Trying to catch up

Too much work, too much travel, preparations for the release of my new book, and a recurrent, annoying sinus infection are the main causes of my blog-negligence since early January.  It's impossible even to summarize, at this point, all of the musical events I've attended during these months, but I can at least touch briefly on the ones that I've found most memorable, starting with the most recent and working my way backwards, more or less.

The New York Philharmonic's riskiest undertaking of the season - three performances of Ligeti's opera, Le Grand Macabre, under the baton of Music Director Alan Gilbert - paid off magnificently. The extraordinarily high level of preparation of orchestra, chorus, and solo singers, combined with the brilliant design and staging of Doug Fitch and his Brooklyn-based Giants Are Small production company, created a truly memorable experience.  I've never been much of a Ligeti fan, but Gilbert's handling of this score, as of the same composer's violin concerto, which he performed with soloist Christian Tetzlaff and the Philharmonic a couple of years ago, have made me admit to myself that this was an authentic master and that I have a lot of rethinking to do.  Not only the shock value but also the wit and irony of Macabre, an absurdist comedy, came off in full, and the whole experience was viscerally gripping.  The fact that all three performances were sold out - and to audiences that looked ten or even twenty years younger, on the average, than one sees at most Philharmonic concerts - proved that the risk was well worth taking.  To Gilbert, orchestra president Zarin Mehta, and everyone else involved: thank you, and congratulations!

The Philharmonic has recently been a source of great interest for other reasons, too.  A Stravinsky festival under the baton of Valery Gergiev was a fairly bold stroke on the part of the powers that be, because there are still plenty of subscribers who seem to believe that Igor S., whose 128th birthday is coming up on June 17th, is a young firebrand whose music will disturb them unduly.  As a matter of fact, much of Stravinsky's music is still disturbing - but so is the music of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, if you really listen to it and don't let it merely wash over you.  I was able to catch five of the seven festival programs, and I was particularly happy to hear Les Noces, the Symphony of Psalms, Oedipus Rex, the Symphony in C, and the Capriccio for piano and orchestra with the virtuosic Denis Matsuev as soloist.  Gergiev often doesn't elicit from orchestras the jagged rhythmic bite that Stravinsky demands - at least to my way of thinking.  There is plenty of power and intention, but he gives us emphasis instead of edge, as Bernstein used to do in his Stravinsky performances.  Nevertheless, it was great to hear all these wonderful pieces within a short period, and beautifully played.  I hope that the adventurous Maestro Gilbert will insert some of Stravinsky's later, infrequently performed works in the Philharmonic's future programming.  Some of the most brilliant and moving twelve-tone music ever written is by Stravinsky, following his late-in-life conversion to Schoenberg's system, but how often do we get to hear Threni or the Requiem Canticles?

In March and April, Riccardo Muti conducted what are likely to be his last concerts with the Philharmonic for a long time to come, as a result of his assumption of the music directorship of the Chicago Symphony this coming fall.  I was unable to hear his final program, but I did hear exemplary performances of Hindemith's Symphony in E-flat (an often bombastic piece), the Franck Symphony, and, above all, a beautifully collaborative Brahms D minor Piano Concerto with Andras Schiff.

Schiff made an unusually long and welcome stopover in New York this season, playing, in addition to three performances of the fearfully demanding Brahms concerto, a number of exceptionally fine Haydn concerts at the 92nd Street Y and a Mendelssohn-Schumann recital at Avery Fisher Hall.  Every one of these events confirmed his ever-growing stature as one of the most intelligent and involving pianists of our time.

In late April and early May, the wonderful Belcea Quartet appeared three times in the city - once playing Beethoven, Szymanowski, and Bartok at Washington Irving High School and twice playing Szymanowski on programs otherwise occupied by the pianist Piotr Anderszewski (about whom I don't understand all the fuss) and others, at Carnegie Zankel.  There are several outstanding string quartets active today, but, with the exception of the Emerson, I know of no other group  that plays as consistently brilliantly and profoundly as the Belcea in such a vast gamut of repertoire.  Listen to their recently released (by EMI) two-CD Schubert album: the great G Major Quartet contains some bold, questionable, and even shocking interpretive choices, especially in the first movement, but I've never heard a more searching performance of this work.  And no less impressive are the "Death in the Maiden" Quartet and the almost unbearably moving String Quintet in C (with Valentin Erben of the Berg Quartet playing second cello).

In Providence early in May, where I was visiting friends and participating in pre- and post-concert talks, I heard a highly accomplished performance of the Beethoven Ninth by the Rhode Island Philharmonic under its conductor, Larry Rachleff.  I had never heard the orchestra before and didn't know what to expect; I was very pleasantly surprised.

During another trip - this one to Los Angeles, to participate in a "Recovered Voices" conference jointly sponsored by UCLA's Center for Jewish Studies and the OREL Foundation - I appreciated the opportunity to hear a concert of chamber music by Erwin Schulhoff (the String Sextet is a gem), excellently performed by members of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and the US premiere of Franz Schreker's nearly century-old opera Die Gezeichneten (The Stigmatized) - an LA Opera production conducted by James Conlon, who has been indefatigable in his promotion of valuable works by composers who were suppressed by the Nazi regime. I don't think that Die Gezeichneten is likely to enjoy great popularity: the lush orchestration and intense vocal lines quickly become too much of a good thing, and the libretto meanders. Nevertheless, it was great to have the opportunity to see and hear this work passionately conducted by Conlon, expertly directed by Ian Judge (with ample and highly effective use of projections by Wendall K. Harrington), and performed with real conviction by lead singers Anja Kampe, Robert Brubaker, Martin Gantner, James Johnson, and Wolfgang Schoene as well as all their colleagues in the smaller roles.

For me, the highlights of the second half of the Met season were provided by one Giuseppe Verdi: a revival of Giancarlo Del Monaco's production of the great Simon Boccanegra and a new production of the early Attila.  Attention, in Boccanegra, was focused on Placido Domingo's Met debut as a baritone, in the title role, and to my mind the success could hardly have been greater.  Domingo's vocal and emotional mastery of the part was complete, as was his domination of the stage action.  Will anyone who was present ever forget the fearful power of his acting in the Council Chamber scene or the real - never maudlin - pathos that he brought to the final scene?  Adrienne Pieczonka was an excellent Amelia/Maria and Marcello Giordani did better as Gabriele Adorno than he has done in several other recent Met roles; James Morris (Fiesco) was the weakest link in the chain but had some good moments.  Every bit as important as the above, however, was the excellent chorus under Donald Palumbo and the marvelous orchestra under the magisterial baton of James Levine, who gave the finest interpretation of this opera that I have ever heard.

Attila, written more than a decade before Boccanegra, is a whole different kettle of fish - full of energy and brilliant bits but by no means consistently great.  Yet in the hands of Riccardo Muti, who, at the age of 68, was making his Met debut, the performances were a wonderful experience, notwithstanding a ridiculous, indeed virtually futile, production by Pierre Audi.  Ildar Abdrazakov in the title role, Violeta Urmana as Odabella, and baritone Giovanni Meoni as Ezio were all excellent, and tenor Ramon Vargas held his own.  Once again, the Met chorus and orchestra proved themselves to be beyond reproach; if there are any finer opera choruses and orchestras in the world, I haven't heard them.
May 29, 2010 5:48 PM | | Comments (3)


Dear Mr Sachs,

I was most interested to read about your personal experience of the time you spent with Lina Prokofiev !It brought back some unforgettable memories for me...

I was invited by Madame Prokofiev to join her for a meal at her home in 9 rue Recamier. I was travelling by plane which had been diverted due to fog so I arrived a little late which clearly irritated her."You are late !!" I explained I had travelled half way across Europe for the dinner date so clearly it was important to me...this brought an entirely different response and from that moment she couldn't have been nicer.
I was only in my twenties at the time so I think that helped !
She shared so much during that evening discussion and even while washing the plates later together she shared remarkable memories of her days with her husband and also the people she discussed with you.I do wish your article had been longer. I would have loved to have compared notes of our experience of this quite amazing lady.I can also appreciate the difficult moments you experienced...she was not an easy personality...
I wonder if you still visit UK ? I do hope in the coming years to visit New you give any talks?
Thank you for providing me with the opportunity to travel back down memory lane !
With every good wish,
Alistair Clark

Glad somebody else remembers the Hindemith Symphony; I could never understand why it's so seldom heard in concert, since it's as immediately appealing a piece, I should've thought, as the same composer's Symphonic Metamorphoses.

is there anyway for the phil to produce exact numbers on how many were at the events, and maybe even the demographic most present? im sure everybody would be INCREDIBLY interested to see how this endeavor payed off.

Leave a comment

Me Elsewhere


Ensemble for the Romantic Century

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

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Overflow published on May 29, 2010 5:48 PM.

The Met's new Carmen was the previous entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.