Arts Review

A Grand Tour, Pandemic Edition

Although extended trips abroad remain unlikely for many, opportunities for musical Grand Tours abound. Last autumn in New York City, concert organizers, striving for more inclusive programming, led listeners to unheard of places in the musical imagination in addition to familiar destinations. For edification and escape, concertgoers returned to the City’s venues in droves. Despite long lines outside resulting in delayed downbeats inside—vaccination and ID checks were de rigueur—audiences clamored to experience live music again in halls brimming with masked strangers.

The Metropolitan Opera’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones was the season’s undisputed main attraction. Composer and jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard wrote the music to a libretto by screenwriter and actor Kasi Lemmons, who adapted it from the eponymous memoir of New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow. Their combined star power drew the most glamorous and demographically diverse crowd I have ever encountered at an opera; a Saturday matinee had the atmosphere of a Hollywood premiere. The crowds were also drawn by the unprecedented nature of the production. Never before has the Met presented any part of the African American experience on its stage (George Gershwin’s deeply problematic Porgy and Bess notwithstanding), let alone an opera composed by a Black artist set in Gibsland, Louisiana, a virtually unknown rural town.

The Opera Theatre of St. Louis, led by artistic director James Robinson, originally commissioned Fire as a chamber opera, which premiered in its small theater space in 2019. At the Met, Robinson shared directorial duties with choreographer Camille A. Brown (the first Black artist in such a role for the opera company), and they worked with Blanchard and Lemmons to expand the original. The most notable additions became the Met production’s highlights: the dance scenes and the promotion of Charles’s mother, Billie, to a leading role. The soprano Latonia Moore was transcendent in the latter, eliciting laughs as easily as she did tears. Brown’s ravishing ballet sequence opens Act II, reifying Charles’s continual struggle with his sexual identity through his ambivalence toward the tantalizing male dancers. The “step” routine that opens Act III—when Charles rushes a fraternity—stopped the show. An integral part of contemporary Black college life, stepping is a centuries-old social dance tradition that uses the body for movement as well as sound. Brown’s choreography, dazzlingly executed by dancers in preppy uniforms, whipped the audience into a frenzy. Beyond adulation, another impulse seemed to be driving the extended ovation: it was about time, as if the audience were saying, that this dance tradition, this music, and these characters arrived on this stage; they were ripe for operatic treatment.

Indeed, despite the countless achievements of Fire at the Met, it is a conventional opera. Blanchard’s idiosyncratic musical language—deftly weaving jazz, classical, and popular styles—may be an operatic novelty; so, too, may be Lemmons’ brilliant libretto—filled with unforgettable turns of phrase—about what poverty, violence, and sexual assault do to a Black boy of “peculiar grace”; but these particularities speak to operatic universals of betrayal and redemption, as well as the genre’s historical tendency to blur boundaries between artistic traditions. Paradoxically, Fire was both an extraordinary and ordinary opera to experience.

Although mostly associated with European music, opera has consistently been a capacious genre, hardly monolithic since its beginnings in early seventeenth-century Italy. Operas then we would consider plays with musical entr’actes today; composers have woven vernacular and concert musics together for most of operatic history; and dance sequences were as central, if not more so, as the music and text in certain national traditions. Fire will surely become a staple of the operatic economy. The very ease with which it engages the genre, combined with the demand that it generated, should reassure opera’s gatekeepers that it is well worth the risk to ask new voices for contributions in the future. Opera—and its audiences—can handle it.

Like any other operatic performance, Fire was not without missteps. The Met orchestra, which played with precision and verve under its music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, included a rhythm section (piano, bass, guitar, drums), and this configuration overwhelmed the singers on too many occasions. The baritone Will Liverman, who sang the title role of Charles with unwavering intensity, was especially liable to be covered. The problem may not have been strictly one of performance. Too often, Blanchard scores the vocal and orchestral parts not only in unison but in the same register, condemning the lower voices to the background. Even the male quintet in Act II—Charles’s toxically masculine brothers—struggled to project. This is less problematic in the higher registers, which may be why Moore and Angel Blue, the elegant soprano who impressively navigated three roles (Greta, Charles’s college girlfriend, and the personifications of destiny and loneliness), did not strain nearly as much as Liverman did to be heard. The Met’s was an indelible production, but Fire may be even better as a chamber opera, as it was when it first premiered in St. Louis. The extended scenes and roles, of course, should be kept, but Fire would be no less powerful if staged in a smaller venue with a smaller orchestra.
From late twentieth-century Louisiana, the Met took audiences to early seventeenth-century Moscow. If Fire is in many ways conventional, Boris Godunov is in as many ways unconventional; last season, it was also unfamiliar. Instead of the usual four-act version, the Met presented Modest Mussorgsky’s shorter original from 1869, comprising “seven disjointed scenes,” as Stephen Wadsworth, the production’s director, characterizes it. Either way, Mussorgsky had set out to defy musical and operatic conventions of his time, which meant rejecting the trappings of Italian bel canto opera. The tuneful lyricism of Italian opera is as much a product of the bewitching melodies as it is the verses—simple meters, regular rhyming patterns, and frequent repetition—on which those melodies are set. Mussorgsky thus shunned a libretto (and librettist). The text of Boris is mostly that of Alexander Pushkin’s historical play about Boris Godunov, the Russian tsar (r. 1598⁠–1605), who allegedly murdered a seven-year-old heir to the throne. The 1825 play is in blank verse—Pushkin borrowed it from William Shakespeare—which suited Mussorgsky. The composer wanted Russian opera to be more realistic than Italian opera, so his characters sing as Russians speak. There are no memorable arias for listeners to take home as souvenirs after the performance, which are, in part, what make bel canto opera so beloved.

Mussorgsky’s scenes alternate between choruses—crowds of peasants and nobles who eventually turn against Godunov—and dialogues centered on the few operatic leads. The latter include Godunov as inhabited by the bass René Pape, whose majestic voice imbues even a despot in mental decline with dignity; Grigory, the sanctimonious novice monk and pretender to the throne, as sung by the agile tenor David Butt Philip; and Varlaam, a vagrant monk who is not a lead role but was riotously realized by the charismatic tenor Ryan Speedo Green. (Green also had a memorable turn as Charles’s uncle in Fire.) Boris’s disjointed but downward descent, culminating in Godunov’s lonely death, is made even more bleak by the music. Despite huge orchestral forces—handled masterfully by conductor Sebastian Weigle that never once covered the singers—Mussorgsky creates a desolate atmosphere. Coupled with its dearth of catchy melodies, Boris is a difficult opera to experience. That was the point; Russian realists were suspicious of beauty. The Met’s sets glittered with lavish details, but like the palaces in Godunov’s and Mussorgsky’s lifetimes, they were facades. Mussorgsky’s Russia is a good place to glean lessons about the grim realities of autocratic rule, but not necessarily pleasurable to visit.
In contrast, Death of Classical, a non-profit performing arts organization specializing in concerts at ghostly venues around New York City, and MetLiveArts, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s music series, held events at actual tourist destinations. The former presented Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem, op. 48, within the picturesque grounds of Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery. It was a beguiling setting: listeners sat scattered across a hillside amid flickering LED candles as the Manhattan skyline glimmered in the distance. To control the elements, organizers constructed a temporary stage complete with lighting and sound systems for the performers.

The concert began with Carlos Simon’s Be Still and Know, a brief one-movement piano trio. The sparse, tensionless piece—primarily in C major with barely a dusting of dissonance—was not so much played as gently unfurled by pianist Jason Wirth (on a digital piano), violinist Jocelyn Zhu, and cellist Elena Ariza. As a prelude to the main event, it was highly effective; the sounds floated over the hill on the evening breeze.

Fauré’s Requiem, unfortunately, did not work as well. Prior to its performance, Andrew Ousley, Death of Classical’s general and artistic director, explained that the concert was intended as a forum to grieve the pandemic’s toll. The Requiem is an understandable choice for such a gathering; the music is indeed heavenly. In the last of seven movements, “In Paradisum,” Fauré spins out an exquisitely long melodic line ornamented by angelic flutters from the organ, conjuring a sonic paradise that is arguably unrivaled in the repertoire. It was a disappointment, then, that the performance detracted from Death of Classical’s noble intentions. Cantori New York, a chamber choir directed by Mark Shapiro, was joined by a lean orchestra of six strings and two horns, plus the digital piano. From the very first chord, the choir had ensemble and intonation problems, though they may not have been entirely preventable. On an open-air stage where the sounds of human voices get jumbled together with their amplified counterparts, it must have been an acoustic challenge for the singers, who need to be able to hear each other clearly in order to sing as one. The audience, on the other hand, had no trouble hearing the singers and instrumentalists, but the sound system distorted their efforts. Most of the musical nuances were lost. However idyllic, the outdoor setting was not appropriate for the Requiem.
The Met Museum’s Temple of Dendur, conversely, seemed to be built for Arvo Pärt’s music. Amid the enigmatic Egyptian architecture, MetLiveArts celebrated the Estonian composer with performances by the Experiential Orchestra, led by music director James Blachly, and the choral group Artefact Ensemble, led by artistic director Benedict Sheehan. The raison d’être for the event was the world premiere of O Holy Father Nicholas, an a cappella choral piece co-commissioned by the museum for the rededication of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine at Ground Zero. (The church was destroyed in the September 11 attacks.) The concert otherwise alternated between eight of Pärt’s works for orchestra, works for a cappella choir, and works for both ensembles.

The program consisted only of Pärt’s compositions after 1977, including three from that year, which are some of his most well known: Fratres, Summa, and Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten. These pieces are mainly rooted in his so-called “tintinnabular” style, which, in brief, means they are based on the sounds of bells. Pärt is not only interested in imitation; he also breaks down the physics of the bell toll and uses those principles as the basis of his harmonic language. The style results in music that is mostly consonant (replete with intervals of thirds), sparse (he makes dramatic use of silences between tolls), and thus, resonant. In turn, the sandstone temple, reflecting pool, and colossal wall of windows seemed to reverberate in sympathy with the music; the sold-out crowd absorbed any excess echoes, creating the ideal acoustical balance. The performers took advantage of this unique alignment of sound and space. They were all listening intently in the moment to what was possible rather than merely doing what they had rehearsed; it was music-making at its most spontaneous.
At traditional concert venues across New York City, ensembles large and small promoted underrepresented voices while guiding audiences through multiple soundscapes in one sitting. What is true for physical travel is true for musical: more is not always better. Will Liverman, the star of Fire Shut Up in My Bones, found time to give a recital with the pianist Myra Huang at the Park Avenue Armory’s Board of Officers Room. The duo performed a bewilderingly varied program that may have been better served if split into two separate concerts.

The first half consisted of comparatively standard art songs by Carl Loewe (“Erlkönig” from 3 Balladen, op. 1), Richard Strauss (one selection each from the songs of op. 19, op. 29, and op. 10), Maurice Ravel (Don Quichotte à Dulcinée), and Sergei Rachmaninoff (“Sud’ba” from 12 Songs, op. 21). The second half paired rarely heard midcentury art songs by Black composers Margaret Bonds (Three Dream Portraits) and H. Leslie Adams (selections from Night Songs) with Liverman’s own arrangements of R&B hits (“One Last Cry” and “Back at One”) by singer-songwriter Brian McKnight. (Liverman accompanied himself on the piano in the latter.) Damien Sneed’s arrangement of “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” a Protestant hymn and an encore, “Ten Thousand Miles Away,” a traditional British folksong arranged by Steven Mark Kohn, capped off the concert.

If the point of the programming was to show the performers’ expressive range, then the event was unquestionably a success. Particularly memorable was “Erlkönig,” Loewe’s setting of the well-known poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe about the macabre Erlking luring a boy to his corporeal death. Liverman effortlessly flitted between the poem’s four characters—the narrator, the father, the Erlking, and the boy—while Huang set the scene with the monstrously difficult piano part that mimics a horse’s frantic gallop. Equally poignant was their performance of Dream Portraits, Bonds’s settings of three extraordinary poems on the African American experience by Langston Hughes: “Minstrel Man,” “Dream Variation,” and “I, Too.” Her sophisticated yet accessible harmonic language—ideally suited to Hughes’s language—made the poet’s words even more incisive. Against the sumptuous belle époque architecture of the Armory—and amid our ongoing debates about racial justice—it may have been too on the nose to see two artists of color perform Dream Portraits, which ends with “I, too, am America.”

If the point of the programming was also to highlight the contributions of Black artists to the art song genre, then the concert’s success was questionable. There were few discernible themes or audible ties that connect the selections of the first half together, let alone the two halves. At a stretch, Bonds’s and Adams’s musical idioms share certain traits with those of Strauss, Ravel, and Rachmaninoff, a relationship that might be better contemplated if the songs were interspersed together rather than divided by an intermission. While more diverse than a typical vocal recital, Liverman and Huang’s program lacked coherence; more was simply more.
At Alice Tully Hall, the New York Philharmonic also tried to do too much in one concert. Despite a commanding Philharmonic debut by guest conductor Dalia Stasevska and exhilarating performances by the players—especially Anthony McGill, the orchestra’s principal clarinetist and featured soloist on this occasion—the combination of works by Missy Mazzoli, Anthony Davis, and John Adams lessened the impact of each. Davis’ clarinet concerto, You Have the Right to Remain Silent, was the “serious” work on the program. It was premiered in 2007 and later revised, but the inciting incident happened some fifty years ago, when Davis was pulled over while driving for no apparent reason other than being Black. The concerto, like opera, is a capacious genre; Davis recasts it into a meditation on racial inequality. The four movements retain the form and function of those in a traditional concerto, but Davis uses them to process the stages of his arrest—from “Interrogation,” “Loss,” “Incarceration,” to “Dance of the Other.” The musical language is jarringly dissonant, even violent at times, and Davis heightens the Kafkaesque atmosphere with eerie sound effects from a synthesizer. Imaginatively played by the avant-garde composer and improviser Earl Howard, the instrument has a near soloistic role in the concerto, engaging the clarinet in tortured dialogues.

While impressive in their own ways, the works framing You Have the Right on the program diminished the seriousness of its message. Mazzoli’s brief Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres), as the composer evocatively writes in the program notes, “sonically transforms [the orchestra] into a makeshift hurdy-gurdy, flung recklessly into space.” Through novel instrumentation—including a lion’s roar, spring coil, and harmonicas—Mazzoli surreally captures the vast emptiness of the cosmos and the psychedelic sensation of floating in it. In more ways than one, it was a trip.

John Adams’ barnburner of a piece, Chamber Symphony, assured us that the pandemic hiatus had little effect on the Philharmonic players’ staggering abilities. Adams may have been inspired by the irreverence of cartoons and cartoon music—listening to the three movements is like riding a roller-coaster nonstop for over twenty minutes—but the work is one of the most difficult to play and put together in the orchestral repertoire. Chamber Symphony ended the concert on another surreal high, but its unabashed escapism—and sheer volume—nearly obliterated the memory of everything that came before. As did the Liverman-Huang recital, the Philharmonic concert showed the performers’ range, but the programming was counterproductive if the intention was also to highlight minority voices. If it began with Chamber Symphony, ended with You Have the Right, and the Sinfonia was programmed elsewhere, the concert would have been more compelling. Less would have been more, for each work should be given the space it deserves.
At Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall, the Modigliani Quartet performed a relatively standard program. Judging by the enthusiasm of the sold-out crowd, demand for the familiar endures. Even within the confines of canonical composers, however, some works remain underplayed, including Igor Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet and Edvard Grieg’s Quartet in G Minor, op. 27, which the Modiglianis preceded with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s well-known Quartet in B-flat Major, k. 458. This selection would appear to emphasize stylistic contrast within the Western classical tradition, but the aural experience was, unexpectedly, more of the same. The ensemble played with a consistent breathless energy and muscular sound throughout the entire concert.

The Paris-based group was without its usual violist due to visa problems; Luke Fleming, a regular presence on the New York City music scene, assimilated admirably. Such last-minute personnel changes make even the most seasoned performers nervous, which may have contributed to the Modiglianis’ reliance on a default performance mode. That mode, luckily, suited Grieg’s work. Composed amid the sublime scenery of Norway’s Hardanger district, Grieg was experimenting with quartet form rather than writing a conventional quartet. With schizophrenic abruptness, he shifts between extremes—from pastoral charm, stormy virtuosity, to melancholy contemplation—but ties them together with varied repetitions of the melodramatic G-minor opening theme. The symphonic scope of Grieg’s quartet matched the Modiglianis’ temperament; impressively, it sounded as if a full orchestra were onstage, not four players.

Such orchestral lushness was less suitable for the rest of the program. While not without moments of drama, Mozart moves through the contrasting sections of his quartet with understated wit, showing the listener how he seamlessly links disparate ideas. Whereas Grieg propels his quartet forward via sheer excitement, Mozart does via reasoned argument; the Modiglianis were less at ease with the latter approach. Stravinsky’s Three Pieces is also more objectively inclined. As the title implies, it is not a string quartet work but musical fragments for the ensemble. The first movement lasts under a minute, the others not much longer. In each, Stravinsky takes compact musical ideas, whether intervals or melodic snippets, and turns them into the sonic equivalent of a cubist painting by layering versions of the same idea on top of each other. Three Pieces is intentionally angular, and I wish the Modiglianis had emphasized its jaggedness rather than relying, again, on their rich sound for interest.
At the 92nd Street Y’s Kaufman Concert Hall, the Aizuri Quartet struck the delicate balance between contrast, diversity, and coherence. The first half of the concert paired two madrigals by Barbara Strozzi (arranged by Alex Fortes) with Eleanor Alberga’s String Quartet No. 1; Ludwig van Beethoven’s Quartet in E-flat Major, op. 127, comprised the second half. The Aizuris’ thoughtful programming not only allowed listeners to be immersed in the unfamiliar, but the juxtaposition of these works also gave us renewed perspectives on each.

Strozzi, born into a prominent Venetian family, was the rare woman of the Baroque era who could choose her occupation. A prolific composer as well as singer, Strozzi’s ideas about harmony and form were far ahead of her time, even ours. Her madrigals are some of her most experimental works, and “L’Usignuolo” and “L’Amante modesto” are prime examples. Structurally amorphous, they meander into unexpected keys as if wholly improvised. The sinuous interactions between the voices—or instruments, in the case of the arrangements—create crunchy dissonances and unexpected textures. The Aizuris’ performance leaned into their modernity, emphasizing their strangeness.

Despite the centuries separating them, Alberga’s quartet, composed in 1993, evinces a similar fearlessness to Strozzi’s madrigals. The Jamaican-British composer’s musical language is unabashedly dense; she is clearly confronting the harsh dissonance, contrapuntal complexity, and aggressive virtuosity that are associated with the “difficult” music of midcentury European avant-gardism. But as her droll movement tempos indicate—the first movement is marked “Détaché et Martellato e Zehr Lebhaft und Swing It Man,” the third “Frantically Driven Yet Playful”—she is simultaneously subverting those difficulties by powering her quartet with danceable, groovy rhythms. The music may be dense, but it is far from impenetrable. Again, the Aizuris rose to the challenge, embracing the intricacies of Alberga’s quartet without sacrificing its sense of fun.

In this context, the famed esotericism of Beethoven’s “late” style seemed tame by comparison. Music scholars continue to spill much ink over the difficulties of his late works, but this program—and the Aizuris’ performance—reminded us that Beethoven was as good at composing the sublime as he was at the heartfelt. The first movement of op. 127 may be densely layered, but its melodies are also touchingly lyrical. The second movement starts as if waking from a dream, which then becomes a set of variations on a theme so tender it feels like a warm embrace. The scherzo ripples with a manic energy that comes to sudden screeching halts, throwing the listener off balance. The joyful finale overflows with rustic dance tunes and infectious rhythms. The Aizuris executed all of this flawlessly. On occasion, however, they performed as though they knew Beethoven’s quartet too well, playing so deliberately it was as if they were explaining the joke instead of delivering it. Still, the whole of the musical journey made sense. The ensemble showed their range but not at the expense of a coherent concert. At the same time, they may well have convinced members of their audience to learn more about Strozzi and Alberga.
My autumn Grand Tour ended at Carnegie’s Stern Auditorium, where Nézet-Séguin, off for the evening from the Met Opera, led the Philadelphia Orchestra in an exuberant concert of Beethoven’s eighth and seventh symphonies. The last leg of my tour was not without a final bump in the road, owing to another odd programming choice: sandwiched between the symphonies was Carlos Simon’s Fate Now Conquers, a five-minute work that is shorter than any of Beethoven’s movements. The work packs a propulsive punch, despite its brevity. (The opposite effect of Simon’s piano trio that was performed earlier at Green-Wood Cemetery.) Simon constructs a series of compact sonic tableaus that cinematographically sweep past the entire orchestra, illuminating the unique timbres and colors of each section in the process.

Fate was one of several works commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra, according to the program notes, “to reflect on Beethoven’s legacy” on his 250th birthday. Other than its rhythmic drive and mercurial shifts—arguably features found in countless works by countless composers—Fate’s relationship to Beethoven is tenuous. In any case, listeners simply lacked the mental space to process it as anything more than a diversion in between the main attractions, defeating the purpose of the commission.

For better or worse, the orchestra’s performances—and our hearings —of Beethoven’s symphonies were unaffected by Fate. As the Aizuris did in their concert, the Philadelphia Orchestra reminded us of Beethoven’s humanity, particularly his joyous side. The Symphony No. 8 in F Major, op. 93, is crammed with musical pranks. Even in lyrical moments like the second theme of the first movement, Beethoven teases listeners by refusing to finish the graceful melody. The ultimate gag is in the fourth movement’s coda. In the final minutes of the symphony, the orchestra plays nothing but F major triads in an astonishing array of configurations as Beethoven shows off his talent for creating joyous music out of the barest of materials. The orchestra players were game for all of the jokes, egged on by Nézet-Séguin’s strikingly balletic movements. Despite how well they must know this symphony, they never gave the punchlines away, but the players could not resist smirking at each other after their delivery.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A Major, op. 92, composed at the same time as No. 8, is more serious than its partner. While listeners may not know the second movement by name, they do by ear. The Allegretto has added gravitas to pivotal scenes from films as disparate as The King’s Speech (2010) and X-Men: Apocalypse (2016). The Philadelphia Orchestra’s rendition was tautly controlled until the final, cathartic iteration of the familiar A-minor melody. The symphony is not without joy, however, though these moments border on bacchanalian frenzy. Nézet-Séguin took the frenzied aspect of the symphony to the extreme by connecting all of the movements with hardly a breath in between. It is not standard practice to perform the eighth symphony attacca, but it gave the audience no time to recover from all of the excitement. The effect was thrilling as the dance-like finale plunged us headlong toward the symphony’s raucous end. If somewhat contrived, the tumultuous ovation was nevertheless a foregone conclusion.