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A Concert Diary for the First Half of March 2014 – Metropolitan Opera, Carnegie Hall, Peoples’s Symphony Concerts, Houston Symphony

Posted on: March 14th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

The first two weeks of March have been quite busy, and again I’ve fallen behind in posting about my concert-going experiences. So here is a quick catch-up.

I had a double-header on Saturday, March 1, attending the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Prince Igor in the afternoon, and a piano recital by Alexandre Tharaud at Peoples’ Symphony Concerts in the evening.

The Met’s new production of Prince Igor, produced an designed by Dmitri Tcherniakov, takes a new approach to this unfinished opera by Alexander Borodin. When Borodin died, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov picked up the pieces and, with the assistance of Alexander Glazunov, put together an opera using much of Borodin’s material and some that Rimsky and Glazunov composed. The overture, for example, was reconstructed by Glazunov from memories of Borodin playing it at the piano, in the absence of any surviving manuscript. In this form the opera made its appearance around the world, but never really won full status in the standard operative repertory, although the Polovtsian Dances, extracted by Rimsky as a concert suite, achieved wide performance in symphony concerts, and the opera was heavily raided for the Broadway musical, Kismet. For this new Met production, Tcherniakov, in collaboration with conductor Gianandrea Noseda and composer Pavel Smelkov (who handled new orchestrations) went back to Borodin’s original and put together an opera that leaves behind the new material composed by Rimsky and Glazunov. We are assured in the program book that virtually all the music we were hearing was by Borodin, although he had some help in fleshing things out orchestrally. This process required dropping some scenes that had become familiar, and reordering the remainder. Tcherniakov imposed on the work a new logic and sequence of action, making it more of an interior exploration of the mind of Prince Igor, a minor noble whose attempt to vanquish the Polovtsian tribe’s invasion of Russian space was unsuccessful.

It is an interesting experiment. Borodin’s music continues to cast its spell, in whatever order it is played, and Noseda conducts a compelling performance by an illustrious Russian cast, with Ildar Abdrazakov an outstanding Igor and Oksana Dyka stunning as his long-suffering wife. As to the production itself, I register my continuing protest against taking historically based operas and resetting them in times other than those contemplated by the composer. Borodin would have expected, as a 19th century composer, that performances of his opera would be staged with sets and costumes suitable for a story taking place in 12th century Eurasia. But here we had on stage soldiers in early 20th century uniforms carrying rifles. We had officers dressed in uniforms that seemed to be from various periods from the late 19th century through Soviet-style uniforms of what might be the 1930s. We had electric light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. We had industrial fixtures suggesting an early 20th century setting. And we had some confusion as well, with a plot summary in the program that is not entirely helpful in explaining what is flashback, what is present, what is taking place in Igor’s imagination or dreams, what is actually happening. I found the third act particularly confusing, as one unit set was apparently intended as the interior of Igor’s palace in Putivl, but some of the action seems to be taking place elsewhere. Is this in Igor’s mind? That occurs to me as an explanation, but didn’t as I was watching the scene unfold.

I think the production is a musical success, but I hope that if the Met decides to restage it in the future, they might try to clarify things a bit in the plot summary and maybe even add some explanatory material to the surtitles displayed on the seatbacks.

Despite the odd decisions about how to costume them, I thought the Met chorus (and interloping supernumeraries) were superbly deployed, and the dancers in the Act II dream sequence ballet, played to the Polovtsian Dances, were superb as well.

On to Peoples’ Symphony Concerts at Washington Irving High School for Alexandre Tharaud’s March 1 recital of music by Schumann, Schubert, Mahler and Beethoven. This was a real attempt at casting against type. Tharaud is mainly known from his recordings and prior appearances as an expert performer in the French piano repertory, with some excursions into Chopin and Scarlatti. But on this occasion he focused on completely different repertory – Austro-German romanticism – with Schumann’s “Scenes from Childhood” suite, Op. 15, Schubert’s 4 Impromptus, D. 899, Tharaud’s solo piano arrangement of the Adagietto movement from Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, and Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata (Op. 57). It’s two weeks later as I write this and I can remember all the encores, but I recall that one was a sonata by Scarlatti. Tharaud played with the expected clarity and authority, but I felt that some of his interpretive choices were a bit off, including some overemphasis of inner voices and bass lines at the expense of stylistic coherence. The Mahler transcription didn’t work for me. Mahler thought orchestrally in his symphonies and the Adagietto in a keyboard arrangement came across to me as clunky and percussive, totally out of character. Maybe I was just tired after the long afternoon with Borodin, but I was not as enthusiastic as I expected to be. I am a huge admirer of Tharaud’s work from his recordings, but the recital let me down a bit.

It was back to the Metropolitan Opera on March 5 for the revival of The Enchanted Island, a Baroque pastiche opera assembled especially for the Met by Jeremy Sams, drawing plot elements from Shakespeare’s The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and music drawn mainly from works of Handel with interpolated material by Vivaldi, Rameau, Campra, Leclair, Purcell, Rebel and Ferrandini. I loved this when I attended the world premiere on New Year’s Eve 2011 with William Christie conducting, but I thought the current revival fell a bit flat with Patrick Summers on the podium and slight changes in the cast. One thing that did not change was the excellent supporting part of Neptune sung by Placido Domingo, who really commands the stage. David Daniels’ voice seemed a bit submerged by the orchestra. I had particularly bought a ticket of this to see Anthony Roth Costanzo, one of my favorite young countertenors, but I had forgotten how tiny the role of Ferdinand is in this production. One waits for hours, and then Costanzo pops up right towards the end, singing briefly, but beautifully costumed. Indeed, the triumph of this production is in the sets and costumes. But this time around the production didn’t hold my interest to the degree it had at the premiere. In light of the many empty seats I saw on a Wednesday night, I suspect the Met will not be in a hurry to bring this one back.

The next night, March 6, I was in Carnegie Hall for a performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and the Oratorio Society of New York, with vocal soloists Susan Gritton, Julie Boulianne, Michael Schade and Nathan Berg, conducted by Sir Roger Norrington, whose specialty is historically informed performance of Baroque, Classical and early Romantic music. In line with Norrington’s approach, the string players large eschewed vibrato, tempi veered towards extremes of slow and (more frequently fast), phrasing was a bit clipped at times, dynamics a bit exaggerated. Nothing can really sink the Missa Solemnis, one of the greatest creations of one of the greatest musical geniuses, but I did not feel and lift and thrill that I had experienced when I heard John Eliot Gardner lead period forces in a performance at Avery Fisher Hall several years ago. It felt like Norrington had some emotional distance from the music — music that was very emotional on Beethoven’s part, and that his performing forces — that is, chorus and orchestra, not soloists — were a bit overmatched by the challenges this piece presents. The chorus was, in short, too large — either that, or the orchestra was too small. Well over 100 choristers were listed in the program, and it was quite a crowd assembled on the stage. This is not a full-time professional chorus, and Beethoven’s writing for the chorus in this piece is generally acknowledged to be very demanding. They gave it a good try, but they lacked the polish to carry it all off convincingly. St. Luke’s is a highly proficient group, but one cannot adequately balance such a huge chorus with a chamber orchestra in this piece and expect to make the desired effects. The string body was just too small, and sounded even smaller than usual without using vibrato to thicken the tone. They also seemed quite scrappy in the big fugal passages. Not even a near miss, in my opinion.

Now for something completely different. I was visiting in Houston, Texas, on the weekend, to spend time with my Mom and my Houston relatives (brother and sister-in-law, nephew and his growing family with two toddlers in tow, and niece). Arrangements were made by my brother for us to attend the Houston Symphony Orchestra’s March 8 program at Jesse Jones Hall. I’d never been in that hall before, to the best of my recollection, and I was very impressed. Better sight-lines than Avery Fisher, and acoustics to rival Carnegie. We were sitting in the rear orchestra, under the balcony overhang, but I felt no diminution of high pitched sounds (as one experiences in the Dress Circle at Carnegie or rear orchestra in Avery Fisher). This room fans out rather than being the severe rectangle of Avery Fisher or the traditional shape of Carnegie, and the result is sonically distinguished.

The Houston Symphony is currently “between” music directors, Hans Graf having retired and a new young man slated to begin next fall. The season includes a progression of guests, but they decided to experiment with something different for this concert, dispensing with a conductor, although concertmaster Frank Huang supervised the preparations and led from the first chair (or, in the Piazzolla, standing in the center as soloist). Apart from a handful of woodwind players and a harpsichordist in the opening Haydn Symphony No. 39, all the musicians on stage were string players. The experiment was a success; they played well together without a conductor. The Haydn is a nondescript early symphony that received a vigorous but forgettable performance. But then, with Astor Piazzolla’s 4 Seasons of Buenos Aires concerti, we were in memorable territory. The composer incorporates tango rhythms into classical forms for four brief concerti intended to suggest the various seasons in a South American city. Although most of the solo work was assigned to concertmaster Huang, there were brief solos allotted to some of the other musicians as well. The players obviously enjoyed this piece, getting into the swing of things and sporting wide grins at times reflecting their pleasure in the music. After intermission came a sumptuous performance of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings. I’ve heard several performances of this in recent years, but always played by chamber orchestras, and it was a completely different and agreeable experience to hear it played by a large, well-disciplined orchestra string section. The Houston Symphony strings sounded great.

Upon returning to New York, I found myself in the midst of Carnegie Hall’s Vienna City of Dreams Festival, with my subscription ticket for the Vienna Philharmonic’s March 13 concert, led by guest conductor Andris Nelsons, who is scheduled to take over as music director of the Boston Symphony in the fall. In keeping with the Festival theme, the program was entirely made up of music associated with Vienna – a symphony by Haydn, two works by Brahms, and encore by Johann Strauss Jr. (The orchestra telegraphed the inevitability of an encore by having a harp on the stage during the second half, when the only work listed on the program did not require that instrument.) Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 90 incorporates a joke on the audience, which almost never fails to succeed. The last movement has a false ending followed by a pause, during which the audience applauds. The conductor waves to cut off the applause and starts things up again, leading to the real ending. It may seem obvious, but this symphony is not played with any great frequency, so audiences are always fooled, apart from a handful of those who correctly interpret the program notes or quickly register before they can applaus that the conductor has not dropped his arms. In a canny bit of linkage, the Haydn Symphony was followed by Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Haydn, thus providing a stylistic bridge to the second half’s performance of Brahms’s Symphony No. 3. We don’t hear the Haydn Variations that much in concert, apart from the occasional all-Brahms festival, but it is a marvelous piece compromised by its length. (Modern U.S. symphony concert programs tend to eschew short orchestra pieces – this one runs just over a quarter hour – in favor of “big” symphonies and concerti, reserving the “short piece” slot for something contemporary. Our loss, since we miss out on hearing the huge repertory of romantic overtures, tone poems and suites that were common in programs from early in the 20th century.) The 3rd Symphony is the most difficult to bring off; tempo selection in the first movement is tricky, and it ends quietly so conductors don’t like to use it to end a concert. On the other hand, it is the most concise and intimate of the Brahms symphonies, and when it works, it’s just terrific.

I think it is difficult to judge an orchestra when it is not playing in its home hall and is being led by a guest conductor. It is hard to know whether what one is hearing has more to do with the leadership on the podium and the acoustic of a strange hall than with the intrinsic strengths and weaknesses of the ensemble. I had a sense throughout the concert that the VPO was a very talented orchestra that fell short of the highest standards we tend to expect from orchestras like the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony, or the Philadelphia Orchestra, to name three major orchestra that perform frequently in New York. By contrast, the VPO sounded to me less precise, less colorful, less well-blended. I have trouble getting past the principal oboe sound (presented by different players in the two halves of the concert), which sets the tone for an orchestra, and which — perhaps by Vienna tradition — is thinner, more piercing, and less rich than the sound cultivated by principal oboe players in U.S. orchestras. Indeed, all the woodwinds have a distinctive sound that seems to me less rich, less legato, more idiosyncratic. Perhaps part of the issue for me is the lack of “hybrid vigor” in an orchestra like the VPO. This appeared to be an all-Caucasian group, overwhelmingly male, and by repute most of the players were students of VPO members before gaining admission to the orchestra. There is a feeling of an inbred traditional style of playing. Perhaps this means that what was presented last night sounded more like what Brahms would have heard at performances of his orchestra music in Vienna in the latter part of the 19th century than one would hear from the U.S. orchestra. But I couldn’t help noting the extraordinary contrast with the NY Philharmonic, where the string sections have a heavy representation of Asian musicians — mainly women — and women are also well-represented in the wind sections. Last night, there was only one woman on the stage playing a wind instrument, the second oboe during the Brahms Symphony, and during the first half of the concert, there could not have been more than 5 or 6 women on the stage, none in the basses or violas or cellos, and a handful in the violin sections. I found myself thinking several times that this orchestra needed some livening up!! They played well, they gave the conductor what he was asking for, but I was not totally enthusiastic about the results.

Probably the best playing of the night came with the encore, “Seid umschlunger Millionen” Waltzes, Op. 443, by Johann Strauss II. No announcement was made, leaving audience members around me puzzled, apart from guessing that it was by Johann Strauss, as this is not one of the more familiar Strauss waltz sequences. Of course, Carnegie identifies encores after the event on their website under the calendar entry for the concert….

It is also difficult to judge a conductor based on a guest-conducting stint, and I’ve little past experience with Maestro Nelsons, who has generated a big reputation from his work on European podiums and recordings. He produced a coherent statement in the Brahms symphony, and that is an achievement, since it is the most difficult of the four. The Haydn Variations were well-characterized, the Haydn symphony was memorable. We will hear more of him when he is regularly conducting the Boston Symphony in its Carnegie Hall visits, and I’m looking forward to that opportunity.

My second half of March begins tonight with a 5 Boroughs Music Festival concert of French baroque music in Queens, tomorrow’s NY Philharmonic Nielsen concert, a Peoples’ Symphony program Sunday afternoon with the Dover Quarter and Leon Fleisher, and a return to Carnegie Sunday night for the grand finale of the Vienna Philharmonic’s Festival residency – a three-hour marathon survey of Viennese music led by Zubin Mehta, centered on Gil Shaham playing the Korngold Violin Concerto. It will be quite a music-heavy weekend, on which I will report when it is all over.

Weekend Report: Massenet’s Werther at the Metropolitan Opera & Brahms’s Cello Sonatas at Carnegie Hall

Posted on: February 23rd, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

I was mired in the 19th century for my musical weekend. On Saturday afternoon, I attended a performance of Jules Massenet’s opera, “Werther,” at the Metropolitan Opera, and on Sunday afternoon, the first Isaac Stern Memorial Concert at Carnegie Hall, a recital of music for cello and piano by Johannes Brahms, performed by Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax.

Massenet’s opera, inspired by Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, is not a first-rate piece in my book. Although Massenet was certainly a proficient composer, in terms of technical skill in harmony and orchestration, and the piece is sufficiently dramatic to sustain interest, at least in the last two acts, I find the music undistinguished and the first act rather boring. That said, Saturday’s cast did about all that could be done for it, and one couldn’t ask for a better Werther than Jonas Kaufmann or a better Charlotte than Sophie Koch. Conductor Alain Altinoglu kept things moving, the Met orchestra did a great job with Massenet’s orchestration (which provides lots of great solo opportunities for the woodwinds in particular), and I was impressed by the excellent production. I don’t understand why one would bother to update the story from the late 18th century to the late 19th century, and in one respect the updating was bungled: there is a reference in the libretto to Charlotte singing songs to Werther’s harpsichord accompaniment, and they left that reference in. Nobody would be playing a harpsichord in a German village in the 1890s! (What was a harpsichord doing in Charlotte’s room in Act 3, anyway? Should have been a piano….) This is a new production, replacing one that debuted in 1999. Why bother? There are other Massenet operas that the Met hasn’t done lately. If they want to do Massenet, why spend a fortune on a new production of a piece they were performing a decade ago? I remember an entertaining production of Massenet’s Don Quixote at City Opera decades ago, which would be more of a novelty to revive, and how about Le Cid with the fantastic ballet music. (No dancing, really, in this Werther, apart from a brief waltz at the ball.) Or how about Manon, the one Massenet opera with music really worth reviving….? Well, a house like the Met can hardly please everybody, and I suppose one should be grateful for a production that is at least consonant with the story that is being presented, rather than weird abstract patterns suspended from the ceiling and putting ancient myths in the equivalent of outer space… No Eurotrash here, thankfully.

At Carnegie, it was “old home day” for Ma and Ax, who used to play chamber music on that stage regularly with Isaac Stern, and made many recordings with him as well. Hearing them in the Brahms sonatas was no novelty – after all, they made two recordings of the sonatas, one for SONY when they were young, and one for RCA when they were middle-aged, and now heading towards old age they are playing them again. I generally don’t like recitals that are entirely turned over to one composer, and although I love Brahms in chamber music, by intermission I was getting to think that an entire recital of Brahms sonatas would be too much. They started with Cello Sonata No. 1, Op. 38, an early work in which Brahms was still struggling with how to combine the cello and the piano, instruments that he didn’t feel really worked well together. The piece has always struck me as a bit overextended. Brahms originally composed 4 movements, then dropped the slow movement (Adagio affettuoso) because it made the piece too long, but the remaining three movements take almost half an hour, and the middle movement, despite the allegretto time signature, really sags in the middle. I thought Ma’s playing, while beautiful, was rather understated, and Ax was so restrained and smoothed out that the piece seemed quite somnolent. They followed this up with Paul Klengel’s transcription for cello and piano of the composer’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in G, Op. 78. Klengel moved it down to D Major to accommodate the cello’s range, but I was dubious about how effective this would be, especially since Ma’s unassertive approach continued in this piece. As I said, coming in to the intermission I was not wildly excited about the forthcoming second half.

But, of course, the Op. 99 Cello Sonata is from that wonderful final period when Brahms’s mature compositional style could not place a foot wrong. He built the piece around the slow movement he had rejected from the first sonata, but the concise writing he had achieved by this point in his life could accommodate a four-movement work that is, in total, about the same length of the earlier sonata. But this time the themes are more memorable, worked out in a more interesting way, and both Ma and Ax seemed to have taken a livelier approach as well. Ax, in particular, seemed less restrained and more involved in the drama of the piece, and Ma became more assertive. Perhaps the heroic opening of the first movement helped in that respect. Anyway, I found myself totally absorbed and glad that we had the 2nd Sonata. I think the program would have benefited by some contrast in the first half. All-Brahms is a heavy sell.

They also played Brahms for an encore. Now, here’s a silly thing. After intermission, Ma and Ax used microphones to make a few remarks about Isaac Stern’s role in their careers and his important work in saving Carnegie Hall, and introduced some members of Stern’s family who were present. But then when it came to announced the encore, Ax did not pick up a microphone (they were sitting on a small table behind the piano, where the accompanist had placed them after the announcements), instead speaking unamplified and, generally, unheard. They played the slow movement from another sonata, but I didn’t hear the announcement so I’m guessing it was a slow movement from one of the viola sonatas, but it could be one of the other violin sonatas. I’ll have to check scores when I get home. But, c’mon guys. They had a mic on stage. Why not use it?

And a note to Carnegie Hall from a long-suffering patron (going back to 1977). Do something about the inadequate restroom facilities. Figure out a way to put restrooms on the balcony level. Get some architects in. It can be done if you really care to do it.

PS – The Carnegie Hall website says that the encore was the slow movement from Brahms’s Violin Sonata No. 3.

Culture Beat – Prototype Opera Festival; Met Fledermaus; NY Philharmonic; Lincoln Center Theater “Domesticated”

Posted on: January 19th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

I have been so busy with LGBT legal developments over the past month that I have neglected to blog about my various cultural expeditions, so I’m going to play catch-up here with a few brief comments about the events I’ve attended since mid-December.

On December 17, I saw Lincoln Center Theater’s production of “Domesticated,” a play by Bruce Norris which seems to have been inspired, at least in part, by the hit network TV show, The Good Wife. A public officeholder confesses publicly to patronizing a prostitute and is forced by circumstances to resign his position, resulting in all kinds of stresses on his marriage. This issue has received enough treatment now to raise the question whether another play has anything to contribute. What struck me about this one was that the playwright seemed to have sympathy mainly for the politician, unless the dialogue he wrote for him in the second act is intended to caricature his views, because, having been relatively mute through Act I, the politician spews forth a stream of invective in Act II, the main burden of which is that things seem to be rigged against men in public life who can’t win if they stray even once from the straight and narrow. Anyway…. I thought the show as a whole was rather depressing, although certainly the cast gave it their all.

Next up was the New York Philharmonic’s last performance of a run of five of Handel’s Messiah, which I attended on December 21 with one of my students who won a raffle conducted by the LGBT student group to raise money for a gay charity. The Philharmonic, exhibiting a singular lack of imagination, has fallen into doing Messiah every year for the week before Christmas. As if we don’t have enough Messiahs of every variety in New York City during December. . . At least with the NYP one can be sure that there will be a well-drilled, well-schooled choir in attendance, first rate soloists, and an interesting guest conductor. This year they invited Andrew Manze for his NY Philharmonic debut. Manze, who first came to public attention as an early music specialist, has been doing more conducting of mainstream orchestras, serving since September 2006 as principal conductor of the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra in Sweden, and preparing to take up a similar post with the North German Radio Philharmonic in Hamburg, Germany beginning next season after his Swedish gig ends. Manze brings insights from the early music movement, which is useful in Messiah, so this account was fleet and ship-shape. Matthew Muckey, a fine young member of the Philharmonic’s trumpet section, was outstanding in “The Trumpet Shall Sound.” The soloists -Joelle Harvey, Tamara Mumford, Allan Clayton, and Matthew Rose, were all superb, but I was especially taken with Rose, whose marvelous recording of Schubert’s Winterreise I had recently heard. His bass voice was startlingly big compared to the other soloists. I noted that Manze, unlike some other early music practitioners, does not go for excessive speed, and at times indulged much more “romantic” sorts of interpretive moves than I would have expected, especially in the instrumental overture and the Pastoral Symphony. It was altogether a satisfying Messiah, if in some ways a redundant one. The Philharmonic could do us all a favor by injecting some more variety into holiday season concert-going by finding other suitable music for that third week in December. They are releasing next year’s schedule soon. Will it include yet another run of Messiah?

My next outing, with my usual concert/theater companion (who had been away on a business trip for much of December), was the Prototype Festival’s NY premiere presentation of the one-act opera, “Paul’s Case,” with music by Gregory Spears and libretto by Mr. Spears and Kathryn Walat, heard on January 9. Robert Wood conducted the American Modern Ensemble instrumentalists and a fine cast headed by Jonathan Blalock in the title role. The opera is based on a Willa Cather short story about a Pittsburgh teenage boy in the early 20th century who suffers the torment of being “different” from his contemporaries – concerned for poetry and music and art and a bit of a dandified dresser, he suffers ridicule and dismissal for not being a “real boy.” Thus oppressed, he steals enough money from his employer (he is working in a boring retail clerk job) to fund a trip to New York City, where he falls in with a Yale student down from New Haven for a slumming weekend, but he eventual perishes in the snow as he runs out of cash and has to leave the sumptuous hotel where he had stayed. Today, he would undoubtedly fall into bed with the Yalie, “come out,” and become a gay liberationist. But this is all subtext in the Cather story, and the composer/librettist appropriately leave it as subtext to be true to the period. Blalock impressed me a few years ago when he sang an important role in the Ft. Worth premiere of my friend Jorge Martin’s opera “Before Night Fall” (get the recording!!) and he was most impressive in this intimate “black box” opera production. The music was rather minimalist and at time monotonous – I found myself nodding off a bit toward the end of the Pittsburgh segment — but it really came alive when the action shifted to New York. The same performers who provided the supporting roles in Pittsburgh changed their costumes to become the New York performers, and Michael Slattery particularly impressed as the Yale freshman down for his wild New York City weekend. The inventive production was directed by Kevin Newbury, who used a few key props to establish the scenes.

On January 10 it was back to the Philharmonic for a bit of a hodge-podge program led by Alan Gilbert in anticipation of the Philharmonic’s upcoming tour. There would seem to be little thematic sense in bringing together Beethoven’s Fidelio Overture and First Symphony, Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto, and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Except, of course, for the fact that the NYP plays all these pieces well, and perhaps the contrast between the Symphony and the Gershwin provided a refreshing second half to the program. Shostakovich’s concerto, which received its American premiere from this orchestra in the 1950s with the dedicatee, David Oistrakh, and then-music director Dmitri Mitropoulos, who left a CBS recording done a few days after the concerts that has never really been surpassed, has now become a frequently-played showpiece for young violinists. Lisa Batiashvili, one of the legion of extraordinarily gifted young violinists now gracing concert platforms worldwide, brought plenty of passion and high technique to her playing. I thought that perhaps in the context of this program the orchestra did not spend lots of time rehearsing the Beethoven symphony, which came off as untidy in spots, especially in the first violins. They last played the symphony in 2012, so perhaps they didn’t pay so much attention to it in rehearsal. The Shostakovich concerto was last done by this orchestra in 2012 as well, and the Gershwin they played this past summer during their Vail, Colorado, residency. In other words, this program harked back to the “lazy programming” characteristic of the Maazel administration, when it was rare, apart from the very occasional premiere, to hear anything at the Philharmonic that had not been played within the previous five years. (The Fidelio Overture managed to evade this, having last been played by this orchestra a decade ago.) Each of these pieces is worth playing, of course, and a joy to hear, and otherwise this year the Philharmonic’s schedule has a fair degree of variety in it, so I won’t complain to hard. But when you put this together with the Messiah from December. . .

The next afternoon, I was at the Metropolitan Opera with my usual opera-going companion to attend a matinee performance of Strauss’s “Die Fledermaus,” performed to a new English libretto by Douglas Carter Beane. The Met rationalizes performing this piece in translation because it is really an operetta with lots of dialogue, but sometimes the English sounds a bit odd sung to Viennese strains. The production is lavish and seems to work well enough. In an age of countertenors, Orlovsky is no longer a “pants” role for a woman, so we had Anthony Roth Costanzo, one of my favorite young singers, as the Prince, although I agree with the Times critic that he seemed a bit stretched by the vocal range of this part. His acting and dancing was spot-on, however. The entire show seemed very well cast, with Christopher Maltman a superb Eisenstein, and Danny Burstein doing a well-crafted comic turn in the non-singing role of Frosch, the jailer. Adam Fischer’s conducting was not quite as frothy as one usually encounters in this piece. The sets were worthy of applause.

On January 18, I attended my second Prototype Festival production, “Thumbprint,” a world premiere of a one-act opera by Kamala Sankaram (music) and Susan Yankowitz (libretto), directed by Rachel Dickstein, with Steven Osgood conducting. Although I was laboring under a bad cold, which distracted me at times with the business of breathing and stifling coughs, I was quickly drawn in by the intense drama of a young woman, Mukhtar, in a Pakistani village, who gets pulled into a situation where she is subjected to an “honor rape” by men from another village who accused her young brother of looking the wrong way at one of their women. Mukhtar, at first devastated and resigned to being damaged goods and perhaps fading away locked up in her room, is encouraged by her parents to fight back, and finds the courage to go to the police and testify against her assailants. She is lucky to appear before an honest judge who believes her story and convicted the leader of her assailants. Composer Camala Sankaram was glorious singing her own music as Mukhtar, and Theodora Hanslowe was superb as the mother. (I have a soft spot for Hanslowe, since her father was one of my favorite professors when I was an undergraduate at Cornell in the 1970s.) The remaining cast, playing a variety of roles, was also superb: Steve Gokol as the father and the judge, Many Narayan and Kannan Vasudevan as, among other things, the assailants, and Leela Subramaniam as the younger sister among other parts. The production was in a rather larger space than “Paul’s Case,” which had been presented at HERE. This production was at Baruch College, and used projections and props to create the Pakistani setting most evocatively. The music was a piquant mix of eastern and western motifs, using some ethnic instruments as well as western ones to produce the requisite exotic sounds. I hope this will receive lots of productions. It should be within the range of university music departments, and deserves wide exposure.

I also saw several movies over the course of the holiday season — The Book Thief, the Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle, 12 Years a Slave, Saving Mr. Banks — but have let time go by without comment and won’t bother to comment here, other than to say that every film I saw had some redeeming features and that 12 Years a Slave struck me as a particularly important production. I haven’t seen all the films nominated for Best Picture by the Motion Picture Academy this year, but if I were voting I would vote for 12 Years a Slave.

Nico Muhly’s “Two Boys” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York

Posted on: November 2nd, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

This afternoon I attended a performance of Nico Muhly’s opera, “Two Boys,” presented by the Metropolitan Opera in New York.  There are a few more performances left in the run.  Anybody interested in seeing and hearing a new direction in opera for the 21st century who has not already gotten a ticket should move fast!

I’ve been a fan of Muhly since a profile by Alex Ross in The New Yorker brought him to my attention several years ago and led me to seek out recordings of his music.  (It is also worthy checking out his website/blog for an idea of what he is all about and to hear sound clips of his music.)  Muhly was recruited for the Met’s new initiative to commission American operas when he was 25 (he’s now 32), and his is the first of several commissioned operas to actually make it through the workshop and out-of-town tryout (English National Opera) and be presented on the big stage at Lincoln Center.  (Rufus Wainwright’s effort, rejected reportedly over his insistence of setting it in French, was presented by NY City Opera to moderate acclaim.  I enjoyed it without thinking it was great or even particularly distinctive.)

Muhly was teamed by the Met with writer Craig Lucas, author of numerous successful plays and screenplays and one Broadway-style musical.  Lucas is thirty years older than Muhly and an experienced man of the theater, and the Met powers-that-be thought such experience would be useful to a young composer setting off to write his first full-length opera.  By the end of the performance today, I was convinced that they made a mistake by not matching Muhly with somebody who has written several opera libretti.  Opera is distinctively different from all of the forms in which Lucas has worked, and I thought that the libretto was a weak point of this production.  But then again, it may be that Lucas’s fresh perspective helped to make this opera so distinctively different from most contemporary operas that I’ve heard.

The piece is through-composed with no stand-alone or attached arias.  Indeed, there is precious little song to this, just a few snippets here and there.  No tunes to go out humming.  This is a dark tale of deceit and murder involving the internet, and Muhly’s music is correspondingly grim throughout.  A few mild laughs — more like nervous laughs — from the audience in the second act were the only breaks to the gloom.  The piece was engrossing anyway.  The music functioned more like an excellent movie soundtrack, and the singing seemed to me somewhere between operatic recitative and the speech-song (Sprechtgesang) favored by Arnold Schoenberg in Pierrot Lunaire, his extended piece for singer and chamber ensemble where pitches are suggested as approximations and the singer is cautioned NOT TO SING!.  Muhly’s characters sing a bit, but not an awful lot.  On the other hand, what they do seems very well integrated into the plot.

But I found myself thinking toward the end that this might have been more effective as a theater piece with extensive music rather than an opera.  Performed in a theatrical house, not a huge opera house, and with perhaps more spoken dialogue to help the audience figure out what was going on.  (I read the synopsis in the program twice before coming to the Met, and still found myself befuddled at times, even with the English surtitles exhibited on the seatbacks.)

But befuddlement comes with the territory of this story, whose preoccupation is with the way that the internet facilitates anonymous and shifting identities among those who use it to carry out their social games.  The plot, said to derive from an actual incident, centers on a precocious 13-year-old who appropriates the names and identities of various members of his family to create multiple identities on-line, and then uses the various identities to seduce an older boy (16) into collaborating on the 13-year-old’s suicide, staged to appear as a murder.  There’s a plot-spoiler for you, but of course the plot is spelled out in the synopsis in the program book, but not with this degree of clarity.

The performance and production is extraordinary.  David Robertson is an excellent conductor of contemporary music, the Met Orchestra rises to the occasion, and director Bartlett Sher has created a production worth traveling to see.  The melding of moving sets, projections and other special effects work seamlessly to move the story forward and create an aura of suspense.  The Met chorus — standing in for a memorable depiction of the effect of internet chatrooms with simultaneous conversations going on – was also its excellent self.  Mezzo-soprano Alice Coote as the police detective assigned to unravel the mystery of the stabbing of Jake is center stage most of the time and carries the burden with thrilling aplomb. Paul Appleby was also excellent as Brian, the older boy who is caught in the internet web.   The entire cast is strong and memorable, but I would give special kudos to Andrew Pulver, a boy soprano whose assumption of important parts of the role of Jake (otherwise sung at times, a bit confusingly in terms of the dramatic continuity, by Christopher Bolduc) was quite memorable.  He was asked to do more sophisticated acting than children usually have to do on the stage of the Met, and he did it quite well.

This is the kind of work that I think would benefit from a second or third exposure, and I hope the Met is going to stand behind its commissioning efforts by bringing the piece back for another run soon.  And I hope Muhly will continue to think about ways to improve it in the event of another run or a performance elsewhere when the Met’s exclusive rights expire, because I’m sure he will continue to find ways to strengthen the piece.  Nothing need be cast in stone.  (After all, Puccini substantially reworked Madama Butterfly after the initial production, and the version of Carmen we see today is different from what was presented at the Paris Opera for the premiere. . .)

A Britten Weekend – With a 17th century interlude!

Posted on: October 20th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

Three-quarters Britten.  That was my weekend.  On Saturday I attended the afternoon performance of Britten’s opera, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” at the Metropolitan Opera.  Then in the evening I attended the first concert of Columbia University’s Miller Theater Early Music Series, by Le Poeme Harmonique, a French early-music ensemble led by Vincent Dumestre, in music by Monteverdi and some contemporaries under the program title “Combattimenti!”  On Sunday, I attended two recitals, at 1 and 4, of songs by Britten, jointly presented by 5 Boroughs Music Festival, Brooklyn Art Song Society, and The Casement Fund Song Series.   A heavy dose of Britten, but I survived!!

First – the Met.  Rather than do a new production of Britten opera for the composers centennial (which comes up in November), the Met revived this rather uninspired 1996 production of the piece Britten and Pears quickly put together for an Aldeburgh Festival production in 1960.  They didn’t involve an experienced librettist, but together cut Shakespeare’s play to fit the time they could allot, resulting in not much coherence but plenty of opportunities for great music.  And there is some great music here, interspersed with more commonplace stuff.  I think by general consensus this is not one of the Britten’s stronger operas.  And so I question why the Met couldn’t honor the greatest 20th century composer of opera in English with a splendid new production of one of his major operas. 

In any event, the performance was a good one, despite the weaknesses of the piece.  James Conlon had the Met Orchestra playing up to its brilliant standard, and Iestyn Davies was a knock-out as Oberon, King of the Fairies.  I was also quite taken with young Riley Costello, who played the speaking and acrobatic role of Puck.  Matthew Rose was broadly comical as Bottom, a weaver who sings some of his lines wearing an awkward Donkey head. 

By contrast, my evening event Saturday was brilliant on all accounts.  Dumestre has put together one of the most exciting early music ensembles.  Most of the compositions on Saturday’s program can be heard on a recording they did for the French Alpha label in 2009, but it is always more exciting to hear a live performance, with all its spontaneity, and real rather than electrically-recreated sound.  The period instruments made a big, rich sound in the lively acoustic of Miller Theatre, although the poor ventilation system in the hall and the unseasonably warm weather meant that they had to do lots of retuning between compositions.  The entire ensemble of singers was brilliant, but especially noteworthy were Jan Van Elsacker, a tenor, who sang the narrator’s role in Monteverdi’s “Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda” and the most extended solo role – the patent-medicine vendor – in Marco Marazzoli’s hilarious madrigal comedy, “La Fiera di Farfa.”  Marazzoli’s piece is definitely worth seeking out the recording, an extended scena involving attending a fair in an old Italian town square, with all the noise and vendors and dancing and acrobats, etc.  Everything is described with great gusto, and Elsacker’s irrepressible merchant will not be shouted down as he makes the broadest, most outrageous claims for the healing powers of his brew.  Also stellar was tenor Serge Goubioud, especially in his big solo in Il Fasolo’s “Lamento di madama Lucia con la riposta di Cola,” which unfortunately is not on the recording.    This was an outstanding concert.  If you ever see an event scheduled by this group, run to get a ticket as fast as you can.

The Britten song recitals on Sunday were also excellent.  It was especially exciting to hear Nicky Spence, the British tenor who makes his Metropolitan Opera debut tomorrow (!!) in Nico Muhly’s “Two Boys,” as one of the leads.  Indeed, it is astonishing to me that on the day before his Met debut Spence was willing to commit to sing Britten songs in an afternoon concert.  He probably should have been resting his voice instead!  But artists will be artists, and he was terrific.  The other fantastic singers were Mary Mackenzie (soprano), Michael Slattery (tenor), Michael Kelly (baritone) in the 1 pm recital, and, in addition to Spence, Martha Guth (soprano), Naomi O’Connell (mezzo-soprano), and Michael Kelly (baritone) in the 4 pm recital.   As a great baritone-fancier, I was particularly impressed by Kelly, who also sang sublimely last season during the Schubertfest!  Thomas Bagwell was the pianist for the first recital, Malcolm Martineau for the second.  A broad cross-section of Britten’s songs were rendered exquisitely.  This was actually the second of two days of an ambitious Britten song festival.  The first three recitals were presented yesterday in Brooklyn, while today’s program was at the excellent small recital hall at Baruch College on 25th Street in Manhattan.  It was a privilege to hear so much great music-making, and worth devoting most of the day to hear many pieces by Britten that are not frequently performed.  Indeed, Martineau pointed out that some of the early songs interspersed among the later-published song cycles on Sunday’s 4 pm program may have been receiving their US concert premieres.