The New Season Beckons

by Sedgwick Clark

Having avoided concerts almost completely this summer, I’m ready for the new season to start. In some ways, it’s too bad that economics has led to 52-week performance schedules. Everyone, listeners and players alike, needs a rest. Constant anything dulls the senses, and even though I missed a few events I would have liked to attend under the right circumstances—Bard College’s “Berg and His World” uppermost—there was nothing I couldn’t hear on record. I could have skipped Lincoln Center Festival’s pair of complete Varèse concerts, as the music exists in superb recordings by Pierre Boulez and Riccardo Chailly, but it should really be heard live, and the performances—by the International Contemporary Ensemble and Alan Gilbert leading the New York Philharmonic—were well worth hearing and furthermore only required my walking a block.

Gilbert will lead the first concert on my schedule in the new season, the Philharmonic’s Opening Night Gala on next Wednesday, September 22, which will also be broadcast on Live from Lincoln Center. The program features the U.S. premiere of Wynton Marsalis’s Swing Symphony (oddly, being performed only this one time), Richard Strauss’s Don Juan, and Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber, a thoroughly delightful and far lighter work than its cumbersome title indicates.

The Met opens its new season on September 27 with a bang: Wagner’s Das Rheingold, the first installment of the company’s new hi-tech Ring cycle. A steady stream of articles in the Times over the summer has examined Robert Lepage’s audacious production and whether the Met stage can physically support it. Vocal lovers look forward to Bryn Terfel’s first Met Wotan and Stephanie Blythe’s Fricka (I can’t wait to hear these two megavoices face off toward the end of this season in Act II of Die Walküre, the second Ring opera). The music industry has been on tenterhooks, however: Will James Levine, who has been recovering since last spring from lower back surgery, be well enough to conduct opening night? Met representatives have been mum all summer. Rumors have it that he was leading rehearsals last week as scheduled. And just this morning a Met patron friend sent me a flyer about Levine signing copies at the Met store next Monday of two huge CD volumes of his personally selected favorite performances that the company is releasing to celebrate his 40th-anniversary season. Met reps remain mum. All fingers are crossed.

Carnegie Hall’s Opening Night Gala always feels like homecoming, undoubtedly because it has been dark all summer. At my last concert there, on May 16, Boulez conducted the MET Orchestra, so I’m really looking forward to September 29, even if it’s all Beethoven. But the Vienna Philharmonic will be playing, and these guys know their Beethoven, even if conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s recordings haven’t convinced me that he is up to snuff. I’m hoping he will have loosened up for the second night’s glorious folk-nationalist cycle of tone poems by Smetana, Ma Vlast (My Homeland), since he recorded it. The last two VPO concerts will be conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, whose visits are a must with any orchestra.

Actually, the concert I look forward to the most will be in Philadelphia on October 1, when my friend Laurel E. Fay, author of Shostakovich: A Life, and I venture south to hear Charles Dutoit lead the Philadelphia Orchestra in the Soviet composer’s Fourth Symphony, preceded by British musicologist Gerard McBurney’s enlightening Beyond the Score presentation of the historical background of this unsettling work. If ever a piece of music benefited from explication, it’s this—an approximately hour-long symphony written in 1936 but not given its first performance until 1961. It signaled what appeared to be an entirely new direction for the 29-year-old composer: sort of Mahler on speed. But after the composer’s withdrawal of the symphony under pressure during rehearsals and the Stalin-inspired shuttering of his hit opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, he reverted to the more popular style we know in his Fifth Symphony. Laurel and I first saw the McBurney presentation when it was done in tandem with Andrey Boreyko’s New York Philharmonic performances of the Fourth in 2007. McBurney did an encore in Chicago two years ago to accompany Bernard Haitink’s towering performances, and it is wisely included with the live recording released on the orchestra’s own label, CSO Resound. The last New York performance of the Fourth, at Lincoln Center in March by the London Philharmonic under Vladimir Jurowski, was a hair-raiser. This piece grows more compelling with each hearing.

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