Puccini and others
The New York musical season began, for me, with a double dose of Puccini. First, I visited the small but interesting exhibition that the Morgan Library and Museum has dedicated to the composer between two of his anniversaries - the 150th of his birth (he was born in 1858) and the 100th of the world premiere of La fanciulla del west, which took place at the Met in 1910. There are manuscripts, drafts, and/or sketches of Le Villi, Edgar, La bohème, Butterfly, and Fanciulla, as well as autograph letters, not only by Puccini but also by Leoncavallo, the publisher Giulio Ricordi, and others, plus first editions of the libretti of all of Puccini's operas and various items connected with Caruso, Toscanini, and other performers who were close to the composer. It's a tiny sample of the vast treasures owned by or stored at the Morgan, but it will fascinate most music lovers. And while you're there, you can spend as much time as you like in the next gallery and examine the grand, indeed overwhelming, exhibition dedicated to William Blake.
Then there was the Met's controversial new Tosca production. Starting a season with a repertoire opera is hardly a bold act - and the Met has presented Tosca some 900 times. But this year - as practically everyone interested in opera knows by now - Peter Gelb dared to mothball Franco Zeffirelli's grandiose 1985 production (back then, one of the original participants said to me, "I'd like to take you up on stage: you feel as if you're standing in the middle of a f---ing football field!") and to call on the Swiss stage director Luc Bondy and the French set designer Richard Peduzzi to create something new. As is now well known, the production team was roundly booed on opening night. I attended the third performance, and I found it hard to understand what all the fuss was about. Yes, the second-act set is decidedly ugly, and I felt that Bondy was uncertain in his approach to the action in the act's dénouement. But take it from someone who lived in Italy for 23 years: the cold feeling of entering a huge, unilluminated Baroque church early in the morning was well captured through the first act's dark set, just as the pre-dawn rooftop setting of the last act served its purpose. Bondy and Peduzzi did not toy with the plot's time and place. I attended the third performance, for which James Levine was replaced by Joseph Colaneri, who did a creditable job, and at which Carlo Guelfi - growling too often but otherwise singing well - took over for two indisposed Scarpias. Karita Mattila threw herself into the title role with characteristic intensity and conviction; she is not a natural in Italian opera, but she certainly acquitted herself better here than in last year's Manon Lescaut - just as Marcelo Alvarez was much better as Cavaradossi than as Manrico in last season's Trovatore. In short, this observer had expected to leave the theater in anger or disgust but ended up rather enjoying the evening.
James Levine's absence for emergency back surgery also put a damper on Carnegie Hall's opening night concert by the Boston Symphony, but after five seasons under his direction the orchestra is sounding splendid. Daniele Gatti managed to learn John Williams's brand-new harp concerto, On Willows and Birches (a pretty but inconsequential piece, to my ears and mind), in a few hours and seemed to do a fine job of backing up the excellent soloist, Ann Hobson Pilot. And he was similarly at one with Evgeny Kissin in Chopin's F minor Piano Concerto, which is not technically hard but is often very tricky (especially in the second movement) for orchestra and conductor. It is technically difficult for the pianist, however, yet Kissin played it with extraordinary lightness and brilliance. In Beethoven's Coriolan Overture, Gatti seemed to be trying to make a purely dramatic, almost operatic, piece into an epic one, and his approach to La Mer - the concert's finale - was noteworthy more for its crystalline, Boulezian clarity than for the sort of physical excitement that you can hear in recordings by most of the old-time conductors and quite a few contemporary ones. But he really saved the BSO and Carnegie from what could have been a completely deflated and deflating evening. I am curious to hear (next week) how he is dealing with Aida at the Met.
And so to Avery Fisher Hall. I was out of town on the New York Philharmonic's opening night, but I attended Alan Gilbert's concerts on September 26th and October 3rd. I have high hopes for this serious, dedicated musician and for the orchestra that has been entrusted to him. Their performance of Schoenberg's lush Pelleas und Melisande was intense and committed, and their approach to Ives's Second Symphony seemed equally convinced. But not convincing - at least not to this listener, who finds this work boring in its best moments, crude and downright silly in all the others. And don't tell me that I'm missing the point of Ives's iconoclastic irony! One can hear that, in proportion, in Three Places in New England and some other Ives works, but what we have in this case is 35 minutes'-worth of overblown nonsense. Sure, there is some real feeling here and there, but it's overwhelmed by a lot of tenth-rate Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Berlioz (the pomp of his religious music without its substance), Bruckner, Schumann, Elgar, and Stephen Foster, along with a mixture of hymns and patriotic tunes that are amusing at first but that quickly wear thin - very thin. At the first of the two concerts, I found Frank Peter Zimmermann's approach to the Brahms Violin Concerto angular, gritty-sounding, and unmoving, but at the second Emanuel Ax's concept and realization of the Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto were entirely to my taste - and Gilbert and the Philharmonic were his ideally matched partners for him.
At both concerts, Gilbert spoke to the audience - at the first, about the Schoenberg work, and at the second, about Expo, a new piece by Magnus Lindberg, the Philharmonic's composer-in-residence, who joined in the conversation. (Expo sounded to me like a skillfully-written experiment in timbres - an otherwise empty genre of which most of the listeners I know, including many radicals, have become profoundly tired.). Gilbert knows his stuff speaks well and warmly, without either condescension or show-off-ish erudition, but I'm of two minds about in-concert - as opposed to pre-concert - chats. They can be useful, but often the subtext seems to be: "We're about to play something that you won't like or that may bore you unless I clue you in on some of its inner workings." It may be a good idea, but it shouldn't be implemented too often.