A brief diary of my 4th quarter 2012 cultural activities

Blogging about my cultural activities lapsed during the fall 2012 semester, due to a combination of being too busy on my part and the transitioning of my blog from typepad to wordpress. This posting is a sort of “catch-up” on the events I’ve attended during the last quarter of 2012 about which I haven’t had a chance to blog. I’ll list them in chronological order with brief comments.
October began with the Metropolitan Opera’s new season. I attended Puccini’s Turandot on October 6 and enjoyed the period-appropriate production, although I recall having been more impressed with the Liu – Hibla Gerzmava – than with Maria Guleghina’s Turandot, Marci Berti’s Calaf, or James Morris’s Timur. The next afternoon, October 7, I attended Schubert & Co.’s recital, hearing a great line-up of singers: Mary Feminear (soprano), Jazimina MacNeil (mezzo), James Barbato (tenor), Kleey Markgraf (bass), and pianists Lachlan Glen and Jonathan Ware. This was a varied program featuring Schubert’s settings of verses by Jacobi, Novalis, Schubart and von Willemer. A week later, I was at Symphony Space on Sunday afternoon, October 14, for the first American Symphony Orchestra Classics Declassified production on Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony. Unfortunately, due to my faculty appointments committee responsibilities that evening, I could only stay for the first part, Leon Botstein’s talk about the work illustrated with selections played by the orchestra, but the talk ran so long and Botstein played so many extended excerpts that I felt I got a good sense of what the performance would be like. (I do think that Botstein needs an editor for these talks, which tend to run on too long.) On Wednesday, the 16th, I attended my first Five Boroughs Music Festival concert of the year, Mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn’s performance of Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire song cycle with the Proteus Ensemble at the Performing Garage, preceded by a few other period-appropriate chamber pieces. On the 20th, I attended Peoples’ Symphony Concerts’ program by a Music from Marlboro ensemble, which I already blogged about on my old blog.

Back to Schubert & Co. on October 21, for their sole foray to the new National Opera Center for a recital by sopranos Julia Bullock and Simone Easthope, tenor Nils Neubert and bass-baritone Andrew Bogard with Lachlan Glen at the keyboard. The small recital hall at NOC is an excellent place to here lieder, much better than the church where their other concerts are held, as the sound is better focused and the balance between voice and piano better judged. A few days later, on October 23, I was at the New York Philharmonic to hear Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos conduct Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, a vivid, lively rendition that really showed off the wind soloists of the orchestra. Before intermission, Augustin Hadelich gave a somewhat disengaged performance of Edouard Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole for violin and orchestra. This was Hadelich’s Philharmonic debut, and I thought he would have been well advised to present a piece for which he had somewhat more passion; this just sounded tired. (Perhaps, however, this was because I was catching the last presentation of a four-concert run.)
On Friday, the 26th, it was the grand 50th birthday celebration by the American Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. The ASO was founded by Leopold Stokowski, using as its nucleus members from the “Symphony of the Air” that had been formed out of the remnants of Toscanini’s NBC Symphony after that maestro was forced to retire. Stokowski had a long history of guest-conducting the NBC and Symphony of the Air groups, and he set an ambitious goal for the ASO to train young musicians and explore interesting repertory. One of their major productions was the world premiere of the complete Symphony No. 4 by Charles Ives in 1965, a task requiring significant musicological archaeology, since Ives did not leave a complete score of the piece, which had to be patched together from sketches. Leon Botstein and the ASO decided that Ives’ 4th should be part of the birthday celebration, after a performance of the Star-Spangled Banner, as arranged by Stokowski and traditionally performed at the start of each season under his direction. For the second half, they decided to present Stokowski’s other most famous premiere, the 8th Symphony of Gustav Mahler, whose first U.S. performances Stokowski conducted early in his tenure as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra (including run-out concerts to Carnegie Hall in New York), 1916. This made for a gigantic 50th birthday concert, and the ASO acquitted itself with honor in both difficult symphonies.
The next night, October 27, I was back at the New York Philharmonic for another concert led by Fruhbeck de Burgos. This time the “big” work was Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in the second half. For the first half, they played Mozart’s Serenata notturna (K. 239), and his Horn Concerto No. 3, K. 447, with the Philharmonic’s inimitable principal horn player, Philip Myers, as soloist. This was a truly memorable concert. Myers was an excellent form, and Fruhbeck de Burgos, despite the frail appearance he gave as he approached the podium and leaned on a stool while conduct, provided vigorous leadership throughout the evening. And that’s a wrap for my October concerts.
My first November outing was on Saturday, Nov. 3, to Columbia University’s Italian Academy for an evening of Claudio Monteverdi’s music presented by TENET, a leading NYC-based early music group. The evening’s selections came from the 8th Book of Madrigals, and held me enthralled throughout the program. Scott Metcalfe led the ensemble of excellent singers and early-music instrumentalists, in a splendid setting evocative of the early 17th century palazzo where such works would have been performed when new. The next day, I squeezed in two concerts! In the afternoon, I was at Town Hall for Peoples’ Symphony’s presentation of the Horszowski Trio playing Shostakovich (No. 1), Mozart (K.502), and Dvorak (Op. 65). Afterwards, I hurred up the east side for Schubert & Co.’s recital by soprano Raquel Gonzalez, mezzo Rachael Wilson, and baritone Michael Kelly. The real find of the evening, for me, was Kelly’s rendition of the lengthy ballad “Der Tod Oscars,” setting verses of James MacPherson (writing as “Ossian”). Kelly’s vocal dramatization was intense! Lachlan Glen accompanied the women, and Jonathan Ware did the honors for Kelly.
The following Saturday, it was back to the High School of Fashion Industries auditorium, where Peoples’ Symphony presented the Pacifica Quartet, an excellent young group whose excellent recordings have been making a real mark – especially the Naxos series of Elliott Carter’s quartets. Their program was actually rather conservative: Haydn’ Op. 76, No. 4, Shostakovich’s Op. 68, and Beethoven’s Op. 132, but the concert ended abruptly in the midst of the Beethoven when an electrical problem plunged the stage into darkness and PSC’s representatives called a halt. This was a shame, because the Pacificas were doing a great job on the Beethoven! My next event, Mozart’s opera La Clemenza di Tito at the Metropolitan the following Friday night, November 16, did make it all the way to the end. I enjoyed the performance, conducted by Harry Bicket and well sung by an excellent case – I particularly enjoyed Elina Garanca as Sesto – but I was perturbed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s production. The opera is set in ancient Rome during the reign of the Emperor Titus. There should have been a regular toga party on stage. Instead, Ponnelle dressed his cast in late 18th century garb, even though the sets, more representational than realistic, at least implied the appropriate period. It seemed discordant to me, and I think the practice of costuming opera singers in the period of the composer rather than the period of the story is ridiculous and distracting.
On November 17, I was back to the New York Philharmonic for Kurt Masur directing the 3rd and 4th Symphonies of Johannes Brahms. These two symphonies are so different in style and affect that it is not monotonous to hear both on the same program, and I thought the performers did a good job in both, without veering out of the mainstream of interpretation. It was good to see Masur conduct again, but he does look quite feeble at this point. This did not, however, seem to affect the orchestra’s performance, which was solid and vigorous in both works.
Coming back to NYC after a weekend expedition to Florida to visit family, I attended my second Five Boroughs Music Festival program of the season at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn on Monday, Nov. 26. The concert was titled “Rossi & Company” and presented soloists from the Clarion Music Society in partnership with the synagogue’s cantor in early 17th century music, interspersing the Hebrew settings of Salamone Rossi with Italian madrigals by Rossi and his contemporaries and Latin sacred music set by Rossi’s friend, Claudio Monteverdi. This was an excellent program, presented in a small chapel where the music seemed right at home. Later that week, on Thursday, it was back to the New York Philharmonic, with Alan Gilbert leading a program that featured the New York premiere of Steven Stucky’s Symphony, Gil Shaham in Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, and Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances. This was another excellent program, mostly beautifully performed. Stucky’s Symphony, in a listener-friendly idiom, was enjoyable to hear, and I wish either this orchestra or the LA Phil (which recently premiered it) would issue a recording. Shaham’s performance of the Barber was technically brilliant, but I thought every movement was taken slightly too fast – so much so in the finale that it was actually difficult to follow the course of the music. Barber’s gorgeous harmonies in the first two movements never had a chance to make the full impact that they could make at more moderate tempi. No such tempo problems in the Rachmaninoff, however, which was exemplary in every respect. I rounded out the month with another Schubert & Co. recital on the 30th, with soprano Sarah Shafer, mezzos Jazimina MacNeil and Nathalie Mittelbach, tenor Nils Neubert, and baritone Tyler Duncan. Erika Switzer is Duncan’s regular recital partner and accompanied him, while Lachlan Glen partnered with the other singers. This was an extended exploration of Schubert’s settings of verses by Schiller.
December for me was heavy with theater in addition to my usual concert-going, taking advantage of the end of the semester and my greater freedom on weeknights. After a fine concert by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on December 1 to open the month, I attended a performance of Theresa Rebeck’s play, Dead Accounts, at the Music Box Theatre on 45th St. The main attraction was Norbert Leo Butz, a favorite actor, and it was interesting to see Katie Holmes (the ex-Mrs. Tom Cruise) in the female lead. I found this a curious play, interesting and engaging in the first act, but degenerating in the second act until it just sorted of faded away. Not the greatest play, I fear, despite the fine performance by the cast. I was much more favorably impressed by Golden Boy, which I attended on December 8 at the Belasco Theatre. This revival of a Clifford Odets Depression-era saga attracted my interest through the casting of Seth Numrich in the lead role of Joe Bonaparte, the young violin prodigy who abandons his fiddle for an ill-fated career as a prize fighter. I was entranced by Numrich’s performance in War Horse at Lincoln Center Theatre, and so had to see him in this. The lad really muscled up to play this role, and he was awesome in every respect. The entire cast was great, and Yvonne Strahovski as Lorna Moon, young Joe’s love interest, was a real standout. Despite the sometimes stilted script, this show is a real winner in its current revival. After attending the matinee performance, I took a quick trip uptown to Avery Fisher Hall for the New York Philharmonic concert, starring Andre Watts in Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto. I deliberately use the word “starring” because that is Watts – star-quality in one of the great romantic concerti, somewhat overshadowing the excellent Philharmonic debut of young conductor Juraj Valcuha, who led fine performances of Weber’s Oberon Overture and, in the second half, music by Richard Strauss from the operas Die Frau ohne Schotten and Die Rosenkavalier. I’m eager to see him conduct again.
On Thursday evening, December 13, I was back at Carnegie Hall for the American Symphony’s centennial tribute to John Cage, but I only lasted for half the evening, hearing performances of Webern’s Symphony, Feldman’s …Out of ‘Last Pieces,’ Satie’s Parade, and Cage’s Cheap Imitation (for Orchestra). One Cage work in an evening is enough for me (and it was a workday, after all, leaving me pretty tired to start with), so I did not stay for the all-Cage second half. Home to bed.
On December 20, it was back to Broadway for the Westside Theatre’s presentation of My Name is Asher Lev, a play by Aaron Posner based on the novel by Chaim Potok. I remember reading this book as a child, but had only a vague recollection of the details. The show brought them vividly back, with stellar performances by Ari Brand (as young Asher Lev), Mark Nelson (as all the men in his life) and Jenny Bacon (as the women in his life). This was a wonderfully intense dramatization of the difficulties of post-Holocaust life in the traditional Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, and the theme of the young artist struggling to reconcile his gift with the constraints of his religion was all-absorbing. For something completely different, the next night I attended Berlioz’s Les Troyens at the Met. This was a total wow, despite the shortcomings of Deborah Voigt as Cassandra and Marcello Giordani as Aeneas. Susan Graham as Dido in Part II swept all before her, and the production and large supporting cast were all excellent in bringing to life Berlioz’s huge, mad depiction of the fall of Troy and the aftermath at Carthage.
On Sunday afternoon, the 23rd, I was not particularly impressed by Atlantic Theater Company’s presentation of “What Rhymes with America,” a play by Melissa James Gibson that I found rather pointless and obscure, despite the best efforts of the cast and production crew. The next evening, at Carnegie Hall, I was thrilled by the concert of the New York String Orchestra, an ensemble made up of young musicians attending a two week workshop sponsored by the Hall. Jaime Laredo led exhilarating performances of Mozart’s Clemenza di Tito Overture (performed just as well as what I heard from the Met Orchestra earlier in the season) and Haydn’s Symphony 104. Jonathan Biss was soloist for Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2, which was actually written prior to the piece published as Concerto No. 1 but saved for publication second by Beethoven because it is slighter than its successor and he wanted to make the bigger splash. I’ve long had great affection for this concerto, having first heard it in a fine Soviet-era recording by Emil Gilels. Biss’s interpretation was very straightforward and energetic, and the orchestra collaboration was excellent.

I concluded my cultural year with a theater weekend. On Saturday, December 29, I attended a performance of Terrence McNally’s new play, Golden Age, an imaginative recreation of doings back-stage during the Paris premiere of Bellini’s opera “I Puritani.” This was pure fun, and very well acted by a talented cast. The following afternoon, to end my cultural year, I attended the last performance of the revival of “Working,” a musical based on a book of interviews published by Studs Terkel, performed by a talented young cast at 59E59 Theaters.

A great way to end the year!! And going through this, I am stunned at how much I was able to take in on top of all my other activities: teaching, chairing faculty appointments, producing my monthly newsletter and podcast, and writing for Gay City News. When do I sleep? Good question.

One thought on “A brief diary of my 4th quarter 2012 cultural activities

  1. How could I have left this out? On December 14 I heard a thrilling performance of J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio (complete – all six cantatas) at a church on the Upper East Side, performed by Harold Rosenbaum and his Canticum Novum singers with a capable period instrument ensembles. I was drawn to this concert by the participation of two favorite singers, baritone Jesse Blumberg and countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, and they were both superb. The resonant acoustics of the church tended to blur the sound of the instrumental ensemble and chorus, but the vocal soloists came through well-focused and strong. I think the entire work in one sitting is a bit taxing for the listener; Bach intended the individual six cantatas to be performed at six separate services over the course of the Christmas observances, and I think he would have been astonished that anybody would perform the entire thing in one concert, as it was not written to be concert music. Thus, with all the effort to use period instruments and present an authentic church acoustic, the most authentic part of the experience is left behind. Pieces written for practical use in religious observance are given a concert treatment in a context that doesn’t always work very well.

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