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From Machaut to Sondheim – A NYC Weekend Cultural Diary

Posted on: November 18th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

This was a very busy weekend on my concert schedule — actually, an extended weekend since it began on Thursday night — so I have much to report.  On Thursday night I was at the New York Philharmonic from a program that included the NYC premiere of Christopher Rouse’s Oboe Concerto, played by the NY Philharmonic’s excellent principal oboe player, Liang Wang.   On Friday night I attended “Armida: A Baroque Opera Celebration” presented by New Opera NYC, one of the numerous small opera companies that have sprouted up in recent seasons, performed at a venue previously unknown to me, a dance studio on West 60th Street way west towards the Hudson River.  On Saturday afternoon, I headed over to City Center for an Encores! presentation of titles “A Bed and a Chair: A New York Love Affair,” made up of music from Stephen Sondheim’s shows.  That evening, at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, I head a program of Renaissance music titled “A Love Affair,” performed by England’s Orlando Consort.  Finally, on Sunday afternoon, I found myself in Carnegie Hall for “Elliott Carter: An American Original,” presented by Leon Bostein and the American Symphony Orchestra.   So, literally from the 14th century of Machaut to the 21st century of Sondheim I covered a lot of bases this weekend.

The New York Philharmonic is playing at such a sustained level of excellence these days that it is hard to find any fault with anything they are doing.  Thursday night’s concert, conducted by Alan Gilbert, just returned from several weeks of guest-conducting in Europe, maintained that high standard.  Gilbert has championed the music of Christopher Rouse, programming, playing and recording it in Stockholm during his previous music directorship, and bringing it to New York, where the Rouse is now composer-in-residence at the Philharmonic.  (The premiere of his “Prospero’s Rooms” was one of the highlights of last season.)  Although the Oboe Concerto is almost a decade old, this was its first Philharmonic performance, as a previously scheduled debut was postponed for various reasons.  This concerto is unusual among Rouse’s compositions in being relatively “laid back.”  The composer has in many of his compositions imported influences from American pop and rock music, but this piece struck me as more indebted to the American classicists of the mid-20th century than to the pop artists of more recent years.  Perhaps this has something to do with the nature of the oboe itself, as most effectively a lyrical instrument that beautifully sustains long unfolding musical lines that can cut through a full orchestra, at least in the hands of a master virtuoso such as Wang.  I’m hoping that the partnership of Gilbert and Rouse results in some recordings, including this concerto.  They have produced a recording of music by the prior composer-in-residence, Magnus Lindberg, so we have a precedent, and the Philharmonic does have a recording contract with the Danish DaCapo label, so I’m hopeful!  * * *  The remainder of the program was made up of two tone poems by Richard Strauss, Don Juan to open the program, and Also Sprach Zarathustra to close it.  This virtuoso orchestra tossed off both pieces with aplomb, and brass especially covering themselves with glory.  One might complain that at times the music was unrelievedly loud — partly an artifact of the very lively acoustic in Avery Fisher Hall — and that the Philharmonic’s lack of an installed pipe organ, and thus necessary resort to an electric organ, slightly undercuts the effect of Zarathustra.  Not much one can do about those things, although perhaps Gilbert can work on getting a wider dynamic range at the lower end.  I  was hearing the first performance of this program, and Gilbert had only been back rehearsing the orchestra as of Tuesday, so it is possible that things got progressively more nuanced over the course of performances, and tomorrow night’s final run will probably be even more spectacular, if that is possible, with the entire program really “played in.”

New Opera NYC is the brainchild of producer Igor Konyukhov and music director Raphael Fusco.  Apparently lacking the resources to put on a full-scale Handel opera with sets and cast appropriate to such an endeavor, they made up their own Handel opera, for which Konyukhov wrote an original libretto (in Italian), extracting an overture from Faramondo, arias from Rinaldo, Agrippina, Giulio Cesare, Delirio Amoroso, Orlando, Tamerlano, Imeneo, and Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (plus some inserts areas from works by Vivaldi and Broschi).  Maestro Fusco also composed some recitatives to tie the piece together.  Konuyukhov’s story, set in an unspecified time and place, was set in a landfill/dump where members of the upper-crust go to harass the beggars and rag-pick from the junk.  At least, that was Act I.  Much of Act II took place as a Dream set in the residence of one of the upper-crust, who is pursuing one of the women from the landfill!  Figure it out.  I really couldn’t make much of it, and the person operating the projected titles seem stymied at times, finally apparently giving up during the 2nd act, leaving the same titles up without regard to what was being sung.  A kink to be worked out.  That said, the music was nicely performed, with a small orchestra of period string quintet, Oboe, guitar and harpsichord (played by Maestro Fusco).  Minimalist sets (counting heavily on rear projects that did not always make sense) but suitable costumes and some crazy wigs!!  The singers were all at least adequate, perhaps Amelia Watkins (Armida) and Dmitry Gishpling-Chernov (Almiro) more so.  One of the things they lacked as a good counter-tenor, thus necessarily omitting some of Handel’s finest works from inclusion.  I think that would have helped the show.   Certainly this company deserves encouragement.  Check out their website:  www.NONYC.org.

The Sondheim show at City Center was conceived, according to the program book, as a result of Sondheim editor Peter Gethers coming to see Wynton Marsalis’s Cotton Club Parade and asking Encores! Artistic Director Jack Viertel whether Marsalis had ever played any of Sondheim’s music.  It turned out that Marsalis, as a youngster, had been in the pit orchestra for the original Broadway production of Sweeney Todd, and was receptive to trying something new.  They put together a song and dance show in the now well-established tradition of Sondheim anthology productions, taking songs from wherever they could be found – musicals, film scores — and enlisting Marsalis and the various arrangers who work with him to recast them in a form suitable for Marsalis’s Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, which has the standard configuration of trumpets, trombones, double reads, double bass, piano and percussion.  Sondheim essentially without strings.  Forget all those delicate Jonathan Tunick orchestrations that are as much a part of Sondheim’s sound as his melodic lines and harmonies.  And it does make a difference, because Sondheim is not just a composer, he’s a lyricist as well — indeed, that was his starting point as a creative artist — and the words are as important, if not more so, to a Sondheim song as the music.  There were plenty of problems with this show, but the biggest, in my view, was to sabotage the lyrics all too often with the loud jazz band and the underamplified singers, who got buried at times.   Three of the singers were proven Broadway stars: Jeremy Jordan, Norm Lewis, and Bernadette Peters, but unaccountably the producers enlisted somebody without Broadway credentials, Cyrille Aimee, to be their second female lead.  Aimee is a jazz singer, and proved less of a presence than the others.  Bernadette Peters is always doing a star turn, and had quite a few here, although she was more restrained than one remembers from Broadway.  Lewis and Jordan were also more restrained than one remembers from their theater gigs.  Only once or twice did Jordan really cut loose.  Perhaps this was partly a problem of inadequate time to put the thing together, as they sounded tentative at times.  Four fine dancers — Meg Gillentine, Tyler Hanes, Grasan Kingsberry and Elizabeth Parkinson — were assigned roles as “shadows” in dance for the singers.  Any Sondheim anthology will have its pleasures, because his songs are wonderful, although not always suitable to excerpt or dragoon into service, since they tend to be very tied to the situations they illustrate in the original shows for which they were composed.  I can’t say that this was a failure; it seemed to engage the audience, but in the end I agree with my concert-going companion that this wasn’t a “wow.”

The Miller Theatre Early Music services presentation of the Orlando Consort came closer to being a “wow” in my estimation.  This group recently recorded songs from Guillaume de Machaut’s masterwork, “Le Voir Dit,” a compilation of poetry, letters and music intended to illuminate a lengthy “affair” (not known whether it was physically consummated) between the elderly Machaut and a young woman, and the first half of this concert was made up of eight songs that appear on the recording.  For the second half, the Orlando Consort gave us a “tasting menu” from the leading compositional lights of the 15th and 16th centuries: Dunstaple, Dufay, Ockeghem, Compere, Brumel, desPrez, Clemens non Papa and Gombert.  The first half was all in the royal, flowery French of the 14th century royal courts; the second in the church Latin of the great cathedrals and royal chapels from mid-15th to early-16h century Europe.  The contrast worked well, although I retain my reservations about the performance of secular Renaissance music in a space like St. Mary the Virgin, a resonant church space that clouds harmonies and makes most of the sung text unintelligible.  (They hand out translations, then dim the lights to make them hard to read….  Go figure!)  Most of the sacred music works better in this space, although even here the music that was primarily intended for chapel use can be a bit encumbered by the reverberation in a large church space.  The Orlando is a fine group, with a membership that has evolved over time.  The young alto (countertenor), Matthew Venner, made a strong impression as he seemed to casually float his high notes above the polyphony of the group.  The other three members of the Orlando Consort – tenors Mark Dobell and Angus Smith, and baritone Donald Greig, who wrote the excellent notes – are all performers of the highest order.  (Greig’s name is familiar from several groups, including the Tallis Scholars.)  This was an excellent program in terms of variety, but the second half lacked any really big, weighty piece as an anchor.

Finally, the American Symphony’s Carter program on Sunday.  I must admit right up front that I find much of Carter’s music quite difficult to cope with as a listener, especially – but not exclusively – when I am hearing something for the first time.  Surprisingly, however, two of my first-time experiences proved the easiest to digest, loving early compositions for high voice and orchestra.  Mary MacKenzie sang “Warble for Lilac-Time” and Teresa Buchholz “Voyage”, the former on Whitman verses, the later on Hart Crane.  Both were composed during 1943 and I suspect have not been performed much since.  They are in the composer’s early, tonal style, which owes more to Copland than to the thornier models of Schoenberg, Sessions, etc., that characterize the composer’s middle period.   I thought MacKenzie a bit more successful than Buchholz in projecting Carter’s lyrical lines through the sometimes thick orchestrations.  The Pocahontas suite, drawn from a ballet that received a theatrical presentation on Broadway during the 1930s, was also easy listening (and I have a recording of it, so was not venturing completely unprepared.)  But Sound Fields, a string orchestra piece that seemed to last much longer than its actual duration because nothing much was happening to engage the listener’s mind, struck me as forgettable.  The Clarinet Concerto brought forth Metropolitan Opera Orchestra principal clarinet Anthony McGill, and it is always a pleasure seeing and hearing him perform, even with thorny material like this that is not written to be particularly ingratiating.  The score requires the soloist to walk about the orchestra, playing each of the many movements from a different location.  I could not discern any particular spacial effect that was enhanced by this movement, which just seemed a bit silly to me.  The piece had some fine moments, but was not particularly easy to follow as a musical argument.  The grand finale was the Concerto for Orchestra that Carter wrote for Bernstein and the NY Philharmonic.  They gave it an uncomprehending premiere performance — Carter was not really Bernstein’s cup of tea.  I’ve heard several performances over the years, but this is a nut I’ve yet to crack.  My mind loses focus a few minutes in and I sort of zone out because I find it hard to find music, rather than organized noise, in this piece.  Perhaps, some day, I’ll experience a breakthrough.   The orchestra seemed well-prepared for this concert, and Leon Botstein (the conductor),  certainly showed a flair in the earlier music as well as the Clarinet Concerto.   Will Carter’s music enter the repertory and be played regularly by orchestra’s a generation from now?  Prediction is difficult, but I am dubious.  Unless there is a wide-scale revival of his earlier, more listener-friendly music, this does not strike me as the kind of stuff that conductors will voluntarily perform (pace James Levine, who’s a glutton for punishment where Carter is concerned) or that listeners will go out of their way to hear.  Attendance was pretty dreadful at Carnegie Hall yesterday, but Carter’s reputation for being difficult precedes him.