No, "boh" is not an abbreviation for the title of Puccini's most popular opera.  It is the monosyllable that Italians utter -- usually in a tone that suggests the gray area between a question mark and an exclamation point -- in situations that would elicit an "I dunno" or a "beats me" in American English.  And "boh" or some equivalent thereof is what I've felt like uttering at several recent musical events.

Within the last three weeks, two highly accomplished string quartets began their Carnegie/Zankel concerts with Mozart masterpieces: the St. Lawrence opened with the Clarinet Quintet (Todd Palmer was the excellent clarinetist) and the Tetzlaff with the Quartet in D minor, K. 421.  Both performances made me wonder whether I had failed to hear about the discovery of a letter in which Wolfgang told Leopold that his works ought to be played with fussy, precious phrasing, nearly inaudible pianissimos, and crescendos and diminuendos that sound as if they'd been gauged within a thousandth of a decibel (though I don't know how such calculations would have been made in the eighteenth century).  What has happened to the blessedly fleet yet robust Mozart style that seemed to be gaining ground among both traditionalists and "authenticists" in recent decades?  Are we returning to the delicate, porcelain-rococo-statuette Mozart of much earlier times?  More important: are listeners supposed to be thinking, "Wow, listen to how they shaped that three-note motif this time as opposed to the previous time!" or should intensively detailed preparatory work lead to a cumulative impression, rather than obtruding and protruding at every harmonic twist in turn?  Boh.....

Some of the fussiness -- especially the Extreme Dynamics -- continued in the Tetzlaff's performance of Sibelius's "Voces Intimae" Quartet, but it did not mar the group's fine interpretation of gripping Berg's Lyric Suite.  Nor was it to be heard in the St. Lawrence's dazzling, rumbustious world premiere performance of David Bruce's Gumboots, for string quartet and clarinet (again with Todd Palmer) or in the musicians' energetic yet finely worked-out account of Dvorak's String Quartet No. 13 in G Major.

But I'm going to continue to grouse -- not, this time, about Extreme Dynamics, but about Extreme Tempi, in Anne-Sophie Mutter's approach to the three Bach violin concerti at Carnegie in mid-October.  Fast movements whizzed by like express trains, and some of the slow movements were almost absurdly attenuated.  At times, this gifted violinist seemed to be saying, "Since I can play it this fast" -- or this slow -- "I will."  This can't have been her real motivation, but it's hard to imagine what that motivation was.  Boh.....  Mutter's partner in the Double Concerto was Vilde Frang, a young Norwegian woman whom I had heard play the Sibelius Concerto beautifully a few years ago, when she was still in her teens; she had no trouble keeping up with Mutter's sprints (nor did the Camerata Salzburg, which the German violinist led from the fiddle), but her sound is smaller and sweeter than that of her powerful mentor: the match didn't work.

Even stranger was Maurizio Pollini's performance of the Schumann Piano Concerto with the Boston Symphony and James Levine, also at Carnegie.  The well known first theme, for instance, which the orchestra stated simply and beautifully, was immediately distorted by Pollini, who continued to distort it throughout the movement.  His playing often sounded mechanical, sometimes to the point of brutality.  Boh.....  On the same program, however, the BSO and Levine delivered one of the best performances I've ever heard of Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" Symphony (so effective that a man in the row behind mine passed out at the end of the March and had to be removed from the premises) as well as the local premiere of Leon Kirchner's brilliantly scored but oddly sound-track-like The Forbidden.

Over to Avery Fisher Hall, where the New York Philharmonic and Rafael Fruehbeck de Burgos gave a first-rate concert performance of Falla's opera La vida breve.  The vocal soloists sounded worn out -- and the performance I attended was only the second of four -- but Fruehbeck knows every subtlety of this score and communicates it effectively.  Okay, this is not one of the greatest works ever written, or even one that many listeners would want to hear often, but when it is played as well as it was on this occasion it is a delight.

Next door at the Met, I attended a revival of last season's Lucia production, and my overall impressions were unchanged: Daniel Ostling's sets are mainly ingenious and often beautiful, and Mary Zimmerman's staging is often effective but sometimes ridiculous, as in the family photo-op during the second-act sextet -- the crux of the drama.  Diana Damrau in the title role held her own against recollections of Natalie Dessay's stunning interpretation of the title role last year; Piotr Beczala was a much better Edgardo than Marcello Giordani; and the other singers were all adequate-to-excellent.  Conductor Marco Armiliato puzzled me in this opera as he has in others: he seems both knowledgeable and musical, but, as far as I can discern, he doesn't distinguish between the notion of shaping an opera around the singers and that of following the singers wherever they happen to go.  The distinction is subtle but important.  Contrary to common belief, most singers do not want to be left to their own devices.  Just as they continue to go to coaches for suggestions and assistance when they learn new roles, so they value strong leadership in the pit so that their roles dovetail with those of their colleagues and blend as seamlessly as possible into the opera as a whole.  And, as in every other art, in opera, too, true freedom requires discipline.  Of course opera conductors must be able to follow singers who make mistakes or suddenly find themselves in vocal trouble, but giving an interpretation a real shape is an even more important conductorial responsibility than being able to function as a musical traffic cop -- and this is as true in a "singers' opera" like Lucia as it is in a "conductor's opera" like Goetterdaemmerung.  This was the essential difference between Levine's thoughtful way with Lucia last year and Armiliato's laissez-aller approach this year.  Granted, a new production is given much more rehearsal time than is allotted to a revival, but still.....

I confess that I felt only slightly less antipathy toward John Adams's much-admired Doctor Atomic at the Met this season than toward Philip Glass's Satyagraha last season.  There is evidently a perverse streak in me that made me perceive Atomic's music as empty and long-winded, its libretto as pretentious, and both as mechanical and boring -- and I am not easily bored.  I suppose that in opera I can't manage to shift gears from modrnism (Berg, Stravinsky, et al.) into post-modernism. I apologize for this defect, but I suppose that, at sixty-two, I'm beyond salvation.

I loved most of what I saw and heard at the dress rehearsal of the Met's new production of Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust, but I won't comment until I've attended a performance.

A non-musical note: Whether you're living in New York or only visiting, between now and January 18th, go see the Frick Collection's small but fascinating exhibition, "Andrea Riccio: Renaissance Master of Bronze", with works on loan from museums around the world.  It will also give you a chance to admire -- whether for the first time or the hundredth -- the Frick's own astonishing assemblage of great paintings.  No "bohs" needed here!

November 9, 2008 8:27 AM | | Comments (0)

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Me Elsewhere


Ensemble for the Romantic Century

(These are two organizations that any music lovers in the New York area should get to know.)

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This page contains a single entry by Overflow published on November 9, 2008 8:27 AM.

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