Although I've had some "pre-season" concert experiences – the recital at DiMenna Center by Jesse Blumberg and Joceyln Dueck, and the Schubert program at Central Presbyterian – I consider the "official" launch of the season my first concerts at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. Thus, my season really got well under way last Saturday when I attended a performance of the New York Philharmonic's first subscription program of the new season.
Music Director Alan Gilbert led the orchestra in a program of music by Gyorgy Kurtag, Ludwig van Beethoven and Igor Stravinsky. As the Philharmonic has done more and more over the past decade, the first subscription program included a mix of old and new, familiar and novel, and – as frequently in recent years – either a newly-commissioned work or an NYP premiere.
In this case, Kurtag's "…quasi una fantasia… for Piano and Groups of Instruments, Op. 27, No. 1," written in 1987-88, provided the new, novelty element. The piece was suggested by the evening's soloist, Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, and it made a sort of thematic bridge back to the Philharmonic's grand season finale in June at the Armory, when the orchestra presented a program of music for groups of instruments dispersed in unusual configurations and distances. The apparent bridge to the rest of the program was the title, evocative of Beethoven's use of the phrase to describe his Op. 27 piano sonatas, and Kurtag's alleged use of some thematic references to Beethoven.
Well, you could have fooled me about the Beethoven link. If there were thematic references, they evaded my attention. What I did hear, in a few places, were harmonies and orchestral effects that seem to have been at least loosely inspired by some moments in Stravinsky's music, especially "Le Sacre du Printemps," which was the final work on the program.
I haven't really developed a taste for Kurtag's music yet. My record collection includes a few pieces, usually included on albums that I bought to obtain pieces by other composers, and I've generally found his music to have negligible musical effect, at least from the point of view of memorability. He seems to be concerned mainly with evoking moods, rather than conducting some sort of thematic discourse, somewhat like the U.S. minimalists but with even less musical substance. Maybe I just have a blind spot for this music. Given that, I haven't a clue whether it was well-played, although everybody seemed to be pretty confident, from the dispersed musicians grouped in the rear of the third tier to Mr. Andsnes and NYP tympanist Markus Rhoten on stage, taking cues from Gilbert, who conducted facing the audience most of the time in order to be seen by his distant instrumentalists.
The orchestra assumed its more traditional formation for Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3, Op. 37, masterfully rendered by Andsnes, Gilbert and the orchestra. The pianist's appearance coincides with the U.S. release of his first recording of this concerto, coupled with the Concerto No. 1, in which he directs a chamber orchestra from the keyboard. I've listened to the recording, which is an excellent studio job but falls slightly short of the excitement generated by the live collaboration with Alan Gilbert. (Not least, the tension between soloist and conductor over tempo in the first movement introduced a note of excitement, as several times Andsnes seemed to have been pushing forward just a shade faster than Gilbert.) The 3rd is not my favorite of Beethoven's piano concerti. For a long time it has been my least favorite of the five, partly because I've always found the middle movement to be overly long and comparatively uninteresting. Andsnes and Gilbert have converted me. I found their rendition of the Largo to be the high point of the performance. The opening of the movement had an elegiac quality that I've not previously heard in it, and the tenderness with which all the musicians approached this material totally convinced me…. I'm always particularly happy when a concert performance persuades me that a piece is better than I'd previously thought.
The New York Philharmonic joined the rest of the musical world in observing the centenary of Stravinsky's "Le Sacre du Printemps," customarily translated as "The Rite of Spring," arguably one of the most important and influential works of the 20th century. I think a better translation of the title might be "Spring Ritual," since that could better communicate to a modern audience what Stravinsky was trying to illustrate with his music. The subtitle is usually translated as Pictures of Pagan Russia, and the piece is heavily based on Russian folk music. The ballet scenario envisioned by Stravinsky involves the rituals of pagan peoples as they experienced the reawakening of nature after the frigid Russian winter, culminating in the sacrifice of a virgin to their pagan gods.
However, one translates the title, this was a typically overwhelming performance. The excellence of the Philharmonic's wind soloists and percussion sections makes them an ideal orchestra for this piece. Comparing this performance to earlier 20th century recordings – attempts prior to World War II by Monteux, Stokowski, and the composer – dramatically illustrates how much the piece has been absorbed into the consciousness and competency of modern orchestral musicians. Perhaps the earlier attempts at this piece were made more dramatic by the unease of the orchestras in trying to play Stravinsky's complex rhythms and wide-ranging themes, but that drama is well-replaced in a modern rendition that realizes Stravinsky's detailed instructions virtually flawlessly. Pierre Boulez showed the way with his several recordings of the piece, and Gilbert's rendition was in that more objectivist tradition. (Leonard Bernstein, by contrast, tended to wallow in the great sonorities. It was reported that Stravinsky reacted to Bernstein's first recording of the piece with the NYP with a sarcastic "wow!") I think Stravinsky would have appreciated this performance. I surely did.
My season continued this past Friday night with the first concert of the season presented by Salon/Sanctuary Concerts, a relatively new series organized by Jessica Gould, that will take place at a variety of locations over the course of the season. Friday night's offering was a program by countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo and harpsichordist Bradley Brookshire, joined for one piece by NYC Ballet member Jared Angle to choreography by Troy Schumacher.
The event was presented at The Player's Club, housed in an old mansion on Gramercy Park South, in a performance space evocative of a 19th century salon (albeit cleared of furniture and supplied with moveable chairs). There were advantages and disadvantages with this venue. The biggest advantage was the close proximity to the performers and excellent acoustics. The big disadvantage was inadequate ventilation to handle an assemblage in this space. The rooms used for this event are interior rooms with no natural ventilation, and the air conditioning system had to be turned off during the performance because it generates a loud enough "hum" to interfere with the music. The room was very cool – verging on cold – when we entered, but by early in the performance the atmosphere became stifling and damp, and intermediate air conditioning between sets as the harpsichord was move and retuned did not really mitigate the problem. On the other hand, the performers seem not to have been affect unduly, although the audience sweltered.
I first learned about Anthony Roth Costanzo when I attended his debut with New York City Opera in Handel's "Partenope" several years ago. Later I enjoyed his performance with the NY Philharmonic in Ligeti's "Le Grand Macabre." My concert-going companion and I were so impressed with his performances that we arranged to go to the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, NY, for the first time, just to experience his performance in Handel's "Tolomeo." And, of course, we attended his performances at the Metropolitan Opera in Handel's Rodelinda and the pastiche opera, The Enchanted Island. In short, we've become "Costanzo groupies."
My favorite vocal categories are baritone and countertenor, and my favorite countertenor has long been Philippe Jaroussky. Costanzo is maturing into an artist who could easily rival Jaroussky. Both of these singers have an extraordinary capacity to produce a very full, colorful sound as they float the high notes that Baroque composers wrote for castrato soloists, or as they execute rapid,virtuosic scales and other coloristic devices. Both sing with great feeling, although I find Costanzo's work a bit warmer than Jaroussky's. I've only heard Jaroussky live in one concert, but I have collected all of his recordings, so my basis of comparison is a bit compromised, as my only experience of Costanzo has been through live performances. But I think Costanzo is on the verge of the kind of big international career that Jaroussky has carved out over the past few years. All that is lacking at this point is for him to land a contract with a recording label with good international distribution, and to begin performing in Europe as well as the U.S.
His work Friday night was spellbinding in music by Handel, Purcell, and Vivaldi. With the able collaboration of Bradley Brookshire, he sang Handel arias to frame the evening, three songs by Purcell in English, and a Vivaldi cantata with choreographic interpretation devised by Troy Schumacher and performed with Mr. Angle. (Angle danced and Costanzo moved about, interacting with the dance.)
It was a new experience for me to observe a classical ballet dancer at such close proximity, and it brought home the sheer athleticism of such dancing, which seemed as much about gymnastics as dance. Mr. Schumacher, the choreographer, introduced an element of homoerotic engagement, involving Costanzo in the choreography with many points of contact with Angle – intense eye contact as well as holding, caressing, enfolding…. The text of the Vivaldi cantata used pronouns suggesting a male-female relationship, if the singer is a male soprano who is singing about unrequited love for a woman. But this same-gender interpretation worked very well. In such close quarters, one was so aware of the physical strain of dance: the impact of the dancer leaping on the hard wood floor, the sweat and hard breathing attendant to the more vigorous moments. One doesn't get the same sense, as it looks so effortless by comparison when one is sitting in the second or third ring at Lincoln Center watching ballet performed on the distant stage. It felt strenuous watching this in such close quarters.
Mr. Costanzo's vocal solos were interspersed with some solo performances by Mr. Brookshire, including a very animated rendition of J.S. Bach's Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, and three Sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti (K. 198, 42, and 40) that I found a bit faster-paced than ideal. There is a great temptation to treat Scarlatti's pieces as technical virtuoso exercises, and I thought Brookshire fell into this trap just a bit in K. 198, which he played a faster than he could comfortably render it, obscuring some of the most interesting rhythmic patterns based on characteristically Spanish dances. The remaining two sonatas were better done, I thought, introducing some tempo variation to make dramatic points at more moderate tempi.
On the whole, I thought this was a delightful program, well presented, and I was especially grateful for the opportunity to hear Costanzo sing varied repertory at close range. I remain an enthusiastic fan, and I hope there will be recordings down the line!
The printed program listed six more Salon/Sanctuary concerts over the course of the season, mostly very tempting, and I may try to make it to some of the others if they don't conflict with concerts I already have scheduled. The full season details can be found at www.salonsanctuaryconcerts.org.