welser-Möst’s hitherto neutral brand of music-making would not fully convey the emotional range of this heart-rending score. Neutral, however, it most assuredly was not. I staggered out of Carnegie Hall dumbstruck and shaken that Wozzeck could be so devastating emotionally as well as orchestrally ravishing. Remember, this is late-Romantic music, just a step more “modern” than Mahler’s Ninth and Strauss’s Elektra in style. Recordings from the 1920s and ’30s indicate how it would have been played. Welser-Möst’s full-throated unleashing of the Viennese musicians’ traditional sonority was fully defensible. Instrumental detail was both wondrous and expressive, revealing every glistening note of Berg’s colorful palette.

Wozzeck is heavy sledding for those accustomed to such standard operatic tragedies as Werther and La Bohème. A dim-witted soldier (Wozzeck) who has fathered an illegitimate child with what used to be called a “loose” woman (Marie), kills her when he learns of her infidelity with a loutish Drum Major and then drowns when he attempts to dispose of the murder weapon. In the final scene, their son is playing with neighboring children when word comes of his mother’s death; he seems not to understand and continues singing and playing as the other children run offstage and the music simply stops mid-note, unresolved.

The VPO opera-in-concert performances placed the vocalists on massive, unpainted, four-foot platforms on either side of Carnegie’s stage, facing each other rather than the audience, with the orchestral musicians spread across Carnegie’s stage in between. In my experience, the optimal balance of presence and indirect sound is in Carnegie’s first-tier boxes. In my usual parquet seat, the vocalists were overwhelmed by the orchestra a good deal of the time. Far better to line up the cast in front of the orchestra and “Sing out, Louise.”

Marie is the most sympathetic character in the opera and has the most affecting music, which Evelyn Herlitzius projected magnificently. Matthias Goerne (Wozzeck) suffered most from his placement upstage on the audience-left platform; Berg sets much of the role in dark, sepulchral tones, and the bass-baritone’s low register was particularly muffled. Herwig Pecoraro (Captain) and Wolfgang Bankl (Doctor) succeeded by turning to the audience and never dipping below forte. But the star of this show was unequivocally the Vienna Philharmonic, and it came through with flying colors. This was the most extraordinary orchestral performance I’ve heard so far this season—one which I can’t imagine will be surpassed. No doubt, the music was most important here.

The first Wozzeck I ever saw was at the Met in February 1969, in English, conducted by Colin Davis, and the most recent Wozzeck was two performances under James Levine at the Met this past week (3/6 and 3/10). In between were a fine concert performance by Christoph von Dohnányi and Cleveland at Carnegie (1/28/95); a notably successful semi-staged concert performance at Avery Fisher Hall last season, superbly played and conducted by London’s Philharmonia Orchestra and Esa-Pekka Salonen, with a fine Wozzeck in Simon Keenlyside (11/19/12); and several other Levine/Met performances.  

The Levine bears comment. The minimal stage design is effective, with dark shadows and melancholy colors. Unlike Welser-Möst and Salonen, he was careful to keep the orchestra at a level that allowed the singers to be heard clearly. Matthias Goerne, substituting on opening night (3/6) in the title role for an indisposed Thomas Hampson, was heard to far greater effect at the Met. Levine’s approach to the score emphasized its stark, unsensuous Expressionist elements, which today’s commentators are likely to consider more authentic. Making a comparison with artists contemporary to Berg, one might say that Welser-Möst is to Gustav Klimt as Levine is to Egon Schiele.

For me, Welser-Möst’s Wozzeck was a revelation, and while I could appreciate the craft, Levine’s didn’t move me an iota.

Salome and Andris Nelsons

Coming one evening after W-M’s Wozzeck, the Vienna Philharmonic’s opera-in-concert presentation of Richard Strauss’s Salome, conducted by Andris Nelsons, was not to my liking. VPO’s opaque textures caused me to wonder if it were the same orchestra (and, indeed, many of the players of this large ensemble might have been different).

The major, and accomplished, vocalists—Gun-Brit Barkmin (Salome), Gerhard A. Siegel (Herod), Jane Henschel (Herodias), Jochanaan (Falk Struckmann), and Narraboth (Carlos Osuna)—often made a point of turning toward the audience and moving to the front of the platforms, improving the vocal/orchestra balance problems of the previous evening. On the other hand, upon exiting the hall, my primary feeling was that of having been screamed at for an hour and 45 minutes.

I’ll stick with memories of Teresa Stratas as Salome with Karl Böhm from the late 1970s and Karita Mattila with Valery Gergiev from 2004. Oh, and Birgit Nilsson with Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony (12/18/74) from front row center of Carnegie Hall’s balcony.

As for Maestro Nelsons, music director-designate of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, he is impossible to watch. A strong sense of structure would seem more helpful to an orchestra than describing every little detail in the air to players far more acquainted with the music than he. I had hoped to be able to find more to praise last night (3/13) at Carnegie in his final concert of the Vienna festival. Haydn’s Symphony No. 90 was its usual joy, but a tired reading of Brahms’s Haydn Variations and a sprawling Third Symphony were not encouraging.

Looking Forward

My week’s scheduled concerts (8:00 p.m. unless otherwise noted):

3/14 Avery Fisher Hall at 2:00. New York Philharmonic/Alan Gilbert. Nielsen: Helios Overture; Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 4 (“The Inextinguishable”).

3/16 Avery Fisher Hall at 3:00. Los Angeles Philharmonic/Gustavo Dudamel. Corigliano: Symphony No. 1. Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5.

3/17 Avery Fisher Hall at 8:00. Los Angeles Philharmonic/Gustavo Dudamel; Yuja Wang, piano. Daniel Bjarnason: Blow Bright. Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3. Brahms: Symphony No. 2.

3/20 Avery Fisher Hall at 7:30. New York Philharmonic/Jeffrey Kahane, conductor and piano. Ravel: Piano Concerto in G. Weill: Symphony No. 2. Gershwin: Concerto in F.

Vienna Phil in Carnegie Hall

Friday, February 28th, 2014

By Sedgwick Clark

The Vienna Philharmonic is in town for Carnegie Hall’s “Vienna: City of Dreams” Festival. Undoubtedly, music critics ranging from the Times to cub bloggers will swallow the orchestra’s p.r. bandwagon of tradition and aver how its magnificent sonority has remained the same over the years. I first heard the Vienna Philharmonic on April 3, 1976, at Carnegie Hall. The late Claudio Abbado led Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven (as opposed to the second level of hell that Gennady Rozhdestvensky and the Leningrad Phil had taken me three years before in Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini, discussed in last week’s blog). The Viennese string players attacked their instruments with a vengeance, but without the scrunching that the New York Phil had accustomed me to, and the brass players’ faces flushed brightly as sheer warmth and resplendent sound enveloped the audience.

That Abbado performance came to mind as the VPO cellos entered quietly in the second bar of Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony on Wednesday, the 26th. The illusion, under conductor Franz Welser-Möst, didn’t last. The fortissimo tutti, when it burst out, was shrill. The Vienna Philharmonic, shrill? Yes, believe it or not, from parquet T1, anyway.

The Sixth doesn’t deserve to be Bruckner’s least performed mature symphony. The first movement strides forward with majestic confidence. The British Bruckner-Mahler scholar Deryck Cooke thought the Adagio the composer’s finest; its eloquent solemnity might have profited from a broader tempo. The Scherzo is uniquely weird—nightmarish, even—among Bruckner scherzos, with the plink-plonk pizzicati of the Trio bringing to mind Franz Waxman’s scoring of the scene in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) where mad Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) toasts a human skull in a crypt. The finale drives ahead with unclouded jollity, the only instance of such abandon in his mature symphonies.

The Sixth is not one of the Austrian composer’s complicated symphonies, and Welser-Möst’s straightforward musicianship is not the place to find Brucknerian mystery or magic. His well-chosen tempos, care over the characteristic Bruckner pauses, and refusal to litter the score with unnecessary unmarked ritards would make for a good introduction to the piece. But not the VPO’s infelicitous strings and crass brass.

The first half of the Vienna Philharmonic’s Wednesday night concert at Carnegie Hall was the essence of elegance and tonal beauty. Mozart’s Symphony No. 28 zipped along with grace and transparency. Authentic practitioners would find the number of players rather largish, but I would gladly hear all of Mozart’s 41 with these artists.

Bravo to Welser-Möst for inserting a contemporary work between Mozart and Bruckner. Austrian composer Johannes Maria Staud’s On Comparative Meteorology (2008-2009; rev. 2010), dedicated to the conductor, was fabulously played. Beginning with echoes of Berg and continuing with Varèse, “a large orchestra is disassembled and re-combined into a continually evolving kaleidoscope of changing instrumental colors, ranging from ethereal delicacy to violent intensity,” writes annotator Janet E. Bedell. Given a performance of this caliber, I wouldn’t mind hearing it again. Whatever happened to the stodgy, old Vienna Philharmonic?

Looking Forward

My week’s scheduled concerts (8:00 p.m. unless otherwise noted):

2/28 Carnegie Hall. Berg: Wozzeck, Op. 7 (concert performance). Vienna State Opera, Vienna Philharmonic/Franz Welser-Möst, cond. Matthias Goerne (Wozzeck), Evelyn Herilitzius (Marie), Herbert Lippert (Drum Major), Norbert Ernst (Andres), Wolfgang Bankl (Doctor), Herwig Pecoraro (Captain).

3/1 Carnegie Hall. R. Strauss: Salome, Op. 54 (concert performance). Vienna State Opera, Vienna Philharmonic/Andris Nelsons, cond. Gun-Brit Barkmin (Salome), Falk Struckmann (Jochanaan), Gerhard A. Siegel (Herodes), Jane Henschel (Herodias), Carlos Osuna (Narraboth).