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Art Leonard’s Cultural Diary – March 22 through April 16, 2014

Posted on: April 17th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

I’ve had a busy few weeks, both in terms of attending things and in terms of work having to get done, as a result of which there is a big pile-up of programs for me to write about, so herewith a diary of brief comments about the events I’ve attended from March 22 through April 16. I have omitted comment about the Jeremy Denk piano recital at Peoples’ Symphony Concerts, which I wrote about separately right after the event.

On March 22, I attended a concert by Jeffrey Kahane (pianist and conductor) and the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall. Mr. Kahane, music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, has been a frequent guest at the Philharmonic in recent years, and I have always enjoyed his concerts. For this program, he selected George Gershwin’s Concerto in F, Maurice Ravels Concerto in G, and Kurt Weill’s Symphony No. 2. Both concerti had been recently performed by the Philharmonic with other pianists and conductors, but Kahane brought the distinction of conducting from the keyboard. Leonard Bernstein used to do this with the Ravel concerto (I have a DVD of his performance with a French orchestra that is fascinating to watch), to great effect, and Kahane was right up there with him. This is an orchestra that can pretty well conduct itself in familiar repertory, but the musicians seemed very sensitive to Kahane’s direction. His technical proficiency was more than adequate to the occasion, and his sheer enthusiasm for the music was well communicated to the NYP members, who seemed very involved and excited. The Weill symphony was a novelty, as it had not been played by the NYP since its local premiere under Bruno Walter’s direction in 1934. Was the exhumation worthwhile? I thought so. It’s not a perfect piece, but it is interesting to hear the seeds of Weill’s later development as a successful composer of Broadway musicals. Certainly, the piece is worth hearing more than once every 80 years! It’s neglect may be due to symphonic snobbery more than to its actual merits. The orchestra played beautifully, certainly outclassing the recordings I’ve heard.

The next day, I attended a matinee performance of Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera, in the English-language adaptation by Marc Blitzstein, presented by Atlantic Theater Company. Pure coincidence that I would hear Kurt Weill’s music twice in a weekend! This production was directed and choreographed by Martha Clarke. F. Murray Abraham led the cast as Mr. Peachum, Michael Park sparkled as MacHeath (Mack the Knife), Laura Osnes was Polly and Mary Beth Peil (a favorite from the TV series “The Good Wife” – Peter’s mother!) played Mrs. Peachum. I can’t say it was the most invigorating production I’ve seen of this — the Broadway revival with Sting stands out in my memory, and as a child I was brought to see the original production at the then-Theatre-de-Lys on Christopher Street of which I remember no details, only a general sense of fierce brilliance). The performance I saw was a preview. It has since opened to less than rapturous reviews. I still think it is worth seeing any revival of this work by a professional company, because the piece has so much wonderful music.

On March 27, I attended the American Symphony Orchestra’s revival of Max Bruch’s oratorio, Moses, at Carnegie Hall. Sidney Outlaw sang the role of Moses, with Kirk Dougherty as his brother Aaron, Tamara Wilson as the “Angel of the Lord,” with Leon Botstein conducting the orchestra and the Collegiate Chorale (prepared by James Bagwell). This piece was premiered in Germany in 1895 and in the U.S. in 1896 (Baltimore), but after a brief vogue disappeared from view until some recent revivals. It is very long and not particularly memorable, but as usual Botstein and his performing forces provided something worth hearing. Bruch’s music is richly romantic in harmony and orchestration, but his melodic gift is not particularly distinguished. The tunes don’t stay in your head — unlike the Violin Concerto No. 1, which is his main contribution to the standard orchestral repertory and which I think gets more play than it deserves in light of the many other violin concertos that are, in the end, more interesting. It would be interesting to hear what the richer string section of the NY Philharmonic could do with this piece, as the ASO strings tend to sound a bit undernourished in the big moments. I also thought the choir was actually larger than it needed to be for an orchestra of this size. (The ASO is a bit larger than a chamber orchestra in terms of its string body, but substantially smaller than a major symphony orchestra.) They did well with what they had. I’m glad I heard it. I won’t be going out of my way to hear it again.

It was back to the NY Philharmonic for me on Friday, March 28. I had purchased a single ticket for this concert, eagerly anticipating hearing Gustavo Dudamel conducting Bruckner’s 9th. Unfortunately, Mr. Dudamel took ill with flu and cancelled his NYP engagement, but they were lucky enough to land Manfred Honeck, musical director of the Pittsburgh Symphony, as a replacement for the weekend. Honeck had appeared as a guest with the Philharmonic at least once before (his appearance was not billed as a debut) but I couldn’t recall having seen him conduct before. I was very impressed. The Bruckner was superbly done, the orchestra at the peak of its virtuosity, and the third movement Adagio, which concludes this unfinished symphony, was actually devastating in its impact. The program began with Claude Vivier’s Orion, a 1979 symphonic poem that reportedly did much to put its composer on the map when it was first performed by Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony in 1980. Unfortunately, Vivier, a gay man, was murdered by a “trick” in Paris in 1983, so his composing career did not get much beyond this piece. The piece itself defies description in words – a mélange of orchestral effects that is intense and colorful but that does not yield up much understanding on a first hearing.

The next evening, March 29, I was back at Carnegie Hall for the last concert of this season’s series by Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. The orchestra put together a “theme” concert of music inspired by Hungary – most particularly, the Hungarian folk music exponents in the first half — Kodaly and Bartok — and a 19th century Jewish violinist-composer writing in what purported to be the Hungarian style – Joseph Joachim. The Kodaly Hungarian Rondo is a charming trifle, the Bartok Divertimento and substantial dramatic statement that belies its name, and Orpheus rendered them well, although I really missed the effect of massed strings in the Bartok that I recall from a thrilling reading years ago by Kurt Masur with the NY Philharmonic. The Joachim Concerto is a bloated, romantic piece with lots of striking moments but not enough originality to make one regret its failure to become a standard repertory piece. Christian Tetzlaff labored hard to bring it off, and it was certainly an honorable effort. I’m glad they thought to revive it, since it is all too easy to offer up yet another run through the Brahms concerto, which is a great work that is perhaps played too frequently for its own good these days. Vive Joachim! Now let’s honorably retire the piece for a while.

On April 5 I attended City Center Encores! performance of Frank Loesser’s musical, “The Most Happy Fella.” I have a great sentimental affection for this piece, as it was the first musical for which I was hired to perform in a full pit orchestra when I was a high school student in Oneonta, New York, in the late 1960s. And that was quite an initiation into playing in a pit, considering that this piece has more music — at times is almost through-composed — than the typical musical show. The Encores! production was predictably brilliant, with Shuler Hensley shining as Tony, Laura Benanti eager and brilliant as “Rosabella,” and Cheyene Jackson studly (but at times seeming a bit unengaged) as Joe. I did have my occasional complaint with this series about the over-amplification of the orchestra. While it is true that placing the orchestra backstage behind the action would justify some amplification, I think they really overdo it, especially for the brass and percussion, to the point of verging on painfulness during the overture. That aside, the musical performance led by Rob Berman was excellently done, and the cast and crew did a great job on the choreography (by director Casey Nicholaw). In the early days of Encores!, one was accustomed to seeing semi-staged readings with performers carrying black loose-leaf books with the music and lyrics. They have now gotten to the point where cast-members seem to feel it a point-of-honor to have their parts memorized and jettison the books. (During the talk-back after the show, it was revealed that there was a difficult period when they had to carry the books due to Equity rules for this kind of production, but that a renegotiation with Equity made the books optional with the performers.) These now verge on fully-staged productions, and the results – in light of the short rehearsal periods – are extraordinary! Can’t recommend Encores! highly enough to those with nostalgia for the great days of Broadway. Last up for this season will be Irma La Douce before and during the second weekend in May. Be there or be square!

After attending Encores! I had a quick turnaround for a snack and then off to the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Times Square for the last Early Music concert in Miller Theatre’s 25th Anniversary Season. Fittingly, the performers were The Tallis Scholars, the English group that has regularly figured on this series since its beginning. The group is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, and put together a program surveying the realm of Renaissance Polyphony in which it specializes, as well as its more recent practice of commissioning living composers to write new polyphonic works for chamber choir. On this occasion, we had a world premiere, with commission by Miller Theatre, of Two Sonnets for Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz by Michael Nyman. I would like to hear these again! The first half of the program was devoted to continental polyphony (Desprez and de Rore), the second half to English polyphony (Sheppard and Tallis), and as usual, Peter Phillips and his singers were beyond reproach. Some have occasionally criticized Phillips and The Tallis Scholars for a sort of chilly precision to their work, but I don’t hear that, finding a warmth and spontaneity that makes their work very involving emotionally for the listener. This was an excellent performance of an excellent program.

The next day I heard a concert by the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet at Town Hall, courtesy of Peoples’ Symphony Concerts. This was in two parts. The first half was devoted to transcriptions of classical music for guitar quartet. We had a suite of dances from Michael Praetorius’s Terpsichore, the grant compendium of royal court dance music of the late Renaissance and early Baroque, a suite from Stravinsky’s ballet Pulcinella, which drew its thematic material from Baroque sources, and finally Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. None of this music was imagined by its composers as a vehicle for a quartet for modern guitar virtuosi, and I found the sound becoming a bit tiresome. Early music groups usually put together colorful instrumentations for Praetorius, Stravinsky’s orchestration of his ballet makes full use of the coloristic resources of an early 20th century orchestra, and Liszt’s rhapsody exists in numerous colorful orchestral arrangements of the piano original. While the LAGQ is of course virtuosic in its approach to these pieces, I would have preferred the originals. The second half, by contrast, struck me as ideal in every way – a series of shorter works all conceived with the guitar in mind, some actually written for this ensemble, and presenting all the variety of sound that seemed lacking in the first half. I’m happy to have heard the group. I recommend that they focus on modern works written or arranged for them, and forget the Baroque arrangements.

“If/Then” is a new Broadway musical by Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (book & lyrics) that I visited on April 9. I had heard complaints that the plot was confusing. Yes, it was. The idea is to depict the alternative realities that could stem from an inflection point in the life of a person, when a seemingly trivial decision to do one thing rather than another is, in retrospect, momentous. The piece seems to have been conceived as a vehicle for Idina Menzel (and the main reason we were there was that my theater-going companion was eager to take in her performance), and I thought she was fine in a very challenging role, although I thought she was painfully over-amplified at times, resulting in a rather shrill sound on her high notes. I did find the plotting confusing and difficult to follow at times. I understand that en route to Broadway a decision was made to have Menzel’s character called Liz in one reality and Beth in the other, to wear glasses in one and not the other, but I failed to pick up on this and was continually confused as the switch between realities took place without transitions, leaving me to think “huh?” all too often during the first act. Things became a bit more understandable in the second act, although again there were moments when things just seemed out of joint. But perhaps that’s the point of the show — how far apart our alternative futures might be, all stemming from a trivial decision early on to do one thing and not another.

On April 13 I attended the American Symphony Orchestra’s final Classics Declassified program for the season, at Symphony Space. The subject was Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 2, an early favorite of mine. I played double-bass in performances of this symphony by the Oneonta Symphony Orchestra when I was in high school and the Cornell University Orchestra when I was in college, so I know the piece from the inside out through extended rehearsals. That said, I found Leon Bostein’s lecture to be disorganized, boring, and seemingly pointless at times. Sometimes he comes up with brilliant insights, but sometimes the lecture is just a dud, and this seemed to be such an occasion. Surprisingly, the performance of the symphony was anything but — it was warmly done by an orchestra that seemed fully engaged. The rather smaller string section than one would get from a major orchestra was only occasionally a deficiency, as much of this symphony has a pastoral character that can work with a compact string body. The woodwind soloists, who get a real workout in this piece, were stellar, and the trombones, whose special tonal qualities in playing choral-like passages are an important feature of the piece, were also superb. I think Botstein needs an editor to work with him on the lectures. . .

Finally, last night, April 16, I saw a performance of Terrence McNally’s new play, “Mothers and Sons,” at the Golden Theatre. This is an ensemble piece for four actors. Tyne Daly plays Katharine Gerard, an upstate NY native who married a Texas businessman, lived in Dallas, raised a son who grew up to be gay and ran off to New York City for a career in the theater and died from AIDS in the early 1990s. In an earlier play, “Andre’s Mother,” dating from decades ago, McNally created this character and showed her alienation from the world of her son and her inability to be emotionally present for his memorial service. Frederick Weller plays Cal Porter, Andre’s surviving partner. This play takes place twenty years later, and Cal is now happily married to Will Ogden, an aspiring novelist, played by Bobby Steggert. They have a son, six-year-old Bud, played by Grayson Taylor, conceived through donor insemination and gestational surrogacy. In other words, a very “modern” NYC gay family, and perhaps the first time such a family has been portrayed on Broadway. For some reason, not really explained, Katharine “drops in” on the Porter-Ogden household on Central Park West. There doesn’t seem to be much of a plot, really, just a picture of colliding worlds as the still disapproving and disgruntled mother interacts with her late son’s lover and his “new” family. There are many affecting moments. Anyone who lived through the early years of AIDS in New York will have memories recalled, aided by a pre- or post-show visit to the lower lobby where panels from the AIDS Quilt are mounted. Presenting this history is important, but I found the show itself, while frequently absorbing, to be rather uneven, and I’m wondering whether McNally might treat this production as a first take on a work in progress and figure out revisions before it gets mounted again. The material is definitely worth exploring, and perhaps the experience of seeing it play out will inspire him to make changes that will strengthen it dramatically. Certainly this cast does a great job with it, although I found Weller’s performance a bit odd — what kind of accent was he trying to present? — and the role of the child is rather challenging for a young actor to present naturalistically, although Master Taylor acquitted himself honorably. I’m a Steggert fan and was happy to get a slice of his work here — I wished the part were a bit longer. And Tyne Daly, who was McNally’s “muse” for this piece, was perfectly cast, effectively projecting the brittle quality of a woman who is totally a fish out of water in this environment, unsure why she is there and how to act and react to what she is experiencing. Certainly this is a show that the LGBT community should be supporting. The audience was rather small, even for what is a relatively small Broadway “straight-theater” house, and I hope word of mouth may pick it up a bit. A play doesn’t have to be perfect to be worth seeing, and I find that anything Terrence McNally does is worth seeing, so I hope people will go.

My cultural calendar coming up: tomorrow night a premiere of new songs by Glen Roven at Spectrum, “All the Way” on Broadway, Music from Marlboro and Alarm Will Sound during the last weekend in April, Irma La Douce with Encores’ in May. . .

Weekend Music in NYC: New York Polyphony & R. Strauss’s “Feuersnot”

Posted on: December 15th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

Quite a combination, this….  On Saturday evening, I battled through the snow to Columbia University’s St. Paul’s Chapel to hear New York Polyphony present a splendid Christmas season program under the auspices of the Miller Theatre Early Music Series.  On Sunday afternoon, it was much less of a battle to get to Carnegie Hall and hear Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra present Richard Strauss’s early, and forgotten, opera, “Feuersnot.”

From the sublime to the ridiculous?

New York Polyphony is one of my favorite early music groups, and their recent BIS release has been nominated for a Grammy Award, a source of much excitement since they were nominated in the chamber music and small ensembles category, where they will be competing with some of the world’s leading musical groups.  Their speciality is Tudor-period English polyphonic music, but they venture round about that central core repertory, and also perform modern pieces written or arranged for them.  This Christmas-season program was wide-ranging, from early chant to some world premieres of music by Andrew Smith and John Scott.  From their core repertory came a motet by Thomas Tallis and a seasonal song by Richard Pygott, both of whom worked at various times at the Tudor Court in London.  There were also roughly contemporary works by Philippe Verdelot, Tomas Luis da Victoria, and Jacob Clemens ‘non Papa’.  For more contemporary tastes there were arrangements of early music by Geoffrey Williams and Alexander Craig.  Andrew Smith, a young British-born composer with whom the ensembles has cultivated an on-going relationship, had a Miller Theatre commission, Nowel: Arise and Wake, and earlier settings of Veni Emmanuel and Ave maris stella. 

As always with this group, everything was presented with extraordinary polish and care, but also with rhythmic excitement and great expressive force.  NYP is a real phenomenon, worth going out of your way to hear.  In this small church space, their voices combined with the reverberant acoustic to create a very special sound.  The members of NYP — Geoffrey Williams, countertenor, Steven Caldicott Wilson, tenor, Christopher Dylan Herbert, baritone, and Craig Phillips, bass — were all in excellent voice last night.

The American Symphony under Botstein’s leadership is devoted to exploration, seeking out infrequently performed works by great composers and the hidden gems by composers whose works are rarely encountered on our concert stages.  Strauss is hardly overlooked in the opera house, having written central repertory pieces like Salome, Elektra, and Rosenkavalier, and a string of other works that hover around the edges of the repertory.  Virtually forgotten is Feuersnot, a work of the composer’s early maturity, coming after some of his famous early symphonic poems but before he really hit his strike in the opera house with Salome.  The  opera’s plot is arrant nonsense and even a bit offensive from a modern perspective.  Set in medieval Germany, it proposes a young sorcery student, smitten with the mayor’s daughter, who through a spell casts the village into darkness until the prim young woman gives in to his advances and abandons her virginity.  The high point, dramatically, comes when the entire town is singing, at the top of their lungs, “Give it up, Diemut, give it up, give us our light back.”  And when she does, there is an outburst from chorus and orchestra like you wouldn’t believe.  (You had to be there….)

They put together a splendid cast, with Alfred Walker and Jacquelyn Wagner doing the honors as the leading characters of Kunrad, the obsessed young sorcery student, and Diemut, the mayor’s daughter.  The standouts in the supporting cast were Branch Fields, a sonorous bass singing the small but key role of an innkeeper, and Jeffrey Tucker, also a bass, as the mayor.  The Manhattan Girls Chorus gave an enthusiastic rendition of the children’s chorus part from memory, and the Collegiate Chorale Singers voiced the townsfolk with equal enthusiasm.  I’ve rarely heard the ASO play so beautifully, and Leon Bostein led a spirited performance.

But the piece, itself, is barely worth a listen.  Of course it is gorgeously orchestrated and harmonized, and the bits and pieces of quotes from Wagner are amusing, but overall there seemed to be little substance, and, deadly for an opera, little in the way of memorable tunes for the main characters to sing.  A long soliloquy for the sorcery student towards the end seemed to go on forever without saying anything memorable, despite Mr. Walker’s best efforts to animate it.  I think this would not really be stageable today, and if anybody were to put it on, who would go to see it?  But that’s why the ASO is valuable.  Reviving something like this for a listen gives us a chance to connect the dots between the young Strauss who is remembered for orchestra pieces like Don Juan and Tyl Eulenspiegel, and the mature Strauss revered for Rosenkavalier.  The legacy of the former and the foreshadowing of the later are clearly heard in this piece.  Somebody should put together a short orchestral suite….

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.