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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:

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.

Orchestral Weekend: NYP/Nelsons and ASO/Botstein

Posted on: February 12th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

Two concerts attended this weekend:  On Saturday night, the New York Philharmonic with guest conductor Andris Nelsons and violin soloist Christian Tetzlaff.  On Sunday afternoon, the American Symphony Orchestra with conductor Leon Bostein.  My experience was a combination of the memorable and the forgettable.

First, the memorable.  For the second half of the NY Philharmonic concert, Nelsons led the orchestra in Bela Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra.  I thought this was probably the best performance that I’ve ever heard of this piece.  My acquaintance with the Concerto for Orchestra dates back to my early years as a record collector in the 1960s, when I purchased the Reiner/Chicago Symphony recording.  I’ve since heard many recordings and several live performances.  The first live performance I heard was by the New York Philharmonic, in a Parks Concerto conducted by the late Thomas Schippers (that really dates me, I guess).  I can’t specifically recall all the others, but I’ve heard several.  Never, however, have I been so overwhelmed as I was by this Saturday night’s performance.  Nelsons is not a restrained interpreter.  He intervenes to shape the music, bend the tempi, play with balances… and he is, like Leonard Bernstein was, a “jumper.”  That is, he tends to bounce around on the podium, giving the orchestra visual cues to animate the music, occasionally passing the baton off to his left hand while shaping the music with his right.  The orchestra responded with overwhelming absorption to his direction, producing a very exciting and involving performance.  The Concerto for Orchestra provides chances for every solo player and section to show off, and they all performed magnificantly.  For me, the sound of an orchestra is heavily defined by the principal oboe, and Liang Wang was the hero of the evening for me, in this as well as both pieces in the first half.

But the first half did not strike me nearly as strongly.  They opened with Antonin Dvorak’s symphonic poem, “The Noon Witch,” last performed by the orchestra in 2005 when Alan Gilbert appeared as a guest conductor.  The Dvorak tone poems aren’t played with any frequency by American orchestras, so its reappearance less than ten years later is itself worth comment, but the piece itself is not quite so distinctive as the last few symphonies.  I thought the orchestra played well, but I was not overwhelmed the way I was for the Bartok.  Tetzlaff in the Brahms Concerto was also a bit of a letdown, despite Nelsons’ hard work in keeping the piece moving.  I found the solo playing a bit hard-edged, lacking the romantic sweep that this concerto naturally invites.  Wang’s big oboe solo in the second movement was gorgeous, but the movement itself seemed to wander a bit.  Tetzlaff’s vehement attacks were most appropriate in the gypsy-toned finale.

The American Symphony Orchestra’s concerts always have a theme.  This time the title was “Truth or Truffles” and presented works by two composers whose lives were affected by the Nazi takeover of Germany. 

Karl Amadeus Hartmann, who detested the Nazis but found himself constrained from leaving the country, endured a sort of internal exile, his music unplayed, for the duration of that regime, emerging at war’s end as one of the few significant composers untainted by Nazi associations, and he continued composing until his death in 1963.  He did not live to complete Gesangsszene, a piece for baritone and orchestra setting words from the poem “Sodom and Gomorrah” by Jean Giraudoux, conveying a rather bleak view of the future of humanity.  At the first performance, baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau spoke the final lines that the composer had not lived to set, and the result was seen as dramatically apt.  Sunday’s soloist, Lester Lynch, did the same.  For me, that was actually the high point of the performance.  The piece lasts nearly half an hour, and perhaps the text dictates the mood, but I found it dour, off-putting, excessively noisy at times, and lacking thematic coherence or tunefulness.

Leon Botstein’s program note refers to “Strauss’ collaboration with the Nazi regime” in passing, which I find perhaps too simplistic a statement.  Strauss’s daughter-in-law was Jewish, and he was commandeered by the regime to be the figurehead of a state cultural agency, under the implicit threat of harm to his family if he did not cooperate.  He was not a Nazi propagandist or supporter, but he did pinch-hit as conductor at the Bayreuth Festival when Toscanini boycotted and thus lent his prestige as a senior conductor of world repute to the hated regime.  In any event, the ASO presented a work from the 1920s, what Botstein described as “Strauss’ perhaps least-respected score,” the ballet Schlagobers, which Botstein suggested might be a welcome replacement for the overly-repeated Nutcracker Ballet at Christmastime.  I beg to differ.  Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker is a work of compositional genius, with gorgeous melodies, great (and inventive) orchestration, and such innate musical interest that one can play the ballet as a concert piece without dancing and retain the active interest of the audience.  One could hardly say as much for the Strauss, which struck me as banal, lacking in memorable themes, and overly long.  When a major composition by a composer who has produced many works that have entered the standard orchestral repertory is widely-ignored, there is usually good reason.  Based on yesterday’s performance, I can’t imagine why an orchestra would devote 90 minutes on a concert program to this piece when they could present one of Strauss’ indubitably great pieces – Heldenleben, for example – instead.

That said, of course, there is a logic to presenting both of these pieces.  The ASO specializes in presenting rarely-heard works, and focuses attention on major works of little-known composers and neglected works of major composers.  This concert featured one of each.  They were probably each worth a performance, although putting both on one program was a bit of a strain for the listener, and this concert didn’t draw a big crowd.  Hartmann has never really caught on in America, and Schlagobers is obscure enough that it would not be a draw on any concert program.  This is the drawback of ASO’s programming, which was overcome at their prior concert by including the Brahms 4th Symphony on a program with the unknown Herzogenberg and the little-played Dvorak Symphony No. 4 (“new number,” not the “old” No. 4 that is now known as No. 8 and frequently played).  Perhaps that is a strategy worth emphasizing a bit more, if drawing more listeners is a goal.