Arts Review

Some Concerts, Some Observations, and a “Crisis”

Concert life in New York City is so rich and varied that we curmudgeons can indulge ourselves to the full even if we attend only events that include repertoire that interests us (or that we hope will interest us) presented by performers we respect (or hope to respect).

Last November, for instance, I heard two interpretations of Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony only eight days apart, after not having listened to the piece in several years. The first performance was part of a New York Philharmonic subscription concert conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen (the program included the local premiere of Salonen’s Violin Concerto, difficult to glom onto at a single hearing but played with astonishing bravura by Leila Josefowicz); the other was given by the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra under Neeme Järvi. Both took place at Avery Fisher Hall. Salonen’s approach to the symphony, especially in the first movement’s subtle opening pages, reminded me, oddly enough, of a Boulez/Chicago Symphony performance of Petrushka that I had heard a few years earlier: every orchestral voice was audible with a clarity that seemed almost unreal, but forward momentum was lacking; what I perceived, instead, was a display, first of Bar One, then of Bar Two, and so on. I appreciated the intimate contact with the score’s internal workings, but I felt that I wasn’t really hearing the music. Järvi—a far less subtle musician than Salonen, working with an orchestra that isn’t nearly as fine, player for player, as the New York ensemble—made the piece open up in a more natural and ultimately more compelling way.

Sibelius’ 150th birthday will occur next year, and I hope that conductors who have a feeling for and insight into his seven symphonies will program them. Their popularity in the 1920s and ’30s—at least in the English- and German-speaking countries—was followed by a reaction against them on the part of the post-World War II avant-garde; only the Second and Fifth are heard with relative frequency today. This was the price Sibelius paid for shunning the various compositional trends of his day. He was a contemporary of Mahler, Debussy, and Richard Strauss, and he was keenly aware of what they and younger composers, including Stravinsky and the Second Viennese School, were creating, but he kept stubbornly to his own path. A strong Tchaikovskian influence is audible in the First Symphony, yet even in this work, and certainly in its six successors, Sibelius’ voice is unique. Some of the symphonies are uneven in quality: the freshest and deepest material in the Third and the Fifth, for instance, is concentrated in each work’s first movement; subsequent movements seem either pedestrian or overinflated. On the other hand, the Seventh, which consists of four seamlessly conjoined movements that last a total of about twenty-one minutes, is a life-affirming work, poised to burst into new territory, and one wonders in vain how the Eighth, which Sibelius evidently composed but then destroyed, might have sounded. (Some sketches have been found and played, but they raise more questions than they answer.) Yet it is the Fourth Symphony, which dates from 1910–11, that seems to me not only Sibelius’ masterpiece, but also one of the greatest orchestral works of the twentieth century. With a barely larger than Mozart-period orchestra, this thirty-five-minute work, almost unremittingly bleak but exceptionally powerful, no doubt grew out of the composer’s many internal demons, but from our vantage point it appears to prefigure the horrors that would engulf Europe during the following decades. It ends not with a bang but an exceedingly desolate whimper.

The Estonian orchestra’s visit was part of Lincoln Center’s month-long White Light Festival, which also included, among much else of interest, “Era la notte” (“It was night”), a program of mainly dark-hued seventeenth-century Italian music performed by the amazing soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci. Les Siècles, the small French instrumental ensemble that accompanied her and punctuated the presentation with short works by Biagio Marini, began the evening by assembling on one side of the Rose Theater’s stage while, upstage, dozens upon dozens of candles were being lit on a vertical latticework frame. The stage’s floor had been transformed into a shallow pool in which the barefoot Antonacci moved around during much of her performance. Sounds kitsch, or self-consciously New Age? I was prepared for the worst, but it all functioned marvelously, thanks to this artist’s ability to turn everything to account. In a program that lasted an hour and a half, with no intermission, she sang works by Pietro Antonio Giramo, Barbara Strozzi, and Claudio Monteverdi—works with texts that deal with unhappy love, madness, delusion, despair, combat, and death. But “sang” is a misleading verb in this instance: the striking-looking Antonacci, who was originally a mezzo-soprano and still has a variety of darker vocal hues at her disposal, embodied each of these pieces, holding us in her grip and forcing us to live through the music with her. She is a singer, a musician, an actress, and a force of nature.

Another force of nature is the young German-Canadian cellist Johannes Moser, who played Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 with the Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in February. Many music-lovers will disagree with my opinion that Shostakovich wrote a few works that have a lot to say and many others that merely bounce back and forth between the grotesque and the maudlin, and that this concerto belongs in the latter group. But Moser, a last-minute replacement for his Norwegian colleague Truls Mørk, who had been injured in a skiing accident, played the piece from memory and with a dramatic intensity that some listeners no doubt considered excessive but that may be what the concerto needs to come vividly to life. And he pulled the orchestra and its music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, along with him: they went where he went, as if drawn forward by some sort of animal magnetism. Is Moser this good in more subtle repertoire? It will be interesting to find out.

Much less successful were the performances of the other two works on the Philadelphians’ program, which began with Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen and ended with Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony. Strauss wrote his piece early in 1945, when he was nearly eighty-one, and called it, simply, a “study for twenty-three solo strings,” but it is really a funeral elegy for Germany, for the musical world that the composer had known in his heyday, and for himself. Although the Philadelphia strings sounded beautiful, Nézet-Séguin pushed and pulled the music, phrase by phrase and sometimes bar by bar, in a way that rendered it structurally incoherent. The day after the concert, I listened to what may well be the earliest recording of the work—a live, 1947 performance by the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler. Now, Furtwängler was not known for strict adherence to composers’ tempo markings, but in this case his interpretation does what Strauss’s score indicates: it provides a gradual increase in tempo and tension through the first three-quarters of the piece; a sudden drop back to the slow opening tempo; another, slighter push forward followed by another return to the adagio tempo; a further, gradual acceleration; and, in the desperately bleak ending, a slowdown to a dirge-like tempo, with a direct quotation of the opening theme of the “Eroica” Symphony’s funeral march, frequently hinted at from the very beginning. The Berliners’ playing lacks both the beauty and the accuracy of the Philadelphians’ version, and at one point some of the lower strings go astray for a few bars. Yet throughout, Furtwängler lets the music flow forward with apparent naturalness; he refrains from toying with it or teasing it. Nézet-Séguin made this and that detail glow and shimmer, but serving up such particulars doesn’t help Metamorphosen, a work replete with melancholy backward glances that nevertheless do not interrupt its inexorable journey toward death.

At the end of the score, which is dated 12 April 1945—four weeks before Germany’s unconditional surrender—Strauss wrote the words “IN MEMORIAM!” By not exiling themselves from Hitler’s Germany before the war, both Strauss and Furtwängler were tainted by the horrors that led to their country’s destruction. But that’s a whole other story.

Putting the “Eroica” itself at the end of the concert was an intelligent piece of programming, but this “Eroica” was a symphony on steroids. There used to be a tendency, especially among many old-time German-school conductors, to slow this and other celebrated works down, thereby underlining their status as monuments of civilization rather than approaching them as fresh, living dramas. This performance erred in the opposite direction. The first movement took off at an exceptionally fast tempo—a touch faster, if I’m not mistaken, than Beethoven’s own very fast metronome mark of sixty to the bar—and it proceeded with the same sort of emphatic pushing and pulling that had damaged the Strauss piece. Beethoven, in the first movements of this and certain other works from his “heroic” or “middle” period—I’m thinking of, for instance, the “Waldstein” Sonata and the String Quartet in F Major (Op. 59, No. 1)—creates a sort of motor-impulse in the middle-to-low register that drives the thematic material forward but simultaneously exercises a steadying effect on it; I call such passages Beethoven’s sitting-on-top-of-the-world moments, during which he seems to be, simultaneously, a strong, active participant in life and an above-the-fray observer of it. There was none of this in Nézet-Séguin’s performance, which gave us a series of blaring climaxes that wreaked havoc on the movement’s masterly architecture.

The symphony’s other movements fared no better, and the whole performance made me think of something I had heard a wise pianist say years ago. If someone came up to him after a recital and commented, approvingly, that he had played such-and-such a piece completely differently than anyone else, his reaction, he said, was to think that he must have done something terribly wrong. To put the matter differently: there are musicians who study a piece of music in order to try to understand what it is and to realize its essence to the best of their ability, and there are others who study it in order to figure out what they can do with it—how to put their own personal stamp on it. Based on what I heard at this concert and on two or three previous occasions, I fear that the Philadelphia Orchestra’s gifted young music director belongs to the latter group.

Nézet-Séguin certainly belongs to the school of conductors who believe, or at least appear to believe, that part of their job is to demonstrate the music’s emotional content to the audience through flamboyant gesturing and exaggerated facial expressions—a phenomenon that Stravinsky aptly described as “a performance of a performance.” Another, more extreme exponent of the shock-and-awe conducting style is Gianandrea Noseda, who, during the Met’s recent production of Borodin’s Prince Igor executed a variety of pliés, jetés, and mad-scene-worthy gesticulations with the energy, although certainly not the finesse, of a young Baryshnikov. According to the British conductor Sir Adrian Boult, who had observed virtually every conductor of importance from the nineteen-teens through the seventies, “The picturesque habit of walking about and miming the music like a ballet dancer is a modern development, which I dare say will appeal to some of the less sophisticated members of our audience. But it doesn’t make matters easier for the players and singers.” Yet the Met orchestra forged ahead heroically, and one hopes that the audience managed to focus on the music rather than the acrobatics in the pit.

Showmanship, cheap or otherwise, was absent, fortunately, from Jonas Kaufmann’s much-anticipated February lieder recital at Carnegie Hall. In all of the pieces on the program—five of Schumann’s Zwölf Gedichte, Op. 35; the same composer’s Dichterliebe; Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder; and Liszt’s Tre Sonetti di Petrarca—the fine German tenor and his pianist, Helmut Deutsch, were restrained, sometimes to the point of seeming detached. Or maybe from my seat, far back on the main floor, I was simply too far away to be pulled into the intimacy that such a program requires. There was some strain, from time to time, in Kaufmann’s middle-high register, but the high level of his musicianship was obvious throughout. I hope to hear him sing lieder again, but in a smaller venue.

Another February event—this one at the Juilliard School’s Peter Jay Sharp Theater—was an unalloyed pleasure: a concert of semi-staged scenes from comic operas by Mozart (Die Entführung aus dem Serail), Berlioz (Benvenuto Cellini), and Donizetti (L’Elisir d’Amore), plus Stravinsky’s entire one-act opera, Mavra, with the excellent Juilliard orchestra backing up singers from the school and from the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, all under the expert and, clearly, inspiring baton of James Levine. (Daniel Stewart, part of the Lindemann program, conducted the Berlioz excerpt at the performance I attended.) Mavra was sung in English; the excerpts were done in their original languages. Standouts among the singers were bass Ryan Speedo Green and soprano Ying Fang. Green sang in the Mozart and Donizetti excerpts; at the performance I heard—the last of three—he sounded more at ease in the former than in the latter. Ying Fang, who had leading parts in every piece except Mavra, has a lovely voice that seems to be under complete control in every register, but it may be too small, at least in its present state, to project major roles adequately at the Met or in other large houses. Bare-bones staging, directed by Edward Berkeley, worked beautifully: the adequately costumed singers, positioned in front of the onstage orchestra, used no props excepting a couple of chairs and a few hand-held objects, and yet they conveyed their roles convincingly through their acting as well as their singing.

By the way: Why is Mavra, that quasi-Dadaist musical satire, not performed more frequently? The Juilliard audience ate it up (soprano Mary-Jane Lee, mezzo-sopranos Margaret Lattimore and Lacey Jo Benter, and tenor Benjamin Bliss all excelled in their parts), and what’s not to love? It could work as a curtain-raiser to any other not-too-long comic opera.
If I had a crusading spirit, I would be campaigning on behalf of two musical causes: the abolition of recorded or broadcast background music in restaurants and other public places—a practice as offensive to the mind and ears as smoking is to the lungs and circulatory system—and the limitation of the use of the messa di voce among string players in early music ensembles. In a concert at the Metropolitan Museum, the strings of the Venice Baroque Orchestra seemed to be crescendoing on every up-bow that lasted longer than two seconds and dimuinuendoing on every down-bow of similar duration. I know: eighteenth-century theorists—Fantini, Quantz, Geminiani, and others—discussed and encouraged the application of this vocal technique (literally, “placing of the voice”) to instruments. But did they really mean that this should be done on every godforsaken long note? Call me a musicological caveman, but I can’t imagine that either composers or listeners during the period in question would have expected, let alone desired, such uniformity. Certainly from the nineteenth century on, aspiring string players have been taught to maintain an even tone through long notes—except when a crescendo or diminuendo is specifically required—whether on an up-bow or a down-bow, and many of today’s early music ensembles are using the messa di voce with more restraint than the Venetian orchestra’s players chose to do.

The ensemble’s performance of works by Handel and Porpora was energetic and intelligently phrased, but it was marred by a fair amount of out-of-tune playing. French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, the evening’s soloist, is a true vocal virtuoso who produces a beautiful sound. One could quibble that the beauty is often achieved at the expense of clear enunciation; on the other hand, he knew how to apply the messa di voce more judiciously—and to greater effect—than his backup band.
I tried, but didn’t quite manage, to become riled up over the most recent death-of-classical-music debate, carried out in Slate, various other publications (off- as well as on-line), and myriad blogs. No doubt this is in part because I’m a gray-bearded member of the “aging audience”: even if the doom prophets’ most apocalyptic predictions pan out, I’ll probably be dead before most of our concert organizations and opera ensembles collapse. But there were some less selfish reasons, too, for my hesitation to leap into the verbal fray.

In the first place, the “current” crisis has been going on for as long as musical organizations have existed. At various times, performing groups have been granted and then denied royal or ecclesiastical favor; impresarios have thrived and then gone bankrupt; opera houses have been built and demolished; governments have granted subsidies and withdrawn them; donors have distributed largesse in times of plenty and withheld it during leaner stretches; audiences have been enthusiastic about certain ways of presenting music and have then become bored with them. As far as I’ve been able to discern, the two most-publicized disasters in American classical music in 2013—the collapse of New York City Opera and the season-long silence of the Minnesota Orchestra—were not a result of a falloff in attendance. The City Opera debacle was the final consequence of the ill-advised hiring of Gérard Mortier as general director—the wrong man, if ever there was one, for that specific job (indeed, he withdrew from it before his scheduled first season)—and the Minnesota saga had to do above all with labor-management relations. As I write this article, the Minnesotans are regrouping, and at least one serious attempt is underfoot to revive City Opera. Yet even if these much-to-be-hoped-for resurrections fail to materialize, neither setback is an anticipatory death knell for art-music. Did the collapse of several important opera companies in seventeenth- and eighteenth- century Venice, or the closure, for lack of funds, of La Scala during and after the First World War, signal the death of Italian opera? Was the demise in 1928 of Walter Damrosch’s beloved New York Symphony the harbinger of a permanent decline in the City’s concert life? There have always been and no doubt will always be critical events in this as in every other area of human endeavor, but the pundits’ tendency to jump from individual misfortunes to predictions of Armageddon is ridiculous.

And how about that aging audience? It’s true that in the late 1950s, when I, as a preteen, became intensely interested in classical music and began to attend concerts frequently, audiences were not as old, on the average, as they are today, but neither was the population as a whole. At that time, anyone who reached the age of seventy had surpassed the average American’s life expectancy; people in my current age group were counted among the older audience members, whereas now we’re in the “late-middle” category. There were few other kids my age—often none—in audiences back then, or when I was in high school, or for several years thereafter. Today, when I look around me at various domestic and foreign concert and opera venues, I see a few preteens and teenagers and a smattering of twenty-somethings in the audience—not a good proportion, to be sure, but not visibly worse than it was fifty-plus years ago.

In the Cleveland of my childhood, we elementary and junior high school kids were taken once or twice a year to our wonderful orchestra’s children’s concerts. Some of my contemporaries in the audience launched spitballs at the conductor; others dozed; and perhaps one of us out of every five hundred or so remained enthralled, which made the whole operation worthwhile.

Doesn’t something similar occur when kids are exposed to other experiences that require concentration and a specific type of predisposition? In the case of great music, one has to have an internal antenna that responds, however uncomprehendingly at first, to what the music is communicating. How this comes about matters little: maybe a friend’s contagious enthusiasm does the trick, or, nowadays, a YouTube video, or even attendance under duress at a live concert. Willingly or unwillingly, you find yourself drawn into the music’s substance, and if you have had that response once you will want it to recur.

It’s up to those of us who need the chiaroscuro of the second-act sextet in Don Giovanni, or the unfolding of Beethoven’s life-transforming C-sharp minor String Quartet, or the tolling of the bells—for us all—in the Postlude of Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles, to make sure, each according to his or her abilities, that the organizations that provide these experiences survive, and that as many young people as possible become exposed to this great product of our civilization.