A Three-Rattle Week

Even in Berlin, where he has lived for more than a dozen years while conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, you would be hard put to hear Simon Rattle in three different venues in the course of a week. But last week in New York I was lucky enough to manage just that.

The first stop was Carnegie‘s grand Stern Hall, where on Monday the 10th Rattle was conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. I had been to the same hall just two nights earlier to hear Gustavo Dudamel conduct the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra in Messiaen’s Turangalila-symphonie, and I didn’t think things could get much better than that. But even though nothing can match the vital enthusiasm of that group of young musicians—especially on a piece like this, which brought out a wild, earthy, life-affirming side of Messiaen that I had never observed before—the Mahler, under Rattle’s baton, was a discovery of a different order. In place of strength alone, the Philadelphians offered us delicacy, precision, and subtle modulation. The silences and near-silences were almost as telling as the emphatic passages, and the pathos of this lengthy, varying symphony came out in a way that showed Mahler at his best. I have heard Rattle perform similar miracles with his own orchestra, the excellent Berlin Philharmoniker; what surprised me was that could accomplish an equal degree of fine-tuning as a guest conductor (though granted, he and the Philadelphia Orchestra go way back, in a history of enormous mutual affection and respect).

Second up was a Thursday stop at the Metropolitan Opera, where I attended the five-hour performance of Tristan und Isolde.  Rattle’s conducting was only part of the draw here; I also wanted to hear Nina Stemme as Isolde, since I had been thrilled by her performance as Elektra in the eponymous Strauss opera last spring. Stemme did not disappoint, and Rattle’s conducting was beyond excellent: I would go so far as to say that the orchestral music was the very best thing about the show. It began with the overture, which started quietly, minus the usual audience applause for the conductor, because Rattle had sneaked into his post early so as to avoid that atmosphere-breaking greeting. And the music built and built throughout the opera, as Wagner meant it to, so that each resurgence of intensity carried us further along in the dream. Unfortunately, this particular dream was disturbed, if not shattered, by the idiotic staging perpetrated by the director Marius Trelinsky and his set designer, Boris Kudlicka. Converted into a noir-dark, movie-shaped rectangle representing a modern-day ocean liner or battle ship, the Met’s stage was overlaid with a series of video projections (mainly of a rotating compass) and interjected flashing lights, all of which reminded us every second that we were sitting uncomfortably in a darkened hall listening to an endless flood of music. This is not the feeling you want with Wagner, and particularly this Wagner, where a sense of timelessness—of becoming immersed in the waves of music, so that you actually lose track of the passage of time—is essential. In the end, I had to shut my eyes in order to enjoy Rattle’s and Stemme’s magnificent achievements.

Finally, on Sunday the 16th, I was back at Carnegie, this time in the smaller Zankel Hall, to hear Rattle conduct the youthful Ensemble Connect in a performance of Hans Zender’s 1993 version of Schubert’s Winterreise, with Mark Padmore in the tenor role. I will go anywhere to hear Padmore do Winterreise, and there is always something to be learned from the process. In this case, although I was nervous about hearing an orchestration of the traditional piano part—even with a small, 20-member orchestra—I found the event exciting and engaging and, when Padmore sang, thrilling beyond belief. The intermittent loudness of the orchestra (expertly guided by Rattle), not to mention the dynamic requirements of Padmore’s own score, forced the tenor to project at a volume I’ve never heard from him before, and I actually sat forward in my seat during those moments, amazed at the combination of vocal strength and perfect musicality. But the intense emotion of Schubert’s lovely song cycle got slightly short shrift in this mode, and next time, if I have a choice, I would prefer to hear Padmore do the Winterreise as he normally does, with one of his brilliant pianist friends like Paul Lewis or Kristian Bezuidenhout. As I said afterward to a friend who had also been in the audience, this Zender adaptation was like the Brecht-Weill version of Winterreise. Or as she said to me, “It was like Winterreise on drugs.”

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A Great Così

Così fan tutte is one of those Mozart operas I’ve never been able to warm to. The music is superb—possibly even better than in any of his other operas—but that only makes the cruelty of the plot more noticeable, and more despicable.  I once saw a successful Così in a little black-box theater in the Neukölln section of Berlin, but that one worked because it was an all-male cast, which was a bit of a cheat, since the whole plot hinges on what men think of women. And in the Berlin production, the music had been reduced to eight hands on two pianos:  fun, but hardly the full Mozart score.

Still, I never give up, so on Friday my husband and I set out for the LoftOpera production of Così in Bushwick. The tickets were only $30—an excellent sign, since it meant that young people and the otherwise-not-rich would be able to go—and the thought of watching an opera in an abandoned warehouse was kind of thrilling. Bushwick, too, is outside my usual territory, so it was rather exciting to navigate from the L-train’s Jefferson station through streets lined mainly with warehouses and garbage trucks, until we finally got to the inhabited portion of town, around Bogart and Morgan. On our lengthy and ultimately successful search for a restaurant, we passed by two young artist-looking guys sitting on a front stoop on Ingraham, and (in a manner completely foreign to Manhattanites) they spontaneously said hi to us, though with a definite note of surprise in their voices. “It’s as if we’re the first people over forty they’ve ever seen,” I confided to my husband.

LoftOpera itself turned out to be a bit daunting at first sight. It was indeed located in a huge abandoned warehouse, most of which was taken up by empty space, bike racks, Port-a-Potties, and beer stands.  Off at the far end stood the stage, raised and projecting out into the ground-level seats — most of which were, alas, backless benches. The air inside the warehouse was stifling on Friday night, even after the outside temperature had cooled below its high of 86, and all the audience members were waving their programs as fans. “We can leave at the intermission,” I assured my husband. This assurance was reiterated when the performance was delayed by twenty or thirty minutes due to problems with the L train.

The minute the music started, however, I relaxed completely.  It was a full orchestra, under the baton of Dean Buck, and they played the overture beautifully. When the first two singers, the tenor Spencer Viator (as Ferrando) and the baritone Alex DeSocio (as Guglielmo), opened their mouths and began to sing, I was a goner. There was no way I was going to leave before it was over.

Viator and DeSocio were not the only wonderful performers; the two women playing Fiordiligi and Dorabella (Megan Pachecano in the soprano role, Sarah Nelson Craft as the mezzo) were also terrific. Michelle Trovato, who was apparently ill, still did a lovely job as the maid Despina, and Gary Ramsey was a perfectly good and very clear-dictioned Don Alfonso. Moreover, all six singers could act (quite an unusual thing, in the opera world), and thanks to the director, Louisa Proske, they had been given real acting parts. For the first time in my life, I found the opera funny (especially in the first half) and moving (especially in the second).

Proske’s brilliant move was to present the four lovers as teenagers, with Don Alfonso as the boys’ teacher and Despina as the girls’ put-upon cleaning lady. Simply by reducing their ages and putting them in classroom desks, this approach made sense of Ferrando’s and Guglielmo’s idiotic willingness to take Don Alfonso’s bet about unfaithful girlfriends. It also made all the stupidity about love—the blind conviction about its permanence, the terror of infidelity, the mooning about at temporary abandonment, the anger connected with jealousy—seem to apply to these particular teenagers, rather than to men and women in general. And in taking a rather contemptuous attitude toward these young fools, we in the audience found ourselves in very much the position of the evil, string-pulling Don Alfonso: a realization which caused me, at least, to rethink my position and sympathize more with the young lovers.

Risks were taken here. Don Alfonso was presented (though with great subtlety) as an envious old homosexual, half in love with his boys and half resentful of their active sex lives with their girlfriends. Despina was markedly working-class—overweight, badly dressed, routinely angry, and not at all the sprightly, sexy little maid played more typically by the likes of Danielle de Niese. Both of these factors gave motivation to the vengeful plot inflicted on the young lovers by these two. And though the story needn’t be realistic to succeed—can’t, in fact, be realistic, given the problems of recognition and non-recognition that so often afflict opera plots—the removal of the usual coldly motiveless malignity made it much easier to stomach the cruel proceedings. There was also great humor in the portrayal of the two secretly returning young men, who were not Turks or Albanians so much as grownups in suits, with huge fake mustaches: they had been turned from boys into men and were successfully hiding behind their new roles.

By the intermission, I had forgotten my backless bench and my overheated self; I just wanted to stay on and see how the piece would resolve, emotionally. And I wasn’t disappointed. Every detail of the production had been thought through, so that the girls themselves, and not the boys, were the ones who chose each other’s lovers in disguise. (On first approach, the transformed Guglielmo and Ferrando had actually tried appealing to their own original lovers.) The change-over in the couples was signaled even with hairstyles, so that Fiordiligi wore her hair up for the first half of the opera and down for the second, while Dorabella did the reverse. And the usual hurrying-up toward the end of the plot, when the impostors disappear during the wedding scene and are almost immediately replaced by the grooms in their original personae, worked in a way it never had before, because these were confused teenagers who just wanted to avoid embarrassment and forget their terrible pain. That the pain became general at that moment—a function of love, beyond teenage angst, beyond opera gimmicks—was part of the great beauty and delicacy of the show.

Such performances in such locations create great camaraderie among the audience members, and a whole cluster of us headed off to the subway together, losing our way on the dark streets and then being found and rescued by other audience members headed the same way. After my husband and I had stupidly used our Metro cards on the wrong side of the L tracks and were unable to get back into the system on the Manhattan-facing side, the two friendly strangers who had guided us to the station gave us swipes from their cards. And these two guys left us with a great story, as well.  Having been delayed by the problematic outward-bound L, they told us, they had arrived at the warehouse after the overture was over and the singers had already begun to sing. Entering the huge, dark space, they saw in the far distance a tiny lit-up opera, which grew larger and more audible as they made their way toward it, until they finally took their seats and were swept up in the utterly convincing, life-sized performance. It was an image I will treasure as long as my own direct experience of this Così—and that, I suspect, will be forever.


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Looking at Art

All summer long, I’ve been waiting to see the four fascinating-sounding art shows that opened in New York while I was away. And now that I’m here, I’ve done so.

The first two were at the Whitney:  the cumulative Danny Lyon retrospective and the career-spanning Stuart Davis show. I always like going to the new Whitney, with its novel urban views, its wide-open gallery spaces, its more-than-pleasant cafes, and its great location at the foot of the High Line, and it’s a plus when the art on display is also good. Last year’s Archibald Motley show, for instance, was a revelation and a delight. I can’t say that either of these two new shows lived up to that level, but I was glad to have seen them both.

Danny Lyon is a photographer whose work I have admired since I published him in the first issue of The Threepenny Review, over thirty-six years ago. Those were his prison pictures, which still remain among my favorites, and one of them—the two prisoners playing dominoes at a square table, seen from directly above—is one of the outstanding photos in the Whitney show. There were many other good ones as well, in all sorts of categories, but the show is so wide-ranging and so comprehensive that there is inevitably a lot of mediocre material in it.  I am sure Lyon (or the curator) cut out a lot of pictures to arrive at this selection, but the cutting needed to be even more draconian: a smaller show of, say, two roomfuls of his best work would have served him better, I think.

The same was true, in a way, of the Stuart Davis exhibition that shared the same floor with the Lyon show, but in this case the problem lay with the artist, not the curating. For my money, Davis was best and most interesting early in his career—first when he started discovering geometrical abstraction, then during his delicately figurative Paris period, and finally when he happened upon his vibrant use of color and shape.  But having happened on it, he just kept doing it, sometimes at larger and larger scale, sometimes in square format, sometimes with a limited palette of colors—but always the same “look,” for decades. It got tiring, in these huge doses, and I left the Whitney exhibit feeling less excited about Stuart Davis than I was when I first saw the poster advertising the show.

The third alluring-sounding exhibit was the “collections” show, entitled The Keeper, at the New Museum. All the critics loved it and made it sound wonderful, so even though I am usually nervous about concept shows like this, I happily trundled over to the Bowery to see it. The woman at the ticket booth advised me to start on the second floor and work my way upward to the fifth, since it was a dense show that got denser as you rose. I’m not sure it would have mattered which direction I went: it was all too much for me, and very little of it struck me as art worth looking at. Among the finer bits were the balsa-wood carvings of animals on the fifth floor, the Henrik Olesen serious-joke-pictures about gays in art (“Faggy Gestures throughout Art History,” and so forth), and the pages from a Holocaust victim’s sketchbook (though I would say that wasn’t a collection at all, but a narrative of horrifying dimensions). But I couldn’t stomach the 3,000 pictures of people with their teddy bears, which took up two floors of one whole side-gallery, with the photos mounted helter-skelter all over the walls. And much of the rest of the show seemed to stem from either lunacy (the woman who displayed every one of the thousands of outer-space messages she had received and noted down, piled up in a stack on a table) or mere collectors’ zeal (the polished rocks). I thought the studio portraits of Ye Jinglu, taken once each year, didn’t hold a patch on Nicholas Nixon’s Brown Sisters—and that, in a way, exemplified the whole problem. The Nixon photos are art; the Ye Jinglu photos are just artifacts of a life, and not very revealing artifacts at that.

It was with some relief, and eventually great pleasure, that I ended up at the fourth show on my list, the Diane Arbus exhibit at the Met Breuer. This show, which focuses on her early work (1956 to 1961) but also includes a few well-known later pieces as well as the self-selected “Box of 10,” is beautifully displayed on gray pillars, one to each picture. As you stroll up and down the aisles, examining these early efforts that sometimes look like Arbus (particularly the ones with children) and sometimes don’t (the street photography could just as easily be Davidson’s or Friedlander’s, at times), you get an enhanced sense of the genius of this particular artist. My visit to the show was greatly assisted, I must admit, by my having recently read Diane Arbus, the long-awaited and excellent biography which my friend Arthur Lubow just published in June. But I hope that even without this guide, I would have been able to recognize the virtues of the Met Breuer show. Over the summer, in search of more Arbus fodder, I had twice been to a roomful of the late “Untitled” Arbus pictures at SFMOMA, and had been disappointed both times—in the pictures themselves as much as in the display. I’m glad to say that yesterday’s visit to In the Beginning utterly restored my faith in the photographer’s intelligent eye.


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Singing and Opera

I enjoyed the San Francisco Opera‘s new production of Janacek’s Jenufa—just not quite as much as all my friends said I would. They were right about the singing, which was beyond terrific. Karita Mattila as Kostelnicka, William Burden as Laca, and Malin Bystrom as Jenufa herself—the three major vocal roles—were as good as any opera singers I’ve heard in recent years, and the supporting cast was for the most part excellent. The orchestra music, too, was wonderful, thanks to visiting conductor Jiri Belohlavek. (My apologies to all the Czechs in the audience for the absence of diacriticals on these names: my keyboard just won’t manage them.) And the opera itself, though it ended weirdly (I’ll get to that in a moment), was gripping from start to finish, as Janacek almost always is. He not only had a great eye for plot; he also finessed every detail of every sung syllable, insuring that diction, feeling, and music all coincided perfectly. When you go to a Janacek opera—or, for that matter, to a Janacek recital—you often feel that people were actually meant to sing their thoughts and speeches.

But opera is not a purely musical form, and here is where this S.F. Opera production faltered. The direction (by Olivier Tambosi) was so perverse as to be annoying, and the result was that the characters and their fates didn’t always make sense. Unless he hired women singers who all happened to have some kind of congenital ague, which seems unlikely, he made a very strange decision in telling Mattila and Bystrom (and to a certain extent the other women) to move awkwardly, weirdly, stiffly, and ungracefully at almost every point of their stage appearances. Arms and ankles were flung out at odd angles; large stones (which littered the landscape, due to the coincidental prevalence of the word “stone” in the libretto) were used to prop up faltering steps; physical weakness appeared to stand in for emotional distress. It was all very strange and off-putting, and as far as I could tell had nothing to do with the experiences the characters were going through. Given how hard Janacek himself worked to make the language and music mesh seamlessly, it would seem a director could do the same thing for gesture and movement. But no, this Tambosi wanted to make his mark in some way, and he did it with big rocks and shudders.

Jenufa is an opera that takes some figuring out, because to a certain extent it is a “problem” play. That is, every element of the first two acts points to an unhappy ending for the main character: she has doom written all over her from almost her first appearance. And yet Janacek chose, for reasons of his own, to give her a kind of redemption at the end, allowing her to recognize the worth of the man she has finally decided to marry and overcome the sadness of her illegitimate child’s death. Short of Hollywood-style tampering (which seems unlikely in this case), there had to be a reason he decided to do this, and it is the director’s job, I would think, to create a setting in which this turn of events seems, if not natural or predictable, then at any rate acceptable. Here, the ending felt utterly tacked on, because no one had bothered to think through a directorial vision that would allow it to make sense.

I have been going to the San Francisco Opera since my early twenties, which means I lived through the Lotfi Mansouri years that preceded Pamela Rosenberg as well as the David Gockley years that have followed her. Only during that brief period of Rosenberg’s reign as General Director did we consistently get operas that worked as theater. I know we can never get the past back again (that is what almost all tragic operas tell us, in one way or another). But I do wish we could have another golden age of opera in San Francisco—an age in which theatrical direction matters, so that the director’s job is seen as something that is meant to help the performers get across their roles, and not hinder them.

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Terrible Movie, Great Concert

In the absence of any surer bet among the early summer offerings, I took a risk last Monday on a movie called The Lobster. After all, I love Colin Farrell and like Rachel Weisz, who were both featured actors in it (and if I had known Ben Whishaw was part of the cast, that would have increased the attraction for me). The advertised plot dealt with a society in which people were required to be members of a couple: if they failed to find a mate, they would be turned into an animal. This seemed a sufficiently whimsical premise to make for a possibly good movie.

Oh, how wrong I was. The Lobster is at once horrific and tedious—a difficult thing to carry off, but the director (his name is Yorgos Lanthimos, and I am whispering it here parenthetically just so you can avoid anything by him, ever) has somehow managed it. The acting style veers somewhere between Last Year at Marienbad and late Woody Allen, and the events depicted on the screen aim for a combination of the Stephen King of The Shining and the Ray Bradbury of Fahrenheit 451. None of these influences, however, can be blamed for the resulting mess, which is truly in a category of its own. The movie is not only pretentious and boring; it is also vindictive and cruel, to its viewers as well as its characters. It left my husband speechless—literally without a word to say—for ten minutes after we emerged from the theater, after which his first utterance was “I told you it would be bad!”

In desperate need of recuperative sustenance, we went on the following Friday to the San Francisco Symphony. I had two motives here: one was to hear Michael Tilson Thomas conduct Brahms’s First Symphony, a piece which never fails to delight me; the other was to listen to the North American premiere of a new Jörg Widmann piece called Trauermarsch, which featured (and was in fact written for) the pianist Yefim Bronfman. It will give you some sense of the evening’s power if I begin by saying that the first piece on the program, an eleven-minute “symphony” by C.P.E. Bach, was the only thing that didn’t pack a wallop.

It was smart of MTT, though, to precede the Widmann with an old piece of fluff, because it made modernity itself look good. Trauermarsch is like other Widmann compositions I’ve heard: unclassifiable, various, sometimes melodic rather than dissonant or difficult, but always distinctly of our time. As a collaboration between piano and orchestra, it is movingly interdependent. Only at the beginning does the pianist have a few notes of his own, played slowly against silence; after that he is constantly joining with (and competing with, and occasionally vanquishing) a whole range of orchestral effects that include a great deal of unusual percussion, both loud and muted brass, and a weird range of string sounds that include but are not limited to tuneful themes. The funereal subject matter signaled by the title is respected in the primarily slow pacing, but death is frightening and powerful here as well as ceremonially acknowledged: this is a funeral march to raise the hackles on one’s neck.

And then the Brahms was, if anything, even more thrilling. Listening to the rise and fall of the four grand movements, which pay tribute to without exactly imitating Beethoven, and which seem to mark the full range of human experience—from hope to disillusion to melancholy to invigorated resilience—I thought to myself:  Brahms is one of the few composers who actually comes across as a nice man in his work.  One of his key attributes is tenderness, a quality that is rare enough in the world at large but particularly rare in artists who are visibly trying to do something new. (Witness The Lobster, for an especially debased version of its absence.) Brahms seems filled with concern for us as well as himself. He wants to shake us up a bit, but he also wants to issue some kind of consolation—not false consolation, not an empty reassurance about our capacity to overcome loneliness or death, but the real consolation that has to do with the companionable, enveloping force of music. And at the end, as I stood among the other wildly applauding audience members (who included Yefim Bronfman—the eminent soloist had stayed on through the intermission just to hear the Brahms performed in the second half!), part of my pleasure derived from the sense that the message had been received.

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Smaller Spaces

You know what I mean: those places where you go to hear music and feel you are getting a privileged treat, because the hall is more intimate than a grand opera house or a concert auditorium. Not that big is always bad. It’s just that small can sometimes feel very special, as if you alone are in on the secret.

Zankel Hall is hardly a secret anymore, for avid New York music-lovers. But compared to Stern Hall, its vast sister space at Carnegie, it can still feel appealingly private. So it was with a distinct pleasure that I learned, upon arriving at Carnegie’s press desk on May 6, that the evening’s performance by Philharmonia Baroque was taking place not in Stern, as I had expected, but in Zankel. That wood-paneled, two-level space was just right for the wonderful yet obscure Scarlatti opera—a startling rediscovery by Maestro McGegan—that unfolded over the course of the evening. La Gloria di Primavera apparently premiered in Naples in 1716 as a way of celebrating the arrival of the infant heir to the Hapsburg empire, who happened to be visiting the Neapolitan outpost with his parents. Some months later, however, the much-longed-for baby died, and hence this celebratory opera was deep-sixed from then to now. The terrific revival by Philharmonia Baroque, featuring brilliant soloists like the tenor Nicholas Phan and the baritone Douglas Williams, was so fun, lively, and beautiful that I couldn’t imagine how the intervening three centuries had managed to live without it.

Fewer New Yorkers know about the Baryshnikov Art Center‘s Howard Gilman Performance Space, but it too is a wonderful place to hear music, and even more intimate than Zankel. Structured like a large rehearsal studio (which it indeed sometimes is), this fourth-floor space at BAC has been home to great chamber concerts ever since Pedja Muzijevic, the BAC’s artistic administrator, began hosting the Movado Hour about a decade ago. Now the sponsorship has moved inward to the BAC itself, but the BAC Salons (still hosted by Pedja) are no less delightful and the music no less inspiring. On May 5 I was able to hear an exciting young quartet group I’d never heard before, the Aeolus Quartet, performing two stellar pieces: a relatively new work, Washed by Fire, by the composer Keeril Makan, and Dvorak’s moving String Quartet op. 105, composed in 1895. They were very different pieces, but they went perfectly together in this setting, where the musicians were simultaneously relaxed and highly adept. Meanwhile, we in the audience sat at cafe tables only a few yards away from the charming, skillful players, sipping our complimentary glasses of wine and enjoying the sense that we were surrounded by yet shielded from the bustling city around us.

Great as these New York spaces are, though, they cannot compete in my affections with London’s Wigmore Hall.  But then, nothing can. I have been attending concerts there since my early twenties (though often with long gaps in between), and increasingly as I get older I find that the atmosphere at Wigmore is perfect—not only for the familiar pieces of chamber music that I have always loved, but for new things that I am hearing for the first time. On my most recent trip to London, I was lucky enough to attend two Wigmore concerts: one (on May 12) featuring the pianist and composer Ryan Wigglesworth, the tenor Mark Padmore, and the soprano Victoria Simmonds; the other (on May 17) offering an all-star line-up of Jonathan Biss on the piano, Lisa Batiashvili on the violin, Antoine Tamestit on the viola, and Jean-Guihen Queyras on the cello.

The May 12 concert included a London premiere (Wigglesworth’s own song cycle, Echo and Narcissus, with words taken from a Ted Hughes poem), which was sandwiched between some Schumann lieder and a great, heretofore unknown to me piece by Janacek called The Diary of One Who Disappeared. I mean it as the highest kind of compliment when I say that the Wigglesworth piece lived up to its surroundings. All three works were filled with feeling of the most intense sort—the kind that Padmore, for one, is expert at expressing and eliciting—and because I had never heard the Janacek before, it was as if I were hearing two premieres rather than just one. The audience couldn’t have been better: the profound silences, during the breaks between songs, were so deep you could have heard a pin drop (or a dog-chain rattle, as I did when the blind listener in the row in front of me courteously removed his guide-dog’s collar to prevent any further intrusive sound, however mild it might be). The Wigmore audience looks a bit old and stuffy—and sounds, when it speaks during the intervals, awfully posh—but for chamber-concert behavior, it just can’t be beat.

I had thought the deeply attentive silences might be a response to the vocal emotionality of the May 12 concert, but then I heard the same silences between the movements of May 17’s three works, all of which were purely instrumental: Schumann’s 3 Romances, Martinu’s Duo for violin and cello, and Schumann’s Märchenbilder. The Martinu was a beautiful oddity that allowed Batiashvili and Queyras to strut their virtuosic stuff (though never in a way that betrayed the music). The Schumann pieces, on the other hand, were pure romantic loveliness.  I am not used to thinking of myself as a Schumann fan, but in the presence of these superlative chamber musicians, and seated amidst these hugely appreciative listeners, I almost felt he could become a favorite. I imagine it’s theoretically possible that Wigmore Hall could, at times, host a less-than-satisfying concert, but I have never heard one there, and I hope I never will.


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Filling Carnegie Hall

In the middle of April I heard three chamber-music concerts on the main stage of Carnegie Hall, and they were all, quite frankly, great.

The first was the complete Brahms piano quartets, played by a dream ensemble that included Leif Ove Andsnes on the piano, James Ehnes on the violin, Tabea Zimmerman on the viola, and Clemens Hagen on the cello. (The violinist was supposed to be the marvelous Christian Tetzlaff, who had to cancel at the last minute to await the birth of his child. Most of the audience was understandably nervous at losing this outstanding player, but they didn’t know what I did: that Ehnes is pretty terrific too. When he played, they found out.) I had never heard all three of these quartets played together before—they are very long, ranging from 36 to 52 minute each—and it turned out to be one of those profound experiences comparable to hearing a Shostakovich or a Bartok cycle.  The time scale of composition was incredibly compressed (I think Brahms wrote them all within a single decade, and then wrote no others), but the distance from Piano Quartet #1 to Piano Quartet #3 is like that between early Beethoven quartets and late ones. It was solid, intense music in every case, but it was something more by the end—reaching toward the impossible, musically, and almost getting there. And these musicians did Brahms full honors.

The second concert was the wildly applauded and fully sold out performance of Yo Yo Ma and Emmanuel Ax in the complete Beethoven sonatas for piano and cello.  I have only to say the names and you know how good it was. And yet, as I listened to even the most delicate cello notes waft their way successfuly to me in my Carnegie Hall seat, it occurred to me that I would have enjoyed it more in a smaller space.  It was not a question of audibility, but of intimacy: a chamber collaboration, especially one involving strings, is like a familial event, whispering its music in your ears, and it needs a familial-sized auditorium to go with it.  Carnegie Hall’s Stern auditorium is many great things, but it is not intimate—and realizing this about the Ma/Ax concert made me understand that, had I not been so gripped by the revelation of the Brahms sequence, I would have felt the same way then. Music like this just does not belong in a huge hall.

So it was with some trepidation that I attended Jeremy Denk’s afternoon concert a few days later.  He was going to be all alone onstage, playing an English suite of Bach’s, a late Schubert sonata, and a weird series of ragtime-related pieces. Would the piano hold up to the challenge?  Strangely, it did.  Something about the sound of a piano on its own, even when it is at its quietest, projects in a way that chamber music with strings and piano does not. Of course it would have been nicer to hear him from close up—it is almost always nicer to hear solo musicians from close up—but in this case Denk made the concert feel as if it were taking place in his living room. He did this in part by speaking to us about the weird ragtime sequence, explaining his reasoning for each choice (from seventeenth-century Byrd through twentieth-century Joplin to modernist pieces by Hindemith, Stravinsky, and Nancarrow). And he also did it by ordering these pieces, not chronologically, but in a way that made us hear the interplays between them. It was a thrilling concert, and to my surprise it was not the elegant Bach nor the highly moving Schubert that accounted for my delight. Rather, it was the sense Denk gave me of sitting over his shoulder as he chose those ragtime pieces and thought, through both his fingers and his brain, about what connected them.

And then, on April 20, I finally got to hear a concert that didn’t just survive the size of Carnegie Hall, but used it to the full.  This was the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Mariss Jansons, playing Shostakovich’s seventy-minute Leningrad Symphony. I ignored all the stuff in the program about whether the symphony was about Stalin’s depredations or Hitler’s: such theories are all crap, if you ask me, and the music speaks directly enough for itself. Some people consider it simpleminded, and it does rely heavily on repetition; it also plays on the emotions in an almost movie-soundtrack way. (Shostakovich was, of course, a brilliant creator of movie soundtracks, as his Lear and his Hamlet both demonstrate.) But neither of these facts detracts one bit from the power of the performance, when it is as good as this one was.  I felt the floor and the seat shaking beneath me as the snare drums and the cymbals and even the double-bass pizzicatos lent the piece their huge percussive sound. And I wondered if this music—written for starving Russians besieged during the Second World War, and now played for a comfortable American audience by a German orchestra on what was coincidentally the anniversary of Hitler’s birthday—would ever cease to move people. I hope not.



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March Madness

For the past few weeks I have practically been running from one performance to another. As follows:

On Friday, March 11, and Sunday, March 13, I once again saw L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (this time at Cal Performances’ Zellerbach Hall). Since I have seen Mark Morris’s masterpiece at least 20 or 25 times—no exaggeration, since I always go at least twice if it’s in my vicinity—there is probably little new I can say about it except: Hooray! Bravo! Do it again!  The company was in excellent shape for these performances, and it was especially moving to see a couple of the recently retired dancers, the superb Maile Okamura and amazing Amber Star Merkins, back onstage in their usual parts.

Soon after the L’Allegro run was over, I dashed off to New York in time to watch some previewed scenes of The Leopard, an opera that the composer Michael Dellaira is in the process of writing (with libretto by J. D. McClatchy, based on the book by Giuseppe di Lampedusa). On March 17, the Manhattan School of Music and its singers-in-training ably presented four scenes from this still-embryonic work, and though it is hard for an amateur like me to imagine the piano accompaniment transformed into a full orchestra, it is already clear that this will be Dellaira’s best opera yet: a worthy tribute to Lampedusa’s marvelous Sicilian novel.

The very next day, March 18, I was treated to a performance by Mikhail Baryshnikov in his limited-run one-man show, Brodsky/Baryshnikov, at the Baryshnikov Arts Center. (There are a lot of Baryshnikovs in that sentence, but they are unavoidable.) More theater than dance, the piece borrows strategies from Tadeusz Kantor’s 1960s Polish “poor theater” as well as even older strategies from American vaudeville. It consists mainly of Baryshnikov sitting still and reading or reciting poems by Brodsky; occasionally he moves in strange and evocative ways as Brodsky’s taped voice recites the poems. Baryshnikov is a great speaker of poetry, and of course he moves beautifully; I just wish I knew Russian, because it was clear even from the sound that what I was getting in the English that flashed across the supertitle screen was in no way equivalent to the poetry itself.

On March 19 I went to a late-night performance of the Ethan Iverson Quartet at a tiny jazz club in the Village called Smalls. In fact, there is no “Ethan Iverson Quartet” — these were simply three other friendly jazz musicians (Ben Street on bass, Eric McPherson on drums, and the amazing Dayna Stephens on saxophone) gathered together by Iverson, a great jazz pianist usually associated with The Bad Plus, to improvise on some jazz standards.  The fact that they were not accustomed to playing together did not hamper their affinity in any way; it might even have added to it, since the two sets (which started at 10:30 and ended at about 1:00 a.m.) constituted about the most exciting jazz I’ve heard recently. I was particularly thrilled to be sitting just behind Iverson’s right shoulder — close enough to turn pages, if he had used pages, but of course none of them did.

On Sunday, March 20, in the late afternoon, I went to something I had been looking forward to at Carnegie Hall — actually at Weill, the smallest of Carnegie’s three halls. It was James Levine conducting a group of chamber musicians drawn from the Met Orchestra in two different serenades, one by Schoenberg and the other by Mozart. The music was excellent, or would have been, if Levine had not been so severely hampered by his Parkinson’s disease, which has reached a level that makes conducting essentially impossible. It was a painful event: the musicians obviously know and love him, and were doing their best for him, but the performance kept pausing while he regained control of his arms and hands. More even than Brodsky/Baryshnikov, which was explicitly about death in a firm, purposeful, and aesthetically coherent way, this event struck me as a reminder of mortality’s ever-lurking presence, in ways its presenters had perhaps not fully anticipated.

After all these small-scale occasions in which the emotional level ran high, it was a bit of a relief to swan off to the Metropolitan Opera‘s huge auditorium on March 22 and simply bask in the rather staid but perfectly adequate performance of The Marriage of Figaro. Isabel Leonard was terrific as Cherubino; everyone else was just fine; the music was great, as expected. It did not move me at all.  But then, not everything can.

And then, on March 23, a week into the strenuous New York schedule, I attended David Cromer’s production of The Effect—a new play by the English writer Lucy Prebble—at the Barrow Street Theatre. Once again I was in the front row, and once again I had the thrill of an intimate performance, this time set up by my favorite director, whose work I have been following since I first saw his Adding Machine and then his revelatory Our Town in the Village years ago. I think The Effect is the best new play Cromer has done (as opposed to those startling revivals, at which he excels), and I was gripped by every minute of the performance. The reviews I’ve read tend to underestimate its complexity: the play is not “about” pharmaceutical trials and cures, it is not “about” relationships, it is not “about” parallels between couples. Rather, it embodies and uses all of these to create an intense narrative experience that is at once theatrical and realistic. The performances by the two younger actors (Susannah Flood and Carter Hudson) were perfection—there was no seam between actor and character, and their chemistry (to use a loaded term in this context) was remarkable. The older woman doctor was beautifully conveyed by Susannah Flood, who brought real pathos to a difficult and sometimes unsympathetic role. My only problem, actor-wise, was with Steve Key, whose grasp of his mainly self-serving character seemed a bit weak. But that was a minor problem with the production, and I strongly recommend it to anyone who enjoys good theater — a rarity in itself these days.




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Four Quartets

Not T. S. Eliot’s, but real string-playing musicians. 

Over the course of less than a month, I recently had the opportunity to hear four first-class quartet groups who were visiting the Bay Area. The string quartet is a strange beast: some have described it as an octopus with eight arms, a single unit melded together through practice. I have a more complicated sense about what makes for an excellent string quartet—it involves cohesion but also individuality, long hours of practice but also inherent sensibility, and even the best quartet group does not play all items of the repertoire equally well. But I was lucky enough, in February and early March, to hear four of my favorite quartets, one after another.

If I have to choose a favorite among favorites, it will always be the Pacifica Quartet—not only because I have been following them with so much affection for so many years, but also because they continually surprise me. On February 12 I went to their concert at San Francisco Performances thinking I would essentially get a rerun of a concert I had heard eighteen months earlier at Alice Tully Hall. That would have been fine; I loved the earlier concert. But to my delight, what I got was something altogether new—not only because a Mozart quartet had been substituted for the initial Haydn, and the closing Mendelssohn quartet switched out for a different Mendelssohn quartet, but because the sole repeated piece, Shulamit Ran’s recent Quartet No. 3 (titled “Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory”), seemed like something other than what it had originally seemed. There were the recognizable moments—all four players stamping their feet vehemently at once, second violinist Sibbi Bernhardsson quietly whistling, the jagged clacks of non-musical sounds occasionally emitted by the four instruments—but what finally emerged from these skillful, mutually attuned, always inventive players was a sense that the music was being created on the spot. The Pacificas can do this, incidentally, as easily with Beethoven as they can with a contemporary composer; I have heard them do it many times. But it is still a novel pleasure to see that all live music remains truly live in their hands, however young or old it may be.

Next up in my tour of great string quartets was the venerable Takacs Quartet, performing on February 21 under the auspices of Cal Performances. Two of these players—the second violin and the cellist—are still the original Hungarians who formed the group; the first violin is a highly accomplished Englishman; and the violist is a much-loved former Bay Area player, Geraldine Walther. I don’t feel the personal connection with these guys that I do with the Pacificas, but I certainly take every opportunity to hear them, especially when they are performing Central European pieces. This time, though, the program went from Haydn to Timo Andres to Brahms (not unlike the Pacificas’ sandwich, with the contemporary piece as filling), and though every individual item was good, none was overwhelmingly great. It wasn’t until they played the encore—a snippet of one of Beethoven’s Razumovsky quartets, as a foretaste of what we will get when they do the full Beethoven cycle next year—that the concert really came alive for me. It’s hard to define what makes the difference in such cases: the coherence and vitality with which they play? my own affection for the material? theirs? Whatever it was, it was there in the Beethoven, in full force, reminding me of why it’s always worth coming out for this group.

The third quartet in my series was also courtesy of Cal Performances: the Danish String Quartet, a group of four young men who began playing on these shores only a few years back. (I first heard them at Music@Menlo, which is where I believe their American career started.) If the Takacs performance had felt ever-so-slightly routine, this February 28 concert was just the opposite: an incredibly exciting afternoon of music to which the audience responded as if they had been injected with caffeine. From the 1952 Danish piece (previously unknown to virtually all of us) with which they opened the program, to the Janacek “Kreutzer” quartet, and finally to Beethoven’s magnificent Op. 131, the whole program moved forward with an intensity I have rarely felt in a concert hall.  Part of this was due to the friendly manner of the players themselves, each of whom spoke to us in turn about the pieces we were going to hear. But a great deal of it had to do with the power with which they played: the unmitigated verve alternating with the necessary restraint, the sense of deep feeling generated and deep feeling contained, above all (especially in the Beethoven) the huge range of sensations and emotions that they managed to touch upon in the course of a single long sweep. It was one of those occasions when composer melded with performers to produce perfection—and when, after the Beethoven, they played a small Danish chorale as the encore, that too was perfect, because it let us down gently and released us to go home.

My fourth quartet concert, late at night on March 4, consisted of the JACK Quartet playing Georg Friedrich Haas’s Quartet No. 3, which is always done in complete darkness.  Again, this was a program put on by San Francisco Performances, but instead of taking place in the staid (if lovely) environs of Herbst Theater, it was put on in the new space at the Strand Theater on Market Street. I have heard the JACK play this piece before and even written about it with great admiration, but I have to say that on this occasion what struck me more than the music itself was the experience of getting to and being at the concert. That stretch of Market Street at night is like something out of Ahmedabad or Mumbai: a scary, continually-under-construction region populated by the hungry homeless, strewn across the sidewalks in unbelievable numbers, while meanwhile, half a block away, nouveau millionaires dine in exotic splendor in the huge variety of restaurants that have popped up to serve them. The Strand itself is a hip new location, and the audience to the sold-out event seemed excessively aware of its privilege in being there: not ideal circumstances for sinking contemplatively into dark music. I also felt that the acoustics were noticeably worse than the first time I heard this strange, sometimes evocative piece (which was at the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York), and I deeply missed the sense of discovery that the previous occasion had afforded me.  Perhaps certain pieces of new music just don’t remain fresh enough to provide new excitements. Or perhaps the Market Street experience had dampened my senses, forcing me to shut down the receptive tentacles necessary for taking in something novel. I can’t say. But I won’t hold it against the JACK, whom I will eagerly revisit at the very next opportunity, since I know they are likely to have something new and good in store for me.

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A Stupendous Saturday

Living in a place like Berkeley, one can sometimes feel deprived of great music, as if it is all happening somewhere else, in the great capital cities of the world. But I have never, in New York or London or Berlin, had the kind of musical day I had here on Saturday.

In the afternoon, I went over to the Berkeley campus, where Cal Performances was treating the public to a free “master class” rehearsal of the UC student orchestra, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. There had been a similar master class for student conductors in the morning, which I regretfully missed—a regret that increased exponentially when I heard how interesting it had been. But the rehearsal I saw was more than satisfying; it was a thrilling gift.

Dudamel—who, since he took over the Los Angeles Philharmonic, has aged slightly in appearance but has not lost one whit of his youthful vigor and charm—began by simply allowing the very good student orchestra to play the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s challenging Fourth Symphony. Okay, I thought, watching him, he’s pleasant enough to watch, but so what? Then he began to “work” the orchestra through certain passages in that movement, and the fireworks began. He made the strings repeatedly play a section of triplet measures that they insisted on separating, whereas he wanted the whole thing to flow: “You are cutting it,” he told them. “When you go to a party do you bring a cake already cut in slices? No, you bring the whole cake and cut it there.” Later he told the violas that they needed to come up strong, because if “you were wallflowers before, now you are at the center of the party.” He corrected the woodwinds for anticipating the speed of their crescendo: “It’s like you have a surprise for someone, and you tell them the surprise,” he admonished. But all his admonishments came with kindness and affection: “That is too short, my dears,” he told the brass about their blasts of sound, which he wanted less like percussion and more like an extended musical note. Often he sang what he wanted, to show pacing or feeling. And the apt metaphors just kept tumbling out of him, with unbelievable speed and variety. But metaphor was far from his only recourse. When he wanted the strings to enter on a louder note, even though their score was marked “piano,” he explained in detail that context was everything, and that the very loud sounds that preceded their entrance meant that even their piano had to be louder to stand up. “It’s like—it’s like—it’s not like anything. Just play it louder,” he ended up, as if mocking his own tendency toward profuse metaphor.

And the great thing was, you could hear the difference, even with this student orchestra. And the people around me—the amateur musicians and Cal students and high school students and arts patrons who had taken this free opportunity to hear Dudamel teach—could also hear the difference, as I could tell by the way they nodded and smiled. It was a grand lesson in music and how it works, and I wholeheartedly wished every child and adult in America could have it.

Once he had finished rehearsing the first movement, Dudamel’s allotted time was almost up, but he didn’t want to scrimp on the musical experience. So he had the oboe play the solo part from the beginning of the second movement—”Just because I want to hear it,” the conductor said, folding his arms and preparing to do nothing. “You start,” he nodded to the oboist, “and then you follow him,” he indicated to the rest of the orchestra. After listening carefully and with evident pleasure to this favorite passage, he moved the students immediately into the rousing fourth and final movement, with its brassy exuberance and frenetically bowed strings and clashing cymbals and pounding drums, during which he went wild himself with conducting. Naturally, at the end, the audience exploded in grateful applause—a sound markedly different in volume and tone from the merely acceptable level of clapping that had greeted the end of the first movement’s initial performance. They knew what they had been given.

For any normal day, or week, or even month, that would have been enough. But I was scheduled that night to hear the recently formed Tetzlaff Trio—Christian Tetzlaff, my favorite solo violinist; his sister Tanja Tetzlaff, a terrific cellist; and the accomplished pianist Lars Vogt—play under the auspices of San Francisco Performances. Appearing in the beautifully refurbished Herbst Theater (where earlier in the month I had been treated to a great concert by my beloved Pacifica Quartet, also thanks to San Francisco Performances), the Tetzlaff Trio was doing Schumann’s Piano Trio in F Major, Dvorak’s “Dumky” Trio, and Brahms’s Piano Trio in B Major—three of the great pieces written for this particular combination of instruments. The Schumann was lovely, and demonstrated how musically attuned these three players were to each other as well as to the music, but it did not fully prepare me for how astonishing this rendering of the Dumky would be. I own the Beaux Arts Trio recording and I love it, but what the Tetzlaff Trio played was essentially a new piece. Especially in the quiet passages, where Christian Tetzlaff seemed almost to breath over the strings to produce his delicate runs of notes, I heard things I had never heard before—and meanwhile the fast, exciting passages were as resounding and as danceable as ever. “How can the Brahms top this? How could anything top this?” I said to my seatmate.

But comparisons faded to nothing when they began the Brahms after the intermission, because this too became something novel and exciting. And then, when they played as an encore the second movement of Dvorak’s F minor trio, it turned out that this was something new, at least to many of us in the audience—a wonderful piece of music that we were hearing for the first time in the best possible hands. Afterward, I asked Tanja Tetzlaff how it was that they managed to make something so unexpected out of pieces we had heard so many times before.  “We are just following the score,” she said, “the dynamics and the tempi exactly the way they are marked. Most others don’t play it that way.” Well, maybe. I think it’s more that this marvelous trio—like the Tetzlaff Quartet, to which Christian and Tanja also belong, and like Christian Tetzlaff himself, in all his unforgettable solo performances—understands something about the music that the rest of the world has somehow failed to grasp. In a way, it was like seeing that afternoon’s Dudamel lessons transmuted into knowledge at the highest possible level: This is what the composer is demanding of you, the score is saying to these fine musicians, and this is what you must give your audiences at the lovely surprise party you are creating for them.  And so they did.


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