No-star game

Last night I went to the gala season-opening show at the New York City Opera. That was a night with special meaning, obviously, because the company was coming back from the dead, with a new directo, a refurbished theater, and a new point of view. Let’s wish them luck.

But in past weeks I also went (without addressing them here) to the season openers at the Met and the New York Philharmonic, which of course are the other two big classical music performing institutions in New York. And, looking back, as I sat in the audience last night, it struck me that all three events had something in common — a lack of star power.

The Met, maybe, came closest, partly because it’s the Met, and has inherent starry institutional heft. And because celebrities were there. And also because a big-time opera production is, even if it fails, something with heft of its own.

But there wasn’t much star power on stage. I guess — especially given the Met’s current artistic strategy, which is to bring itself into the contemporary theatrical world — the new Tosca production mgiht have been the star. But it wasn’t. I’m not going to get into the silly fight over how non-traditional it was. Better just to look at it as we’d look at a new movie, or a new production of a classic play. It was (by any reasonable measure) drab, and not really convincing.

And then there was Karita Mattila, in the title role. She’s a serious artist, with a major voice, and real dramatic force. The only thing she doesn’t have is star power, that unmistakable magic, which, if she had it, would make space seem to curve in her direction. Which in Tosca is more than a casual problem, because the music (as in almost any leading soprano role in Italian opera) more or less demands that kind of force, simply to deliver its musical punch. And also because the character herself is a diva, a star (as we’re told in the piece, and as she shows by how she behaves) does make space curve.

The Philharmonic? Well, there the idea might have been to show that the orchestra was serious, musically. So we had, on the first half of the program, a world premiere (by Magnus Lindberg), and a major and not often performed modern piece (Messiaen’s song cycle Poèmes pour Mi). Clearly not the programming of some bimbo orchestra, that mostly wants to play blockbusters for adoring fans.

But the Lindberg piece…well, I’ve said that I didn’t like it (“drab” might again be the word), but of course other people did. What no one can deny, though, is that it didn’t create much excitement. It came and went. The Messiaen offered a top classical name, Renée Fleming, but she was miscast in music that needs a bigger voice and especially a stronger lower range, and so she made an impression for serious artistry (and serious work, which I completely respect, to overcome the vocal problems the piece threw at her).

But no star power came through, especially — and this was the biggest problem — since the work itself asks to be sung and played with utter transparent sincerity, and no amount of seriousness, even at a very high level, can substitute for that. On supertitles over the stage were translations of the text, all glowing with simple and radiant Catholic faith. The performance had none of that, nor even a point of view on what Messiaen believed with every fiber of his soul. So — judged by the standard Messiaen himself was visibly giving us — the performance fell flat.

After intermission, we had the standard rep blockbuster, the Symphonie Fantastique, and here we come up against the Alan Gilbert problem, the question of what, exactly, he’s bringing to his new job as music director of the orchestra. There are various views on that (the ones I hear privately in the business being none too favorable), but even if you liked his Berlioz on opening night, you couldn’t pretend that it jumped off the stage.

So again, no star power. Especially compared to Dudamel’s inauguration in Los Angeles, which I wasn’t at, but which by all reports had enough star power to light up the sky all the way to Mars. Dudamel got a ten-minute ovation, one review said. While Gilbert got respectful applause, no more (or very little more) than a good guest conductor would have gotten in the middle of the season. (With, unless I missed something, not so much as a tap of the bow from anyone in the orchestra.)

City Opera. Again, the plan, I think, was seriousness. The gala program was a celebration of American music, from Bernstein to Rufus Wainwright. The opening looked terrific on paper. First Stravinsky’s Fanfare for a New Theater, written for the opening of Lincoln Center lo these many years ago, and of course appropriate here, because the theater we were in had been renewed.

And then a premiere, a new fanfare by Peter Lieberson. And then one of Bernstein’s irresistible orchestral pieces from On the Town. All played without pause. Except that none of it was played very well, especially the Stravinsky (he’s legitimately an adopted American composer), blatted out by a small brass ensemble with every note seemingly getting equal emphasis. Which is about the last thing you want to do in an atonal piece, where listeners who don’t know the piece or the idiom can’t supply the musical ebb and flow on their own.

The program ended with another choice that looked good on paper, a song called “Take Care of This House” (get it?), from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, one of the many later Leonard Bernstein pieces that has never caught on. And so here there were two problems. First, it maybe wasn’t strong enough to end the program, though Joyce DiDonato sang it gorgeously (and I do mean gorgeously). But even if you liked it (and opinions can legitimately differ), nothing led up to it, and in fact the whole gala seemed to flow more or less at random.

And, on top of that, with the pieces not in the order that was shown in the program book, something that was never explained or even mentioned, either from the stage or in any kind of program insert. (There was in fact an insert, but all it said was that Anthony Dean Griffey wouldn’t be singing. It didn’t even state that the piece he was scheduled to do — “Singin’ in the Rain” — would be dropped.)

The gala, in the end, didn’t feel very gala-like. I didn’t sense excitement, or even a sense of celebration. The musical numbers came and went. In the old days, you’d have opera galas with genuine stars, so not much planning might be needed. Someone new would came out on stage, and often enough, space curved. I remember one Met gala in the ’80s when Leonie Rysanek crashed in flames in “Suicidio!” (from La Gioconda), but — she was Leonie Rysanek, so even her train wrecks were compelling. City Opera had some good singers, and Lauren Flanigan really did  curve space a bit, but she was singing an aria from Samuel Barber’s Vanessa, music that’s certainly classy, but doesn’t curve space on its own.

So really — some stage direction was badly needed, to give the gala from spark. And I haven’t even talked about the music, which often didn’t rise to the occasion. We can talk piously about an American opera canon, and we can even believe we mean it, but put a scene from Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah on a program with “Billly’s Soliloquy” from Carousel, and — if you’re honest with yourself — I think you discover (as I did when I saw the South Pacific revival at Lincoln Center) that Richard Rodgers is the real deal, the unforgettable composer, whose music grabs you, makes you smile, makes you get teary, and most of all sticks with you. As Leonard Bernstein said years ago, our American operatic heritage is really our musicals. (Well, that’s not quite how he put it, but he pointed that way.) 

One piece that really did grab me was an excerpt from Rufus Wainwright’s opera, Prima Donna, which the Met apparently declined to produce (after commissioning it), and which appa

rently didn’t have all that much success when it was premiered abroad. I can’t speak to any of that, but the excerpt struck me as lovely and quite original.

One more problem was the singer in the Carousel piece, who was perfectly charming, coming off like a sweet guy you’d love to have as a next-door neighbor, which if you know the show tells you that he didn’t even begin to fill his character’s shoes. And he couldn’t get the high notes the soliloquy ends with, so apart from the big burst of love that Richard Rodgers drew from me, the excerpt fell flat.

Bottom line — not much star power. I don’t think this is good. Star power isn’t all that classical music needs, or should have, but without it, our art is falling behind in yet another way. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame anniversary celebration had star power, and so did the world series (to name two big events that happened in New York this fall). If classical music — especially since, like it or not, people look toward it for glamour and romanice — doesn’t make space curve, if it merely, even at gala moments, puts on nice serious, professional shows, then something’s wrong. It wasn’t like this in the past.

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  1. Eric L says

    What a thought-provoking piece. I think the only real stars these days are Yo-Yo, John Williams (yes, I count him as a Classical musician…technically, he’s as good as they get) and Gustavo. In fact, Gustavo’s success is truly the exception that proves the rule.

    I was thinking along the same lines when I watched (as I watch) the coverage of the Yankees’ parade today. And then I suddenly thought about how I knew the names of everyone on the team, the strengths and weaknesses of each individual player and so on. My friends can throw out batting, pitching and fielding stats off the top of their heads etc.

    Then my thoughts suddenly turned to classical ensembles. Most people who attend classical concerts can’t name a single player in the orchestra. Heck, even someone like me–I think I’d be lucky to name a principle player here or there. Certainly…I don’t know a single player name from Cleveland. Heck, I can name 10-20 string quartet names but not more than 3-4 player names. It’s the anonymity of the whole business, and that’s really, really problematic.

    Perhaps we should start trading violinists to other orchestras? Free agent bassoonists for orchestras to fight over? (wink wink)

    Thanks, Eric. What gets really sad, and out of touch with any tangible reality, is the judgment of regional orchestras, by their audience, their board, and their community. How good are they? How good are they compared to other orchestras of their size? As an almost universal rule, nobody can tell you. They should be able — as an sports fan can — say that, OK, they’re got the best principal bassoon of all the orchestras of their size in their region, but their principal flute doesn’t rate.

    And yes, I know there are differences, starting with something obvious — that sports teams win or lose, so we know, objectively, how well they’re doing. While musical judgments are subjective, so who’s to say how good or bad the principal flute is


    Professionals know, though. And what we’re left with, as a rule, are local orchestras whose community both inside and outside the institution don’t know how well they’re doing. I once — or maybe it was someone reading this blog — imagined orchestras making visits to each others’ towns, and facing off before an audience. That would be expensive, but, I think, well worth both the trouble and money involved.

  2. says

    Hey Greg-

    Did you happen to catch the L.A. Hoopla, maybe the Great Performances video on 13, Maestro Dudamel? Great theatre. Andy Garcia instead of Alec Baldwin.

    My friend says L.A. needs The Dude because their band is second rate? Any thoughts? Those men and women looked very serious to me, especially in the Adams piece, which I loved.

    I would assume you saw Alan Rich’s piece. I think he was quite happy with the Dude.

    I saved The Dude to my DVR, copied it to a DVD on my connected DVD recorder, and then ripped the DVD to .mp4 so I could sync the video to my Zune and watch it as I fly west to visit my daughter. Where? Why, L.A., of course.


    My impression, over the years, is that the LA Phil doesn’t — on a technical level — play as well as some of the other big orchestras. But they can play wonderful concerts. We’re talking largely about fine distinctions.

    Certainly they don’t play so badly that they need an especially glamorous conductor. All orchestras could use a conductor with as much appeal in the community as Dudamel has. Only question about him is whether he’ll develop brains and insight to match his over the top, astounding, marvelous riveting animal conducting skill.

  3. says

    Who goes to galas? Seriously – I don’t know. I’ve been to one, but that was a one-time event for the opening of a new facility, not an annual gala like the symphonies and operas have. I always assumed they were basically parties for people much wealthier than I am. Do lots of people really like going to them?

    They vary a lot. The Met opera opening always feels like a buzz event, though some years there’s more of that feeling than in other years. You can sense/see the mixture of celebrities, real opera lovers, and people in the business. There’s a huge turnout of people in the business.

    The City Opera opening didn’t feel like that. It felt very much like what you’re saying — a gathering of people with money, donors to the company. Maybe that’s appropriate because the company almost died, and the donors are obviously key to bringing it back. But there didn’t seem to be much interest in the biz. I saw hardly anyone I know from the business there. Which I know sounds like a self-indulgent and highly subjective measure of how far something reaches (“I hated it! My friends weren’t there!”). But I’ve been going to these events for decades, and by now it’s a pretty objective judgment. If every time I turn around at intermission, there’s someone new to talk to, then the industry has turned out. (The absolute winner, in that regard, was the reopening of Alice Tully Hall, at LIncoln Center in New York, after a long renovation. And second might have been the performance I went to — part of a run of four performances — of Elliott Carter’s opera at the Miller Theater in NY.) And if I barely find anyone to talk to, that tells me that people in the industry haven’t come. (Two very notable evenings like that, apart from the City Opera gala: the US premiere of Philip Glass’s opera Satyagraha, more than 20 years ago, when I’d have thought any big new work by him would hot, new, and interesting to many people — it was, since there was a large audience, but I didn’t see the organized new music community, there. And a wonderful evening of Louis Andriessen’s music at Tully Hall in NY a few years ago, again something I would have thought would interest the new music crowd, but I didn’t see them there.)

  4. says

    I somewhat agree with Lindemann’s sentiment. I saw the George Hurd Enemble last night at a intimate little gathering in SF and, despite inadequate seating, cramped space, and a lot of heat, it was about perfect. Maybe the reason these galas feel hum-drum has more to do with attendees getting bored of the music, even if they really love the music.

    there were no stars at the event I went to but it was inspiring and fresh nonheless. It occurs to ne that this is where tomorrows stars are playing today and these big galas are going to continue to have these problems until they learn to tap into that.

    PS. Doesa ayone else feel that the onlly reason Dudamel is so big is because he’s the only young conductor to land a big job in a long time? His programming wasn’t anything special and I didn’t feel blown away by his interpretations. It seems to me that the classical establishment is just looking for him to be their savior.

    I wouldn’t look to these big-time galas for musical satisfaction, though I wouldn’t rule that out, either. But they can serve as measures of where an organization stands. Whether you or I care about that organization for any artistic reason would be another story.

    Dudamel is a huge conducting talent. Think of him as the rookie pitcher with a 110 mph fastball. And who can get batters out. What we don’t know is how he’ll pitch when his fastball isn’t working, or in a really big game when everything depends on him. When D guest conducted with other ochestras, the musicians were on fire. Loved him, absolutely loved him. Which was my reaction, too, when I saw him in NY conduct the Bolivar youth orchestra from Venezuela.

    Plus he’s got a great back story — PR gold — and he’s personally appealing. And of course he’s a native Spanish speaker. So, since orchestras now are trying to relate much more strongly to their communities (it’s a passion that’s absolutely sweeping the field0, and since LA has a huge Spanish-speaking population…

    What we don’t know is whether he has any deep musical insight, and how well his way with music will hold up in the long run. Visceral excitement and sheer animal musicality can only take him so far.

  5. Bill says

    Come to Dallas and hear our new Music Director: Jaap van Zweden. Every concert is exciting. The people next to me on Saturday had never seen him and marveled at his dynamism and control…..

  6. Noah S Weber says

    I think that the star power should be discussed… Does it actually offer an audience anything?

    Regarding “The Dude,” let’s look at what happened with Bernstein, the model for Dudamel’s ascension. He made his debut as a surprise fill in for Walter in 1943… and took over at the Philharmonic in 57… He made a series of recordings in the 40s and early 50s… which people do not ever listen to. Why? He was a wunderkind who needed to grow into himself because there is no such thing as a conducting wunderkind. Yes, there is no doubt that he is incredibly musical, but Er ist ein Kind. The thing that we forget is that Bernstein was directing Tanglewood for the first ten years after his “ascension” to international fame. I have spoken with several BSO players from that time who all said that the orchestra couldn’t cope with Bernstein, because he had this arrogance of a celebrity and yet hadn’t quite yet figured out how to be a Maestro in the real sense of the term. Dudamel has incredible promise, and MAY be the next Bernstein, but any notion that he will give more to LA (besides publicity) than they will offer him in practical experience is a mistake. I have only seen him live twice (although watched a good number of videos and have heard all of his recordings), and while yes, he certainly inspires an orchestra (he woke the NYPhil from their 20 year slumber), he lost control of the orchestra in really severe ways on several occasions (Mahler 5 last spring with the Phil)

    I would just caution against stating that celebrity appearances equal an elevated status. The Met’s 2008 opening, the Renee vignettes, was a nauseating display of the lack of vision the Met has (superseded only by this years travesty, and I mean that only in that the Met has proven that it no longer knows what contemporary or avant garde is).

  7. Helen Cronin says

    I think that it’s too early to judge what Alan Gilbert has to offer. I went to a concert at which he conducted Oct 30, and while I agree with you that he does not have star power, I think he has the ability as a conductor to woo the city back to the Philharmonic. There have been a lot of comparisons between the situation here and the situation in Los Angeles when Esa-Pekka Salonen, and I think its helpful to consider when discussing Gilbert. I’ve met Mr. Salonen and seen him conduct, and he is not by any means the type of star you are considering. He is reserved and quiet, but it is that quiet intensity, the focus he brings to the music, that I think draws people to him. As I understand it, given all the articles I read about his departure from the LA Philharmonic, he was quite beloved there and was able to help draw much larger crowds to the orchestra despite a lack of star power. So I am going to reserve my judgement about what Mr. Gilbert may or may not be able to do. I will say that his attention to all the pieces that were played at the concert I attended as well as the energy he drew from the orchestra was promising.

    Seems to me that Salonen was quite the shining star when he first came to Los Angeles. He was very young, and had just blown the world away, almost Dudamel-style, with a Mahler performance in London (if I’m remembering right). When he was picked for LA, many people were surprised, but only because he was young. Musically he seemed to have exactly the star quality that would get him noticed.

  8. Peter Chun says

    Thank you, Greg!

    I LOVE your notion of “star power”! You don’t mean the usual “name recognition,” or “the best that the finest publicity machine can offer,” or “who’s hip at the moment,” or even “whoever has the most lasting, sustained career, deserving or not.” Who can “curve space”?—I LOVE that. I’m going to use that! Yes, that’s what our art needs, performers w/ such power of direct communication that it feels like time stops, or “space curves.”

    I’m ALL for, and totally CRAVE, bent space. However, as much personal magnetism and total likeableness the Dude has, I was not that drawn in by the performance of Mahler 1 I saw on TV. It may have been the fact that Mahler 1 is relatively over-performed nowadays—even to the point of becoming one of the regularly challenged pieces by youth orchestras and all-state orchestras. It sounded like he AND the orchestra was trying SO hard to impress. “Sound perfect,” “sound mature and penetrating,” seemed to be the message. It may be unfair, and if so I apologize. But, at least he had the personal magnetism—more than I could say for the other inaugural concert!

    Thanks, Peter. I’ve heard some reasonably severe complaints about the Mahler, especially privately, from people in the business who were there. Also, though very moderately phrased, in Mark Swed’s LA Times review. The basis of all these critiques was a generalized kind of exuberance that didn’t always illuminate much about the music, or shape the music well, though every moment might have been arresting on its own. I haven’t heard the performance, though, so I don’t have an opinion.

    A great thing about curving space — aka personal magnetism — is that it takes many forms. Some people have it from the moment they walk into a room. Others only show it when they sit down at the piano. It can be radiant and unmistakable, or it can be very small and quiet. It doesn’t always make someone a mass-market star. People can have it, and only be stars for a few people who love them.

    So it’s important not to confuse this kind of space-curving with mere fame — as you pointed out.

  9. Helen Cronin says

    Mr. Sandow-

    Thank you for your correction in regards to my comment. I regret to say I don’t remember Salonen’s debut as I was not born, and apparently my reading has been incomplete. Regardless, upon further reflection, we were speaking of the same thing, but I was concieving of your idea of “curving space” as something that was done sheerly by someone like Gustavo Dudamel with that “animal magnetism.” But quiet intensity and leadership can also curve space, perhaps more effectively because the effort exerted is not visible. Thanks for the clarification and also a really good qualification to ponder when assessing classical musicians.

    Thanks for the lovely spirit of your response! I should emulate you. But of course you were right about Dudamel having an appeal that goes past anything we’ve recently seen. Or maybe past anything we’ve seen since Toscanini, who as an older man back in the 1940s became a media hero all over the US, so much so that NBC created an orchestra for him, and put it on radio and (later) on TV.