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The New Season Begins – Opera, Symphony, Film, Theater

Posted on: October 5th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

My new culture season is duly launched.  As of last night, I’ve taken in: “Anna  Nicole,”  apparently the last production of New York City Opera, presented in collaboration with the Brooklyn Academy of Music on September 21; the new film “Don Jon” by Joseph Gordon-Levitt at the AMC Theater on Broadway at 84th Street on September 29; a memorial celebration for my friend, the late Ari Joshua Sherman, at the DiMenna Center for the Arts that same evening, September 29; my first New York Philharmonic subscription concert at Lincoln Center on September 28; the new Broadway revival of “The Glass Menagerie” at the Booth Theatre on October 1; and the American Symphony Orchestra’s “New York Avant-Garde” concert at Carnegie Hall last night, October 3.

Herewith a brief summary of these experiences as the season really gets under way.

New York City Opera has been an important part of my cultural life ever since I arrived in the city in the fall of 1977.  I have particularly appreciated their staging of new works and works that are not central to the repertory, since the mainstream stuff is available in generally superior performances from the Metropolitan Opera.  It isn’t so much that City Opera was less expensive to attend, but that it was usually more interesting to attend, even when they were putting on standard works such as “La Boheme” or “Carmen,” since they usually found an interesting “twist” that made them seem like new works as well.

But a series of management mistakes, and the heavy fundraising competition of the Met, together with the impact of the Great Recession on charitable donations, has put the City Opera into a financially untenable position.  If there had to be a last production, I’m glad it was a new opera, a premiere for New York, and something that lived up to most of the advance hype.  Although I found Mark-Anthony Turnage’s score to be serviceable rather than memorable, the libretto by Richard Thomas would have made an excellent play with incidental music on its own, and the production directed by Richard Jones with the music conducted by Steven Sloane was consistently entertaining and attention-grabbing.  From one perspective, this might seem a trivial piece of musical theater fluff about a gold-digger who was famous for marrying an elderly billionaire and then battling his family in court for her intestate inheritance as a surviving spouse, but it had an awful lot to say as wry satire about our celebrity-obsessed society and the dangers that these “no-talent” celebrities run into as they encounter the hangers-on, exploiters, and – in this case—hostile “in laws.”   Too bad there is unlikely to be a film from this production, but I think there may be one from the original English production at Covent Garden.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s “Don Jon” is reportedly his first attempt at scripting and directing a major motion picture – starring himself – and I think Gordon-Levitt pulls off the Woody Allen act with aplomb.  He impersonates a “dumb jock” Jersey boy obsessed with his body, his car, his pad, his boys (friends) and his girls (sex objects).  He haunts the suburban nightclubs looking for chicks to score, and because he’s a self-confident, sexy hunk, he can have almost anybody he wants.  But the sex is not satisfying – there’s really no emotional connection – and he’s convinced that masturbating to pornography is more satisfying.  As a result, even though he’s having sex several nights a week with real women, he’s getting off to porn several times a day.  Something has to give.  And there’s the story, when he happens upon somebody to whom he’s attracted who doesn’t want to jump into bed without some personal acquaintance.   Of course, this isn’t a perfect film.  No film is.  But it is dramatically credible, well written, acted, and directed, and I found it compelling – at least to the extent that my mind never wandered, as it tends to do if a film bogs down in slow, talky, lassitude.  This one never does.

The New York Philharmonic initiated its subscription season with a program that could easily be criticized as semi-pops concert fare: Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso, Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.  Light, not challenging, virtuosic, catchy tunes and rhythms, etc.  But, as expected from this orchestra conducted by Music Director Alan Gilbert, everything was so well-played, and the program was actually so canny in terms of constructing a concert program that “works,” that it was a pleasure to attend.  I might have wanted the Ravel to be slightly faster in pacing, but the moderate tempo made it easier to appreciate the subtlety of orchestration, and then to remark to myself about how whoever was responsible for the orchestration of the Bernstein piece really knew their Ravel!!  This is a bit of a question, actually: Bernstein followed Broadway tradition of having the usual experts translate his piano score into an orchestration for a standard B’way pit orchestra, and various other hands were involved in extracting the dances, knitting them together into a continuous piece, and expanding the orchestration for a symphony orchestra.  Of course, the musical ideas are Bernstein’s, but it’s unclear to what extent the orchestration is.  He didn’t even conduct the world premiere, although he subsequently recorded the piece with the NYP, and surely he approved the final orchestration and probably tweaked it. . .  As for the Tchaikovsky, Yefim Bronfman, who is the orchestra’s “artist in residence” this year, was reportedly playing it for the first time in public!  Hard to believe, not just because it was such a well-conceived and executed performance, but because he was born and educated in Russia and is famous for his Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich concerto performances. Every young pianistic firebrand is expected to have this concerto in his or her active repertory.  But for whatever reason, he hadn’t gotten around to Tchaikovsky until the NYP asked him to do it to start off this season.  Magnificent!  He and Gilbert should get right into the recording booth together.

Ari Joshua Sherman, know to his friends as Josh, passed away last spring in Vermont.  He had not let many know that he was seriously ill, and the NY friends were used to long periods between sightings after he and Jorge had shifted their principal residence from W. 108 Street to Addison, VT.  Jorge arranged two events for friends to remember Josh, one in Vermont and the other at the DiMenna Center (housed in the basement level of the Baryshnikov Center on W. 37 St.).  The event was a worthy tribute and remembrance, including performances of music that had been important to Josh, who was an enthusiastic chamber musician (violin) and music lover, interspersed with readings from the memoirs he had worked on over many years.  So sad that a long-time friend is gone, but consoling that he had such an interesting and productive life.

Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” put him on the Broadway theater map, but I find it a lesser work than some of his subsequent plays.  This performance is really mainly about Cherry Jones, one of our greatest living actors, whose portrayal of Amanda Wingfield in this production is a completely convincing one.  Talk immediately began about Tony nominations as soon as previews began, and this is now expected, regardless what happens the rest of the season.  Zachary Quinto as her son Tom is not so totally successful.  I thought it took him some time to warm up at the performance I attended, not really coming alive fully until well into the first act, but burning on all cylinders in the second.  Celia Keenan-Bolger was extraordinary as Laura, the shy daughter, and I thought her performance was right up there with Cherry Jones in terms of accomplishment and vivid characterization.  I enjoyed Brian J. Smith as “Jim, the gentleman caller,” who appears only in the second act, but then for an extended scene with Laura that provides great comic relief and emotion combined.  Smith was just right in this part.   In short, this was a performance that worked very well, performed on a set that worked very well, with fine incidental music by Nico Muhly, in a wonderful conception of the script directed by John Tiffany.  The show, whatever its flaws, was certainly worth reviving in a production of this quality as a showcase for these fine actors.

Finally, the American Symphony.  At first it appeared this concert might be lost to the Carnegie Hall stagehands’ labor dispute, which had cause cancellation of the opening night gala the prior evening.  But the union had made its point and was content to hold back for a while and allow the season to begin with the ASO while continuing to negotiate, and I just heard that a bargain was struck on Friday.

Leon Botstein’s program, “New York Avant-Garde”, took as its point of departure the famed “Armory Show of 1913” that formally introduced New York to the new “modernism” in visual art.  Botstein suggests that this program had echoes in music that first began to be expressed in New York concert halls after World War I, in a burst of musical modernism that extended to the end of the 1920s.  This showcase for the avant-garde presented music by George Antheil (A Jazz Symphony 1925), Charles Griffes (Poem for Flute and Orchestra (1918), Aaron Copland (Organ Symphony 1924), Carl Ruggles (Men and Mountains 1924), and Edgard Varese (Ameriques 1918-21).  The particular Carnegie connection was that the first and last of these pieces were first performed at Carnegie Hall during the 1920s, the Varese in a performance conducted by Leopold Stokowski, who would later in his career found and conduct the ASO.

I thought the concert was very successful, especially given the uncertainties of the day that had resulted in some juggling of last-minute rehearsal time.  The ASO secured the services of three excellent soloists.   Pianist Blair McMillen was a joy to hear and to watch as he threw himself body and soul into the Antheil Jazz Symphony, which is not quite a piano concerto but at times seems to think it is one, with extended piano cadenzas that McMillen tossed off insouciantly.  Randolph Bowman, principal flutist for the Cincinnati Symphony and the ASO’s summer seasons at Bard College, was excellent in the sumptuous Griffes piece.  Stephen Tharp pulled out all the stops (couldn’t resist that) in the Copland, whose organ part was originally conceived for Nadia Boulanger’s American tour and appearances with the Boston Symphony and New York Symphony.  This first half of the concert was just one thrill after another.

I was a bit less thrilled by the second half.  I’ve never quite “gotten” Ruggles.  Although at times I find his orchestration to be interesting, I don’t get a feeling of organic flow to his compositions, which to me are an essential part of music.  It feels too static, too granitic, although on this occasion I had a more favorable reaction to the middle movement – Lilacs – which actually seemed to flow in the hands of the ASO string players, who made a warm sound amidst the pounding brass of the outer movements. 

The first time I heard Ameriques at Carnegie Hall, Christoph von Dohnanyi was conducting the Cleveland Orchestra.  On that occasion, it struck me forcibly how strongly influenced Varese was influenced by Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, which was first performed shortly before World War I broke out.  I was less struck by the resemblance at the ASO concert, perhaps because Botstein’s interpretation was less overtly aggressive than Dohnanyi’s. 

Overall, however, I thought this was a useful concert for bringing to light music that doesn’t get played very much, and the orchestra did a marvelous job of pulling it together and making it work.

Cultural Diary – March 23 through May 1, 2013 – A Busy Season in NYC

Posted on: May 2nd, 2013 by Art Leonard 1 Comment

Between work, concerts and theater, I’ve been so busy that I’ve generally avoided blogging about the things I’ve been attending over the past five weeks or so.  This is a catch-up posting, briefly mentioning that things I haven’t had time to write about in longer posts.  This post details the musical events (including opera).  In another, I’ll address the theatrical ones.

Beginning at the beginning, with Richard Goode, and – surprise – ending with him as well, because the first concert I’ll note included his performance of Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto with Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on March 23, and the last is his solo recital last night in the same location, devoted to late piano music by Ludwig van Beethoven.

The Schumann Concerto was excellent, in the best “Goode” manner – solid, mainstream tempi, beautiful piano sound, careful but energetic navigation of the rhythmically difficult finale.  Indeed, it is hard to understand how a pianist and orchestra can get through that finale without a conductor at a reasonably fast tempo (it is marked “Allegro vivace”), because of the syncopation in the score that must make coordination difficult unless everybody figures out how to ignore the bar lines and just go with the flow…  They obviously figured that out here, and the effusive ovation of the audience earned a more bountiful encore than usual: the “Adagio” second movement from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 in G, K. 453!   For the first half of the program, Orpheus gave us a fleet, songful run through Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 in A, Op. 90, the “Italian” symphony.

The next afternoon, I was in for another pianistic treat as Yevgeny Sudbin presented a brilliant recital at Town Hall under the auspices of Peoples’ Symphony Concerts.  Sudbin has been a favorite since I acquired his first solo recording on the BIS label of sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti.  His BIS albums are cherishable as much for his revelatory program notes as for his playing.  This is a man who thinks deeply about everything he plays, and always has cogent reasons for his departures from tradition — such as his decision to record the original version of Rachmaninoff’s 4th Piano Concerto rather than the composer’s revision.   He presented a mixed recital on March 24, beginning with four Scarlatti sonatas, continuing with Frederic Chopin’s Ballade No. 3, Op. 47, and completing the first half with Claude Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse.  After intermission, we had Franz Liszt — Funerailles from the Harmonies poetiques et religieuses, and Harmonies du soir from the Transcendental Etudes.  The final programmed piece was Alexander Scriabin’s Sonata No. 5, Op. 53.  Encores included more Scarlatti, some Rachmaninoff, and Sudbin’s paraphrase on Chopin’s Minute Waltz.  Some people find Sudbin too cerebral or too dry, but I find him wonderfully clear-eyed and totally engaged in whatever he is playing.  I enjoyed every moment of this concert, and could have listened to him play even more encores!  He is in the midst of recording a Beethoven Concerto cycle with Vanska and the Minnesota Orchestra, and every one will be worth hearing, but his newest recording, just out, of Rachmaninoff’s First Piano Concerto with Lan Shui and the Singapore Symphony is superb in every way, and Shui’s urgent traversal of the rarely performed Symphony No. 1 must be heard to be believed.  He makes more sense out of this piece than anyone I’ve heard.

On April 17, I experienced a feeling of deja vu when I opened the program book in Carnegie Hall for the concert by Christian Thielemann and the Staatskapelle Dresden: An all-Johannes Brahms program: Academic Festival Overture, Violin Concerto (with Lisa Batiashvili), and Symphony No. 4.  Deja vu because this is exactly the program I heard in the fall of 1974 when Klaus Tennstedt made his conducting debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra!  Exactly the same!!  And what a difference.  Tennstedt made the BSO sound like a rich, luxuriant central European big-city orchestra.  By contrast, Thielemann made his group — a central European big-city orchestra — sound nothing like that at all.  The sound was much more tightly defined, the strings less luxuriant, and phrasing more clipped, less songful…  At every turn, this Dresdners sounded less central European than that long-ago evening with the BSO.  Of course, memory can play tricks, and perhaps my memory has enlarged the differences.  In any event, Thielemann and his band were definitely worth hearing, especially in the Symphony, which got an excellent performance, particularly in the intense and dramatic finale.  The Academic Festival was big-boned and joyous, the Violin Concerto sweetly songful with Batiashvili a stronger soloist than was Miriam Fried in my recollection of that long-ago Boston affair.   Thielemann has a sense of humor as well: For an encore they played the Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin by Richard Wagner.  Only a conductor with a real sense of humor would cap an all-Brahms program with a Wagner encore.

On April 19 I enjoyed the rare treat of a New York Philharmonic program devoted entirely to American music – almost unheard of in these parts.  Alan Gilbert led the world premiere of Christopher Rouse’s “Prospero’s Rooms” and was joined by Joshua Bell for Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium) for Violin, String Orchestra, Harp and Percussion.  After intermission, we had Charles Ives’s Symphony NO. 4, with Eric Huebner the prominent piano soloist, members of the New York Choral Consortium intoning the opening hymn and the worldless choral lines in the finale, and Case Scaglione occasionally standing up to co-conduct during the most rhythmically complex passages of the second and fourth movements.  This was a wonderful concert!!  I always experience some nostalgia for my college days when I hear works by composers who were among the musical composition graduate students at Cornell when I was there as an undergraduate.  Earlier this season, it was Steve Stuckey, and at this concert, Christopher Rouse.  His piece was inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” and paints a vivid, moody picture with his usual extreme dynamic contrasts.  It was much fun to hear the first time through, and I hope a recording eventuates, since I’d like to get to know this one better.  The Berstein is always a pleasure to hear, and Bell knows how to dramatize the music effectively.  I’ve yet to hear a totally convincing concert performance of the Ives — I’ll always have the Stokowski/ASO world premiere version in my head from listening to that old LP so many times and trying to figure out what was going on in the even-numbered movements.  Gilbert has the measure of the piece, and actually made an even richer thing out of the third-movement fugue than Stokowski.  But nobody exceeds the old wizard in finding the transcendental pitch of the last movement.  This performance left me engaged, but not quite exalted.

Then to NYC Opera at City Center for Gioachino Rossini’s “Moses in Egypt” in a rather minimalist production relying on projections rather than sets.  I thought the cast was better than the show in many respects, and David Salsbery Fry, who stood in on short notice for the indisposed David Cushing as Moses was excellent.  This is not an opera that we are going to hear at the Metropolitan any time soon, so City Opera does a distinct service in giving it a short revival for our delectation.  But it is clear why it is not in the standard repertory.  Rossini in a serious mood does not entertain as well as Rossini in a more frivolous mood – think Barber of Seville – and there are only a handful of really memorable moments in the score. 

As the season neared its end, I managed to squeeze in a last visit on March 31 to the ongoing Schubert & Co. lieder project.  I wish I could have attended more of these, because the young artist performing at these concerts — all volunteers — have been superb, and the opportunity to hear so much rarely, if ever, performed music is unlikely to recur soon.  Schubert wrote more than 500 songs, and the goal of Lachlan Glen and Jonathan Ware, pianists and co-Artistic Directors of this series, was to present all of them over the course of the season.  By March 31, they had really and truly gotten the hang of the challenging acoustics at Central Presbyterian Church, producing a fine balance of voice and piano, and they assembled a terrific cast to explore settings of verses by Ruckert, Holty, Schreiber and Pyrker — not all deathless poets, but usually deathless music.  Singers for the evening were Simone Easthope (soprano), Michael Kelly (baritone), Alexander Lewis (tenor), and Jazimina MacNeil (mezzo-soprano), and Glen and Ware shared collaborative honors with pianist Ken Noda, who partnered with Lewis for his extended set of eight songs in the middle of the concert.  Lewis was a new discovery for me, very exciting, brilliant dramatization of the texts, large handsome voice, and a very attractive manner.  But all the performers were great, and I so regret I’ll be out of town this weekend and so will miss the big finale of concerts on Friday night, Saturday afternoon and Saturday evening – Schwanengesang, of course, to wind things up, with baritone Edward Parks and pianist Lachlan Glen, whose growth as a collaborate keyboard artist over the course of this season has been extraordinary!  Congratulations to this enterprising crew!

It was back to the New York Philharmonic for me on April 3, for a collaboration with pianist Andras Schiff in Bach keyboard concerti (Nos. 3 and 5) and orchestral music by Mendelssohn and Schumann.  I find Schiff’s approach to the keyboard concerti a bit heavy-handed compared to Murray Perahia, whose recording of this repertory I love.  Also, he’s a bit more straight-laced than David Fray, whose recording and DVD of this repertory are most entertaining.  But Schiff’s approach has it’s place, too, bringing lots of beefy good cheer to the fast movements — played at a more moderate pace than the competition, it must be said — and much poetry to the slow ones.  The early Mendelssohn string sinfonia (the composer was 14 when he wrote it, and not yet the mature musical thinker he would become in just a few short years) was a bit of a throw-away on this program, but the best came last.  Schiff’s conducting of the Schumann 4th Symphony was superb in every respect.  I would love to hear him conduct the entire cycle.

For an interesting break, I went up to Miller Theatre at Columbia University on April 6 to hear baroque ensemble “Les Delices” play a program they called “The Age of Indulgence,” a collection of instrumental music by French baroque composers: Philidor, Rameau, Mondonville, Duphly, and Dauvergne.  One might think that an entire evening of French baroque chamber pieces would blend into an indistinguishable blur, but not so in the hands of these excellent musicians – Debra Nagy, Julie Andrijeski, Scott Metcalfe, Emily Walhout and Michael Sponseller.  Everything was richly characterized, contrasts were pointed up, and teh evening ended on a sprightly note with Dauvergne, a composer rarely encountered.  One could easily hear why Rameau is the one of these still best remembered today, as his Concert No. 3 from the Pieces de clavecin en concert was the most inspired piece of the evening, but everything heard on this program was worth hearing and in the context provided an interesting display of the variety possible within a very narrow range of stylistic permissibility.

On April 7, back to Town Hall for PSC’s presentation of the Johannes String Quartet, playing Brahms (naturally!) No. 1, Op. 51, No. 1, Dutilleux’s “Ainsi la nuit”, and then Brahms No. 3, Op. 67.  The Johannes are well-named. They do know how to play the music of their namesake composer with grace, poise and insight.  That said, I like the rather more assertive performances on the Emerson Quartet’s recording, but the Johannes’ way was no less valid.  The Dutielleux is a startlingly modern effusion of the mid-1970s, treasurable more for sound effects than for melody or motivic development. 

PSC provided a very different string quartet experience with the Quatour Ebene, performing at the High School of Fashion Industries (as the renovation of Washington Irving High School’s auditorium drags on and on).  I am a big fan of Quatour Ebene, four young Frenchmen who play with incredible subtlety.  Perhaps they could have been a bit more forceful in Mozart’s Quartet K. 465, the “dissonant” quartet, but after that was out of the way, the evening was sheer bliss.  Their performance of Schubert’s Quartet D. 804, called the “Rosamunde” because its variations movement uses a theme from the composer’s incidental music for the play of that name, was incredible. That’s the only word for it. They found a degree of mystery, pathos and tension throughout the piece that was unrivalled in my experience.  At the end of each movement, there was a collective feeling of “wow!” from the audience.  Everybody was buzzing during intermission.  And then the Mendelssohn, ending with an “allegro molto” supercharged to the finish line!!  (I promptly ordered a copy of their new recording, which includes the Mendelssohn Op.80 – just arrived and not heard yet, so I hope it adequately recreates the experience!  For encores they played some selections from their “Fiction” album, short pieces based on popular songs, including “Some Day My Prince Will Come” from Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  You haven’t really heard it until you hear what these guys can do with it.  They even sing some of it.  (I already knew they could sing… Their brief vocal performance with Philippe Jaroussky on his new DVD recital release is worth the price of admission.)  Can’t get enough of the Ebene.  This was probably the most memorable concert I’ll mention in this diary.

On April 21 I was up at Symphony Space for the last of this season’s Classics Declassified programs by the American Symphony Orchestra.  Leon Botstein selected music from Lohengrin and Tristan and Isolde, marking the Wagner bicentennial year.  But I thought this program was a rare misfire from Botstein and the orchestra.  His talk verged on incoherence, disorganized, rambling, and full of too-long orchestral examples with no real follow-up to tie up his pre-playing propositions.  The performances themselves sounded underrehearsed and uninspired, with the possible exception of the Lohengrin Prelude to Act III, although I still had the triumphal sound of Thieleman and the Dresdners in my ears, so it wasn’t a fair comparison.

On April 25 it was back to City Center for Jacques Offenbach’s La Perichole – or what was purported to be La Perichole – presented by New York City Opera.  This was one of Christopher Alden’s re-imaginings of a classic musical theater piece, and I thought he managed to trash the piece pretty well.  The singing and acting was fine, but the staging was bizarre, reducing the French light opera tradition to slapstick and pratfalls.  I was not amused, just aghast.  I give the cast credit for gamely going along with the shenanigans and doing their best, but still…. 

For a complete contrast April 28 I journeyed to the East Village for the Greenwich Village Orchestra’s Wagner program, conducted by Pierre Vallet.  This is an amateur neighborhood orchestra with high goals, and they set themselves quite a challenge with this program.  Indeed, some of this music would put the most exalted professionals to the test, and it was to the credit of orchestra and conductor that they got through the program with honor. (Indeed, their playing of the Prelude and Leibestod bested the ASO from a week early, IMHO, although they had the advantage of Christine Goerke singing the Liebestod while the ASO went it alone.)  Madame Goerke, a fine Wagnerian soprano, also gave us two arias from Tannhauser and Senta’s Ballade from Dutchman.  Jesse Blumberg, in splendid voice, sang Wolfram’s Hymn to the Evening Star from Tannhauser as well.  This was an afternoon well spent.

On April 30 I attended the last NYFOSNext program of the season.  This is a series mounted by the New York Festival of Song to showcase music by living composers in the intimate surroundings of the DiMenna Center on West  37th Street.  Each program is “curated” by a composer, who assembles a program from the music of his or her friends and acquaintances calling upon a variety of talented young performers.  For this program Mohammed Fairouz brought together fellow composers Daniel Bernard Roumain, Paola Prestini and Huang Ruo to provide a very diverse evening of song.  I have been a Fairouz fan since hearing his contribution to the 5 Boroughs Songbook, and it was a delight to hear three offerings from him: Tahwidah and For Victims (both on the new Naxos CD of his chamber works) and The Poet Declares His Renown.  I would say that the strongest of these is For Victims, a Holocaust remembrance piece that was strikingly sung by baritone Adrian Rosas with the Catalyst String Quartet.  (The equally striking performance on the recording is by David Kravitz and the Borromeo Quartet.)  Other excellent singers for the evening included Kristina Bachrach and Fang Tao Jiang (sopranos) and Samuel Levine (tenor).  I enjoyed hearing so much new music, so well and energetically performed. Thanks to NYFOS for putting on this series!!

Finally, coming full circle, last nights recital at Carnegie Hall by Richard Goode.  Goode chose to play the last three Beethoven piano sonatas, Opp. 109, 110 and 111, with six bagatelles from Op. 119 to introduce the second half of the program.  I had the strange feeling of duality in this program.  The first half struck me as a bit sleepy, even boring.  Maybe it was me.  I don’t know. But I found Goode’s approach to Op. 109 and Op. 110 to be so restrained, flowing, understated, as to pass by uneventfully, which one doesn’t expect with Beethoven. But something really seemed to charge him up during the intermission, because the second half was Beethoven on steroids.  The Bagatelles were charming and sparkling, the firsrt movement of Op. 111 ferociously dramatic, and the final movement, the extended variations, a symphony of contrasts culminating in that heavenly, quiet ending.  He refused to play an encore, despite the rapturous audience response, and I fully agreed – one can’t play anything after Op. 111.  It’s a natural concert closer, puts a period to things, and shouldn’t be followed by some trifle.

Thus ends a prolonged period of season-ending musical activities.  (But not entirely, of course, since the season has weeks to run, and because the Philharmonic will be away on tour for part of that time, the season is really extended to the end of June, so more to come…)

Busy Musical Calendar – NYCO at BAM, ASO at SS, NYP (Carousel), CBST at SWFS

Posted on: March 5th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

I’ve been so busy attending interesting musical events over the past few weeks that I’ve fallen behind in noting them here.  So, here goes:

The New York City Opera, having foresworn Lincoln Center, is in its second year of wandering, with four operas on the schedule.  The first two, which I’ve now attended, were presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.  I went to successive Saturday performances of “Powder Her Face” by Thomas Ades (music) and Philip Hensher (libretto) on February 23 and “The Turn of the Screw” by Benjamin Britten (music) and Myfanwy Piper (libretto) on March 2.  This was the 20th century British half of the season.  Next up will be two operas presented at New York City Center, Rossini’s “Moses in Egypt” and Offenbach’s “La Perichole,” the 19th century Romantic half of the season. 

While I thought that both of the BAM productions were worthy efforts in the sense of providing a showcase to relatively contemporary works, in the end I was not persuaded that either work is all that wonderful.  “Powder Her Face” presents imagined scenes from the life of the Duchess of Argyle, famously divorced by the Duke for her brazen philandering.  This piece struck me as intended to make a sensation rather than a serious musical statement.  In fact, with some exceptions I found the music rather thin on the ground, more like a soundtrack for a movie (in the traditional sense of background commentary to heighten emotions or stimulate mood) than an opera where the music takes a central place.  The production was undoubtedly true to the composer’s intent in packing the stage with nude bodies.  The best bits from the score might be heard on an EMI recording of an orchestral suite comprised of the overture, a waltz, and music from the finale.  “The Turn of the Screw” is derived from a short ghost story by Henry James, with prominent roles for two child characters, here sung by performers who struck me as slightly too old for the roles.  The music has more substance than that of “Powder,” but I don’t find it anywhere near as strong a score as “Billy Budd” or “Peter Grimes.” 

Production values for both were very high, with workable sets, innovative lighting, and excellent costumes — especially for the nude men!  Conductors Jonathan Stockhammer (“Powder”) and Jayce Ogren (“Screw”) did what could be done for these scores, with excellent work from the instrumental ensembles (not full opera orchestras) in the pit, and fine contributions from the singers.  The cast list in the “Powder” program was not particularly helpful, since several singers took on multiple roles, but were unhelpfully identified in the program only with one role each.  Allison Cook as the Duchess seemed comfortable with her challenging role, and the “corps of lovers” seem to have been recruited at a serious gym.  Sara Jakubiak was very convincing in the lead role of the Governess in “Screw,” but I was less convinced by Dominic Armstrong’s performance as “Peter Quint” — although much of the time he sounded like Peter Pears, for whom the part was written, he seemed a bit strained by the wide range of the music – perhaps this goes with the territory.  Jennifer Goode Cooper was suitably creepy as the other ghost, Miss Jessel.  I recall Benjamin Wenzelberg’s performance as Miles from Symphony Space last year, when he was perhaps just within the proper age range for this role.  Now he seems a bit old for the part, although he sang it very well.

On Sunday, February 24, I attended the American Symphony Orchestra’s Classics Declassified program on Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 at Symphony Space.  Leon Botstein, a bit of a contrarian where Bruckner editions are concerned, decided to present the original version of the score, which Bruckner subjected to substantial revisions after Herman Levi rejected the opportunity to conduct the premiere on the ground that he couldn’t understand the score.  (It’s hard in retrospect to sympathize with Levi, having now heard that original score.)  Ultimately a revision was conducted in 1892 by Hans Richter, to great success.  Leon Botstein’s talk provided an illustrated comparison of Bruckner’s first thoughts with his revised version, and proved most illuminating, although I suspect it was most comprehensible to those of us who are reasonably familiar with the standard version usually performed today.

I was very impressed by the full performance of the piece.  Botstein prefers faster-than-usual tempi in Bruckner, and I think he is correct in this, since the music coheres much better when not unduly stretched out.  Even at these brisk tempi, the piece took more than 70 minutes.  The brass playing was extraordinary, and the comfortably small concert hall at Symphony Space helped the string section – numbering somewhere between a chamber orchestra size and a full symphony orchestra size – to full and rich sound.  After hearing this original version in concert, I think most of the changes Bruckner made were improvements, but that may be as much a function of familiarity as of actual quality.  This deserved to be heard.  The more of late Bruckner I hear, the more I am persuaded that his musical genius approached that of his contemporary and antagonist, Brahms.

On Thursday night, February 27, I attended the second of the New York Philharmonic’s five performances of “Carousel,” the musical show by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II (1945).  “Carousel” induces nostalgia in me because I played double bass in the instrumental ensemble for a production at Oneonta High School when I was just a lad.  The handful of performances followed many weeks of rehearsals, by which time I had pretty much memorized the dialogue and lyrics.  Although it’s been many years since I listened to the cast recording, it all came flooding back on Thursday night.  Every song is skillfully constructed to advance the action, most of the tunes are difficult to get out of your head, and Rodgers’ harmony is pretty sophisticated for 1940s Broadway stuff.  I don’t think Hammerstein’s lyrics have aged quite as well, and the handling of Billy Bigelow’s abusive treatment of Julie Jordan would not meet today’s standard of political correctness, as the lyrics incorporate sexual stereotypes in ways that today sound naive or offensive -sort of letting Bigelow “off the hook” because the pressures of his life help to explain his physical abusiveness. 

The production was excellent, with special commendation for NYC Ballet dancers Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild (choreography by Warren Carlyle), who made something splendid out of the ballet-pantomime in the final scenes.  Nathan Gunn and Stephanie Blythe, the two opera singers in the cast, seemed over-microphoned to me.  They really didn’t need amplification in this hall, but their fellow cast-members from the Broadway theater did, and I guess it wouldn’t work to have some amplified and some not.  Kelli O’Hara, Shuler Hensley, Jason Daniely, Jessie Mueller, Kate Burton and John Cullum rounded out the cast, and Rob Fisher, the original music director from City Center Encores!, led the orchestra.  It is quite a luxury to hear this score played by the NY Philharmonic string section, just slightly reduced from the size that would be used for Beethoven symphonies.  The overture in this rendition was very well upholstered.  John Rando’s direction had the cast moving about well in the restricted space they had using a stage extension in front of the orchestra (with some platforms for added movement).  The production was beautifully designed and staged, coming very close to what one might consider a fully-staged production were the orchestra to be moved down into a pit.  These performances deserved the encomia they’ve received in the local press.

Finally, last night I attended the 18th Annual Shabbat Shirah Concert presented by Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, my synagogue.  This year the event, held at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on the Upper West Side, was devoted to celebrating and honoring Jonathan Sheffer, composer-conductor-pianist, who is a member of our board of trustees and a very active congregant in supporting the musical program.  Sheffer displayed all his musical talents yesterday, including even singing for an encore number.  He announced that he plans to set the entire Friday night Shabbat service, and has begun with a very moving setting of Oseh Shalom that was performed with great enthusiasm by the CBST Community Chorus directed by Joyce Rosenzweig.  David Marks (violin), Adrian Daurov (cello), and Spencer Myer (piano) collaborated on Sheffer’s Piano Trio No. 2, Mary Feminear (mezzo), Jonathan Estabrooks (baritone), David Mintz (tenor), Naomi Katz Cohen (soprano) and Joyce Rosenzweig (piano) performed the 10-minute chamber opera, Camera Obscura, and ballet dancer Tom Gold superbly executed very athletic choreography to three Sheffer piano pieces.  The highlight for me included two songs Sheffer had written for musical shows, especially a show-stopper from 1982 sung by Christine Ebersole and deserving of wider exposure.  It was a very interesting concert, well performed, and an unusual opportunity to hear lots of music by Jonathan, who received an award for his services to the congregation.