Overflow: November 2008 Archives

Not until I returned home from the Met Chamber Ensemble concert at Carnegie/Weill on November 23 did I notice Michael Kimmelman's article-cum-interview on/with Daniel Barenboim in that morning's Times's Arts & Leisure section.  I read that during his current, relatively brief stay in the US, Barenboim would debut at the Met conducting Tristan (this has now happened, but I haven't yet attended a performance), give a piano recital on the Met's stage, perform at the UN with members of his West-Eastern Divan Arab-Israeli orchestra, do some run-outs to Philadelphia and Chicago, and play Elliott Carter's new piano concerto with the Boston Symphony and James Levine in Boston and New York.  In addition, Barenboim's visit coincides with the publication of his essay collection, Music Quickens Time.  "There is no one quite like him today in the music world," Kimmelman wrote.

Maybe that's a good thing.  Barenboim's performance at Weill was awful.  He played the "primo" piano parts to Levine's "secondo" in the Schubert Grand Duo and in Brahms's Liebeslieder and Neue Liebeslieder Waltzes; the Brahms performance included four vocal soloists from the Met's Lindemann Young Artist Development Program.  Levine and the singers -- soprano Lisette Oropesa, mezzo Sasha Cooke, tenor Matthew Plenk, and bass-baritone Shenyang -- seemed to have done their preparatory work well, but Barenboim played haphazardly, crudely "bringing out" the melodic line, forcing the singers to shout but often drowning them out anyway.

This was not the sometimes imprecise but rhapsodic music-making of his mentor Furtwaengler or the occasionally wayward playing of another mentor, Rubinstein; nor was it the result of an "off night" (or afternoon).  This was, simply, ill-prepared, careless, rough-and-ready playing -- an insult to Barenboim's fellow performers and to his audience, which, in this case, included the likes of Susan Graham, Rene Pape, Seiji Ozawa, Eva Wagner, Zarin Mehta, both of Rubinstein's daughters, Ara Guzelimian, and a slew of other people capable of distinguishing the wheat from the chaff.  I was reminded of something an executive with a major American orchestra told me last year: "Daniel can turn out a great performance -- when he gives more than ten percent of his attention to what he's doing."

Beethoven once wrote a criticism of a critic, in the margin of a negative review of his potboiler, Wellington's Victory: "What I shit is better than you thought," he proclaimed.  But that was Beethoven -- who, in any case, was admitting that the piece in question was of less than first-rate quality.  What Barenboim did at the Met Chamber Ensemble concert was being passed off as a respected musician's accomplished work, and it was not that.  I admire his brilliance, facility, and versatility, not to mention his passionate efforts to foster understanding between young Israelis and Palestinians.  But there is a huge price to be paid for spreading oneself too thin, and Barenboim seems to be paying that price.

Oddly enough, the Times, which has always, as far as I can recall, published reviews of the Ensemble's concert series, did not print a review of this concert.  Or did I miss something?

Over at the Met a few days earlier, I heard Levine, his orchestra, the chorus under Donald Palumbo's direction, Susan Graham, (Marguerite) and John Relyea (Mephistopheles) give a marvelous performance of Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust.  (I hesitate to criticze Marcello Giordani's performance of the title role because I know how difficult it is, but the truth is that his singing was nearly always strained and his French virtually incomprehensible.)  Trying to make a series of episodes that were intended for the concert hall (Berlioz called the work a "dramatic legend") into an opera is a risky task.  In my opinion, Robert Lepage's multi-media and multi-tiered production succeeded about seventy percent of the timeMany images -- the vast library, the tavern scene, the trees gradually losing their leaves, the infernal fires -- remain fixed in my memory, but so, unfortunately, do the grotesque blown-up views of Marguerite, the distracting acrobatics of the soldiers walking vertically up the set and then being lowered back down as corpses, the numerous gigantic crucifixes, and other examples of scenographic elephantiasis.  But please, Peter Gelb, bring the whole thing back another year!  The music is so extraordinary, and it was so beautifully and powerfully performed.

Downtown, at the Museum of Jewish Heritage's beautiful Edmond J. Safra Hall, I managed to catch three of the five "Music in Exile" events dedicated mainly to works by composers who had to flee from the Nazis.  The promoters were the MJH itself and Toronto's Royal Conservatory of Music, and the organizers/performers were the Artists of the Royal Conservatory and their artistic director, Simon Wynberg.  I heard highly interesting, well-played chamber works by Robert Kahn, Matyas Seiber, and Franz Reizenstein, and less interesting but equally well-performed ones by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Walter Arlen, in addition to a talk by Gottfried Wagner -- Richard's rebellious great-grandson -- on the subject of cultural life in Germany during the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich and immediately after the war.  Unfortunately, I had to miss the program dedicated to the music of Mieczyslaw Weinberg, which, I understand, is well worth getting to know.  Purely by coincidence, shortly after having attended these MJH events I read the recently published (by Weinstein Books) Journal of Helene Berr, expertly translated from the French by David Bellos.  Why this truly remarkable account -- by a young woman who was a wonderful writer at 21 but who died two years later at Bergen-Belsen -- remained unpublished, even in the original, until this year is explained in the book's notes.  The Journal is not just for those of us who are fixated on World War II and the Holocaust: it is, more generally, a tragic work of great depth and beauty by any standards.

Another event dedicated to off-the-beaten-track music was the Juilliard Opera Center's amazingly accomplished production of three one-act operas -- one each by Mussorgsky (The Marriage -- an incomplete work), Ernst Krenek (Heavyweight, or the Pride of the Nation), and Benjamin Fleischmann (Rothschild's Violin).  Krenek, too, was an exile from Nazi Germany, and Fleischmann died at the age of 28 while fighting the Germans during the siege of Leningrad; his opera was completed by Shostakovich.  The playing of these difficult, little-known works, by the Juilliard Orchestra under James Conlon -- prime mover behind this and many related efforts -- put many professional ensembles to shame, and James Marvel's staging as well as the sets, lighting, and video montages by various collaborators were also brought off at the highest professional level.  The singers were excellent, too, particularly the bass-baritone Shenyang, who also participated in the aforementioned Liebeslieder performance at Carnegie/Weill.

Speaking of professional orchestras: although I contribute occasionally to The Gramophone, I don't mind saying that the recent poll of a few music critics that led to a Top 20 list of the world's greatest orchestras seemed to me as childish as "My daddy's stronger than your daddy!" or "Red is prettier than blue."  There should at least have been an accompanying poll that asked the more interesting question, "Which orchestras would you rather hear when they have to fend for themselves under not very good conductors?"  In other words, which orchestras have enough internal discipline and esprit de corps to play at a very high level no matter who is on the podium?  I would guess that the Vienna Philharmonic, which was near the top of The Gramophone's list, would have found itself in a much lower position, and that the Philadelphia Orchestra, which didn't make the list at all, would have been ranked in the Top 10.  But the whole classification notion is ridiculous.

The well-known violinist Renaud Capucon produces some of the most beautiful sounds to be heard from any violinist today; there is a purity to that sound that reminds me of the playing of Arthur Grumiaux.  Capucon appeared with his brother Gautier, a fine cellist, and the pianist Nicholas Angelich, in a recent Metropolitan Museum performance of trios by Haydn (G Major, "Hungarian"), Shostakovich (E minor, Op. 67), and Mendelssohn (C minor, Op. 66).  In my previous entry, I grumbled about the Extreme Dynamics and Extreme Tempi of some artists I'd just heard, and I will now grumble about Extreme Phrasing -- micro-fussiness that shows off performers' attention to detail at the expense of a cumulative effect that never quite comes off.  I hope I'm clear: these were highly accomplished performances by dedicated musicians -- no doubt about it.  But I feel that they need to give as much care to overarching structure as they already give to all the particulars.

November 24, 2008 11:10 PM | | Comments (0)

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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