Return of the Reluctant Blogger

by Sedgwick Clark

“It’s been two and a half months since you’ve blogged,” e-wailed Web editor Susan Elliott the other day. “Your numbers have tanked, and soon no one will remember you.  Let someone else walk the dogs, OK?”

“Gotta get those commas right,” I pled.

     Once upon a deadline dreary, while I proofread, weak and weary,
     Over many a quaint and curious typo of forgotten lore—
     While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
     As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my office door.
    “‘Tis some editor,” I muttered, “tapping at my office door—
                                                         Only this and nothing more.”

I never expected to be in deadline hell for so long. But the light shines bright at the end of the tunnel: The 2011 MA Directory is in the mail, and on Monday we honor four distinguished musicians and an Educator of the Year at our annual Musical America Awards ceremony. Susan will have a full report next week. When last I wrote in this space (September 22), I urged you to read the backstage insights of Musical America‘s new blogger, New York Philharmonic Music Director Alan Gilbert. I hope you’ve been enjoying his blogs as much as I have from my self-imposed distance. I’m actually looking forward to blogging again. I intend to mix comments on the new and the notable old, beginning this week with the most recent concert I’ve heard—all-Boulez at the Miller—and continuing with Carnegie Hall’s season openers with the Vienna Philharmonic, which I had begun writing about in early October but had to set aside.

Pierre Boulez’s “Last” 85th-Birthday Celebration
That’s what Ara Guzelimian called it with a laugh as he began his post-intermission interview with Boulez at New York’s jam-packed Miller Theatre on Monday evening. The French composer-conductor (b. March 26, 1925) has been feted internationally for the past year. It must have been a relief for Boulez, in the latest of the Miller’s Composer Portrait series, not to have to lift a finger to hear several of his works performed expertly by a crack group of dedicated young musicians.

The Talea Ensemble, new to me, and conducted by James Baker, performed Dérive 1 (1984) and Dérive 2 (1988/2006); Improvisation I and II sur Mallarmé (1957), sung with seeming effortlessness by Mary Elizabeth Mackenzie. Pianist Anthony Cheung played the 12 Notations (1945), effectively Boulez’s opus 1, although he did not officially dub them so. 

What struck me vividly as I listened was the ease with which these once intimidating works fell on my ears. I’ve heard all of them in concert and on record, except for the most recent—and quite extended—version of Dérive 2, of which this was the U. S. premiere. Most have been conducted by the composer, whose gift in the most complex music has always been to make it sound less fearsome. His stated goal for taking up conducting was to acquaint audiences with the 20th-century classics, which would make it easier to understand new music. My guess is that both conductor and audience had a salutary effect on each other over the years.

I’m not qualified to analyze Boulez’s music—or that of Elliott Carter, who at nearly 102 had come to honor his young friend. I just like to listen to it. So I was pleased to hear Charles Rosen, who recorded Boulez’s First and Third Piano Sonatas in the early 1970s, and is well versed with the idiom, praise the performances when we spoke at intermission. I also found Paul Griffiths’ program notes uncommonly illuminating, especially in his explanation of Boulez’s “ideal of music as ‘a universe in continuous expansion'” and his commitment to compositional “openendedness.” (Too bad that the type was so small and the hall so dark!)

At least four important Boulez CDs were released this year, each with at least one new work in his discography. From Deutsche Grammophon came (1) the final release in his Mahler cycle, which includes the Wunderhorn Songs, with soprano Magdalena Kozená and baritone Christian Gerhaher, and the Adagio from the unfinished Tenth Symphony, (2) Ravel’s two piano concertos and solo Miroirs with pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, and, (3) best of all, Boulez’s first recordings of music by Szymanowski, the Violin Concerto No. 1, with Christian Tetzlaff, and the Third Symphony. These artists bring out the expressive best in each other, and the Vienna Philharmonic plays ravishingly. Boulez told me he’d like to record the Second Violin Concerto with Tetzlaff; the Second Symphony and Symphonie concertante, with Aimard, would make ideal discmates. (4) From the Chicago Symphony’s own label, Chicago Resound, came an all-Stravinsky CD of Pulcinella (complete), Four Etudes for Orchestra, and Symphony in Three Movements.

Vienna Philharmonic x 4 Opens Carnegie
This hallowed orchestra opened Carnegie Hall’s new season with a colossal conductorial mismatch: the dithering doyen of the authentic-performance movement, 80-year-old Nicolaus Harnoncourt, and the hottest young maestro on the planet, the volcanic Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel. So much for my alliterative amusement. The first work in the all-Beethoven opener was the Piano Concerto No. 1. The soloist was Lang Lang, who has perhaps the most beautiful, varied color palette of any pianist before the public today. He just hasn’t always had the taste to go along with it. He underplayed the opening movement of the First until the lengthy cadenza, which he assaulted with Rachmaninoffian thunder. And so it went: power vs. priss. As for the accompaniment, by the end of the very first phrase in the strings—only five seconds—Harnoncourt had weakened the cadence with a diminuendo and taken a prolonged breath before allowing the strings to repeat the phrase a step higher. Fussy to no purpose. I leaned over to my seatmate and whispered, “I’m ready to leave.” Decorum dictated that we remain, but at intermission we fled into the night, skipping the Seventh Symphony. Several friends later told me they wished they had done the same.

For his second concert Harnoncourt led Smetana’s paean to Bohemia, Má Vlast (My Homeland), a folk-nationalist cycle of six symphonic poems of which the second, The Moldau, is a universal favorite. This time, with less fuss from the podium and more vibrato from the Vienna strings, one could revel in much gorgeous playing—such as the ravishing pianissimo strings in the fugato of the fourth piece, From Bohemia’s Fields and Forests. Still, with tighter ensemble the results throughout could have been magical.

The magic was reserved for Dudamel’s concerts. As with his pair of Los Angeles Philharmonic concerts at Lincoln Center last season, interpretive misgivings were soon forgotten. In the first of his concerts, Rossini’s Overture to La gazza ladra was unaccountably rushed and coarse. But Spanish-Cuban-American composer Julián Orbón’s Tres versions sinfónicas (1954) was played with delightfully idiomatic flavor. Go figure. Bernstein’s quarter-hour, eight-movement Divertimento for Orchestra (1980) has moments of his trademark swagger, but it’s a trifle. Dudamel palpably loves it. Two stately dances by Ravel closed the concert. The somber little Pavane pour une infant défunte initially intrigued but ultimately bored. Boléro revelled in superb solo playing, but Dudamel began at such a ppppp that it was several minutes before the snare drum rhythm was clear.

The full-throated Vienna Philharmonic sonority finally emerged the next afternoon. Brahms’s Tragic Overture suffered from the “slow-is-profound” syndrome; give me Toscanini’s whiplash brand of tragedy from 1937. Schumann’s Cello Concerto can be a turgid affair, and I would have preferred sharper orchestral attacks, but Dudamel never covered soloist Yo-Yo Ma, who played at the top of his considerable form. Ma’s duet with the VPO’s first-chair cellist in the middle movement was the high point of the concert if you don’t count his Bach encore. It’s fashionable to denigrate Ma as having sold out or being past his prime. Don’t believe it for a second.

Wary of wearing them out, I consciously avoid such ubiquitous masterpieces as Dvorák’s “New World” Symphony, but I wouldn’t have missed this performance for the [new] world. Those glorious Vienna string players sang out fortissimo, smiling at one other as if let off their leashes at last. Often, as the violins played the top melody, one’s ears perked up as the violas and cellos revealed fresh details, and all contributed lovely touches of portamento throughout. Dudamel’s extreme slowing for the first movement’s third theme may not have pleased everyone, but its excess was emotionally convincing. The second-movement Largo was very slow, with a heart-breaking rendering of the English horn solo. Momentum sagged a bit in the finale, and the coda’s shaping was definitely personal. But what living, breathing, red-blooded music-making, reminiscent of Bernstein and Rostropovich at their peak! Critics who nitpick Dudamel’s performances miss the forest for the trees.

The Classical Letterman
David Letterman usually concludes his show with a rock band. Just as I was finishing this blog, he closed with a classical artist, of all things. The British trumpeter Alison Balsom, whom Harris Goldsmith hailed as a rising young star in the 2008 MA Directory, played a Marcello Allegro from her latest EMI CD, “Italian Concertos.” The audience applauded fervently. So tell me, what ails classical music?

Looking Forward
My week’s scheduled concerts:
12/10 Avery Fisher Hall. New York Philharmonic/Colin Davis; Nikolaj Znaider, violin. Mozart: Symphony No. 36; Elgar: Introduction and Allegro; Violin Concerto.
12/14 Carnegie Hall. JapanNYC Festival. Saito Kinen Orchestra/Tatsuya Shimono and Seiji Ozawa; Mitsuko Uchida, piano. Works by Gondai, Beethoven, and Brahms.
12/15 Metropolitan Opera. Verdi: Don Carlo.

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