Hearing It Live

There are lots of obstacles that might keep you at home listening to favorite performances on your music system instead of venturing out to an opera house or a concert hall. Price is one of the big ones, but transportation, cold weather, exhaustion at the end of the workday, uncomfortable theater seats, and annoying fellow audience members might also enter into the calculation. Yet if a performance is good enough, it will transcend all that and make you very glad indeed that you came out.

A couple of weeks ago I was sitting in a tiny New York living room listening to a much-loved performance of The Marriage of Figaro on my tiny iPod. As I listened, I leafed through the pages of that week’s New Yorker and noticed that a revival of the Richard Eyre production of Le Nozze di Figaro was being performed at the Metropolitan Opera that very week. I saw that it featured Luca Pisaroni, whom I have loved in other Mozart operas, as the Count, and though I didn’t recognize any of the other names, I decided to grab a ticket for three nights later.

As it turned out, Pisaroni was the least of it (though he was very good, and so was the Figaro, a singer I’d never heard before named Adam Plachetka). This production turned out to star the women, as seems fitting for a plot whose twists all depend on female intelligence. One after another, the sopranos and mezzo-sopranos came out and wowed the audience, until we could barely believe our luck at the combination of singing talent and persuasive acting (supported, as all such performances must be, by the sensitive orchestra and its conductor, who was in this case the brilliant Harry Bicket). Susanna, the key figure in the plot—since she is not only Figaro’s bride, but also the object of the Count’s predatory lust and the deviser of the plot that defeats him—was performed by the Met newcomer Christiane Karg, whose lively intelligence and assertive physical presence was reminiscent of Marlene Dietrich. The Countess, sung by Rachel Willis-Sørensen, had one of the most meltingly knock-out voices I’ve ever heard in the part, which made the Count’s cruel treatment of her all the more affecting. And Cherubino—always my favorite, if the role is properly done—was endearingly played by Serena Malfi, whose boyish gestures evoked the sweetness of Harpo Marx (though obviously without his muteness). Even the bit parts like Marcellina (sung by Katarina Leoson) and Barbarina (the very animated Hyesang Park) were beautifully done. The whole set-up made it seem as if the world of this opera was secretly governed by the women, even as the men believed they had the upper hand.

It is an ugly plot, as Anthony Tommasini pointed out in his review, and particularly so when one is thinking constantly about the issue of sexual harassment, as people are these days. But simply representing a lascivious seigneur attempting to claim his ancestral droit does not in itself constitute ugliness. It is the game-like manner in which the subject is treated—and especially the emotional cruelty perpetrated by almost all the characters on their actual and potential sexual partners—that makes this opera so disturbing. I am thinking particularly of the scene in which Susanna, knowing that Figaro has come out to spy on her, pretends she is meeting a lover just to get back at him; for me, this was the most viscerally painful moment in the whole evening, given the way Eyre had directed it. And in this respect Nozze di Figaro is not unlike the composer’s other major operas. Cruelty, and especially sexual cruelty, seems to be Mozart’s great theme. That he made light of it, for the most part—except when he resorted to excessive heaviness, as he did in Don Giovanni—is one aspect of the problem; and that his wondrously seductive music tempts us to make light of it is another.

Still, I wouldn’t have it otherwise. It is the plots that make his operas so distressing, but anyone who wishes they could get just the music without the painful plot should try going to a performance of La Finta Giardiniera, composed when he was just eighteen. The music is recognizably Mozartean and has many lovely bits, but the plot, to the extent it exists, is a boring mess. After watching a very intelligently directed performance of this embryonic opera at Juilliard last month, I began to think for the first time that perhaps Lorenzo Da Ponte was right. Da Ponte claimed in his Memoirs that it was he, with his brilliant librettos, who really made Mozart’s reputation, and I have always treated this as an idle boast (comparable, for instance, to his numerous tall tales about how many beautiful ladies he left in his wake as he fled town with their fathers’ ducats). But now, having seen what Mozart did before he met Da Ponte, I have come to a new respect for the librettist. Better to have a cruel plot than none at all, because at least it gives us something to react against—and, in the hands of the proper director, something to think about as well.

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A Magical Friday Night

It was cold last night in New York—an unseasonable 28 degrees or so—and anyone in her right mind would have stayed at home. But my husband and I, when we are in this city, live in extremely cramped conditions, which makes going out seem more inviting. And besides, we had made plans.

Our first stop was the Metropolitan Museum, which is open on Friday nights until 9:00 p.m., and where the new show of Michelangelo drawings was in its preview-for-members phase. I calculated that, despite Holland Cotter’s rave review in the morning paper, most Met members would have booked up their Friday night already and would be unlikely to be at the museum. This may well have been true, but the percentage left over still amounted to quite a crowd in those art-and-people-packed rooms. It was worth it, though, to see drawings I have not seen for 30 years or more (the lovely madonna and child from the Casa Buonarotti, for instance) as well as many, many others that I have never seen and that no one in America is likely to see again soon. There was an incredible “Fall of Phaeton,” for instance, done in several versions; also a sheet of paper on which Michelangelo had tried out two different gestures for God’s hand in the Sistine Chapel (I actually preferred the one he didn’t use); plus a large cartoon of Roman soldiers, and some lovely portraits of beautiful Italian youths, and many figures, both partial and full, seen from the front and the back; and so on, on and on. It was too much to take in at once, and I will certainly have to go back, braving what will no doubt be even huger crowds after it officially opens on Monday.

Afterward, on our way to our late-night concert at the 92nd Street Y, we had intended to drop in at a French bistro on 86th Street for dinner. But they couldn’t take us right away, so instead we ended up at a wonderful “Mediterranean” restaurant called Peri Ela, on Lexington near 91st. Every dish we tasted was terrific, and so was the warm atmosphere and the friendly service, and it all felt especially nice because it was such an unexpected find.

I had admittedly high expectations for the concert—it was devised and performed by Pedja Muzijevic, the adventurous, intelligent pianist who also runs the music programs at the Baryshnikov Arts Center—but even there I was happily surprised. Pedja had put together a program in the Y’s intimate Buttenweiser Hall combining the solo keyboard works of two of Bach’s children (Carl Philipp Emanuel and Wilhelm Friedemann) with pieces by three twentieth-century composers: John Cage, Henry Cowell, and Kurt Schwitters. The Cage pieces, in particular, were a revelation. Performed on a “prepared” piano (which Pedja only described to us after playing on it), the three Cage sonatas and one interlude sounded like unusual string-and-percussion works for Asian instruments, or perhaps something even weirder. Precisely and beautifully performed, they were a true delight to hear: I have always thought of Cage as more of a conceptual artist, and I really had no idea he could be so intensely musical.

After the final Cage piece, and before beginning the second half of the seventy-minute program, Pedja told the audience (to whom he had been speaking casually throughout, as he moved back and forth between the prepared piano and the regular one) that the second half of the program might be a little odd.  “Strange things will happen,” he warned us. “Don’t call the authorities.” He mentioned that, as both a performer and a concert presenter, he was particularly interested in the question “What is a concert?” This second half, he thought, might push that notion to its limits.  And indeed, when he made the transition from C.P.E. Bach’s bizarrely truncated Sonata in E minor (a modernist gesture, if there ever was one) to Henry Cowell’s  glorious Aeolian Harp (which involved plucking and strumming directly on the piano’s strings) and thence to Kurt Schwitter’s manic, spoken Scherzo from Ursonate, we felt we were indeed participating in something new.  It takes a performer of Pedja Muszijevic’s talents and temperament to make an audience feel both astonished and comforted at once, as I think we all did at that performance.

At the concert’s end, he offered to show anyone who cared to gather round how he was going to de-prepare the piano, by removing all the screws, plastic strips, bolts, and rubber plugs he had inserted into it beforehand. A large group formed themselves into a thick circle around him, and as I left, I heard him parrying a few questions as he worked. “Will the piano sound normal after you do this?” a woman asked, and Pedja answered, “Well, let’s find out.” When she followed up with “Is the piano yours?” he said, “Not yet. But they might make me buy it if this doesn’t work.”

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Layla and Majnun

Mark Morris’s new—what to call it?—opera, dance, Gesamtkunstwerk, which had its New York premiere last weekend at the White Light Festival, strikes me as his best work of the decade. I hesitate to go out on a limb like this, because Morris is so notoriously eager to violate expectations that he may well come up with something better next week, just to put me in the wrong. But I have to say that, at least since about 2010, I have not seen any new piece, by any choreographer, that moved me more than Layla and Majnun.

I am glad I waited for its New York appearance, instead of catching it at its 2016 world premiere in Berkeley’s rather large, cold Zellerbach Hall, because the relatively intimate Rose Theater was just the right place to see it. The performers, too, had had a chance to settle into their roles, though apparently one of the outstanding solo dancers, Mica Bernas, was taking on her part for the very first time when I saw her on opening night. Paired with the always-wonderful Dallas McMurray, she was the first and last Layla of the evening, and the way she and McMurray danced together—and most of all apart—utterly cemented our belief in the enduring, tragic love affair that lay at the heart of this production.

In its traditional Azerbaijani form, this opera for two voices tells the story of star-crossed young lovers whose parents separate them, forcing the girl to marry a man she doesn’t love, until death comes to rescue them both. Morris has staged this simple yet complicated work in a series of concentric rings, with the two remarkable singers, Alim Qasimov and Fargana Qasimova, seated cross-legged in the center, surrounded by the musicians of the Silk Road Ensemble, who are in turn encircled by a series of prancing, whirling, falling, stepping, fighting, leaping, sitting, watching dancers from the Mark Morris Dance Group. Four separate couples enact the two lovers, in sequence and then all together, and each pair brings something new and special to the interpretation.

The sequence of events is stark: Love and Separation, The Parents’ Disapproval, Sorrow and Despair, Layla’s Unwanted Wedding, and The Lovers’ Demise (as the supertitles helpfully describe the five separate “acts” of this seventy-minute work). The words of the songs, as conveyed to us in infrequent translations, are even starker: they mostly take the form of “I am burning up with love and my heart is broken” or its equivalent. We don’t need words, though, to understand and sympathize with these two lovers and their fate. The amazing voices and the intricate dance steps, all precisely and with great sensitivity timed to the music, are enough. This, remember, has always been Mark Morris’s strongest subject: not so much love (though he knows something about that) as dying for love. It is there in his brilliant Dido and Aeneas, and it is even there—in absentia, as it were—in the endings to his Hard Nut and his Romeo and Juliet, where the lovers don’t so much die as live and dance together forever, though only in the world of fantasy.

What was great about this piece was that it felt both alien and familiar at once. I have never heard a note of Azerbaijani music before, and yet I found the songs incredibly compelling. The dance steps combined both Western and Eastern patterns—I recognized a few Indian hand gestures, some rather Spanish kicks, a series of folk lines that derived from the various countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, and, not least, a number of favored Mark Morris moves denoting love or sorrow or pain. The backdrop, a slash of bright colors designed by the late and much-missed Howard Hodgkin, was both modern and eternal; it too suited the sound and the mood. And while the pairs playing the lovers were terrific (I especially loved the moment in which Layla and Majnun “died” by simultaneously falling backward into the arms of their two sets of parents), it was the ensemble dancing in the background that struck me, this time, as Morris’s greatest achievement. Its range and precision, its felt power and its delicacy, its ability to follow the improvising singers and at the same time give them space, were evident in both the male and female lines, which merged at times but often remained separate. If this was “cultural appropriation,” as Morris teasingly referred to it during the White Light Lounge afterward, then please let’s have more of it.

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A Richard for Our Times

In the spring of 2015, at the Schaubühne Theater in Berlin, I saw Lars Eidinger perform the role of Richard III in Thomas Ostermeier’s production of the Shakespeare play. At the time, I was both bemused and entranced. “This isn’t Shakespeare,” I remember thinking, “but it is certainly something.” (Actually, if you want to know exactly what I thought then, you can take a look at the blog entry I wrote immediately after seeing the play.)

Now Ostermeier’s Richard III has come to BAM, where I saw it last night, on the first night of its four-night run in New York. This time around, knowing what to expect, I was less bemused and more entranced. Eidinger’s performance is one for the ages: one of those rare occasions when an actor uses every ounce of his physical skill to bring into palpable, visceral being, right onstage in front of us, a character who has previously existed only in words. The words, in this case, are still in German (with English subtitles), but the production itself is so intense that there seems to be no screen at all between the audience and that central, despicable, remarkable character. If you possibly can, get yourself over to Brooklyn to witness it.

I will be writing about the performance at greater length in a printed issue of The Threepenny Review, but for now I just want to comment on the way it has changed for me in the past two-and-a-half years. In 2015 I thought Ostermeier and Eidinger had turned the play from a tragedy into an entertainment, eliminating all the truly sad parts and making the hero into a charismatically comic monster. Now that we have our own charismatically comic monster at the head of the American government, spewing untruths and hatred as he hurtles his babyish way through a vengeful regime, I can sense the degree of felt truth behind Eidinger’s portrayal. The Germans, of course, can remember what it was like to have someone like this actually running the place. We, in our innocence, are only now beginning to apprehend what is possible when a dangerous, disgusting creature you somehow can’t take your eyes off of manages to get hold of the reins of power.

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Jurowski in Berlin

Ever since I first visited Berlin fourteen years ago, there has been only one symphony orchestra for me, and that was the Berlin Philharmonic led by Simon Rattle. I followed them faithfully, not only on their home turf but also at Carnegie Hall in New York, and I was always suitably thrilled. But now that Rattle is leaving Berlin for London, I decided to explore the other local options, and luckily I landed on a great one: Vladimir Jurowski and his superb Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin. It turns out that the rock-star glamor Rattle brought to Berlin’s classical music scene, luring new audiences of all ages and backgrounds to the symphony hall, has found its latest embodiment in the entrancing Jurowski.

The RSB, one of Germany’s excellent radio orchestras, has been around for years, but it is only this year—this very month, starting last Sunday—that Jurowski has taken over as principal conductor. I had heard this forty-something Russian conductor before, in New York, where he led a stirring performance of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony, so I already knew he was something special. But it was his inclusion of Christian Tetzlaff on the opening program of his first RSB season that truly won me over. The combination, I figured, couldn’t be anything less than exciting.

“Exciting” seems a bland word for the electrifying sensation that ran through the Berlin Philharmonic Hall on September 17. The crowd—a surprisingly young and enthusiastic group, filling every seat in the house—had assembled to hear an unusual and, as it turned out, brilliantly composed program. It began with a seventeen-minute piece, Dimensions, by a Korean composer, Isang Yun, whose centenary is being celebrated in Berlin this year. The work was sufficiently complicated and intricate to require exceedingly fancy footwork from the orchestra, but they managed both its Asian overtones and its modernist intensities with aplomb. It was immediately followed by Arnold Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto, which—given Tetzlaff’s remarkable performance on the violin—couldn’t help but be the high point of the program. With every sway of his body and shift of his carefully controlled dynamics, the brilliant violinist showed us the rhythmic and musical structure of the work even as he made it seem practically danceable. This was Schoenberg at his thorniest, and yet Tetzlaff (beautifully backed up by Jurowski and his fine musicians) managed to make it seem enveloping and almost welcoming. We were rewarded as well by a lovely Bach solo as Tetzlaff’s generous encore, which closed the first half on a movingly tender note.

There were two more works assigned to the evening’s second half: a ten-minute vocal piece by the Italian Luigi Nono, named after and dedicated to the Czech journalist Julius Fucik, who was arrested, tortured, and killed by the Gestapo in 1943; and then Beethoven’s Fifth, as orchestrated by Mahler. How in the world, we all wondered at the intermission, is Jurowski going to perform the fine old Fifth on this otherwise revolutionary program? What he did was to lead from the final words of Fucik (a spoken rather than sung work, in which the actor playing the tortured, dying Fucik murmured a few elegiac words about the joy he had taken in life, and particularly in a theme by Beethoven) directly into the first notes of the Beethoven symphony, without even a pause for breath. And suddenly we had the connection in front of us: Beethoven as transcendent romantic inspiration for people everywhere, but now infused with the underlying darkness of German twentieth-century history. This was like no other performance of the Fifth I had ever heard—sharp, precise, modulating at times from near-silence to blasting loudness, and with waves of orchestral sound rising and falling in separate segments, so that every instrumental part was somehow distinctly audible. Moreover, each of the symphony’s many repetitions, which can seem tiresome in ordinary hands, now had a different meaning from its predecessors. It was as if Jurowski had puzzled out every measure, figuring out in each case how to make it new while also retaining its sense of being pure Beethoven.

It was with raised hopes, therefore, that I attended the second of Jurowski’s and the RSB’s concerts, a September 20 performance of Mahler’s Second, preceded by another Schoenberg work. Again, the concert exceeded all possible expectations. The Schoenberg—a 1950 piece called Psalm 130—was sung (and spoken, and whispered) a capella, in Hebrew, by the powerful Rundfunk Choir, who stood assembled on the steps behind the silent RSB. Even as the closing words of the psalm were uttered, the musicians took up their instruments, so that Mahler’s first notes (as in the Beethoven) sounded immediately on the heels of the Schoenberg. It was as if the five-minute Jewish psalm—which expresses a cry to God “from the depths”—and the eighty-minute “Resurrection Symphony” had been combined into a single work, opening and closing with the sounds of the human voice.

My problem with Mahler is that he can sound mushy, with indistinct rhythms melding into floating tone-poems of sound, so that I find myself floundering in search of a firm foothold. Jurowski solved all that by making every rhythmic transition, every change of chord, visible in his gestured instructions to the orchestra. Like Tetzlaff, he is essentially a dancer onstage, rendering the music through his own bodily movements, his own graceful hand gestures. This was Mahler clarified, simultaneously made more comprehensible and more stirring. For the first time, I understood why the eternally dramatic and unfailingly rhythmic Shostakovich loved this composer so much.

If Jurowski is a showman, it is in the best sense of the word, for by emphasizing the drama in an orchestral work, he also shows us aspects of the music. So for once, in the Mahler symphony, I was able to hear things that made narrative sense of the whole complicated piece. In particular, the way Jurowski parsed the second movement (as a cheerily Germanic landler, celebrating the joys of everyday life) and the third movement (as a hair-raising dance of death, deploying distinctly klezmerish sounds) opened my ears to how brilliant Mahler’s use of the simple three-beat rhythm could be. When I heard those explicitly Jewish plaints on the clarinet and the violin, I also realized something else: that the whole program had been composed as a kind of counterpoint between German Judaism and German Christianity, celebrating not only the Jewish composer who had lived through the 1933–45 period to compose his valedictory psalm, but also that secular Jew, Mahler, who converted to Catholicism to hold down his nineteenth-century post. And perhaps Jurowski, too—a descendant of Russian-Jewish musicians, raised without religion in the Soviet Union, who has now come to rest in Berlin—was putting something of himself in there, too.

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Surrounding Beethoven

Whenever a Beethoven piano concerto with a prominent soloist appears on an orchestral program, it is likely to be the highlight of the evening. Yet concert protocol dictates that something more traditionally “substantial,” like a symphony, has to come last, with the piano concerto appearing before the intermission. And because the concerto is likely to be shorter than the symphony, something short generally has to be added up front to pad out the pre-intermission period.

In the past few days, the San Francisco Symphony and the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra handled this situation in two different ways, both persuasive. For conductor Edwin Outwater and the San Francisco musicians, the solution was to go entirely with Beethoven. Thus Orion Weiss’s performance of the Fifth Piano Concerto was bracketed by the rarely heard Overture to King Stephen (one of Beethoven’s pieces of incidental music for the stage) and, at the back end, the always-thrilling Seventh Symphony. This was a sage if safe choice. Edward Gardner, conducting the Mostly Mozart orchestra at Lincoln Center, opted for a more adventurous approach, starting his program with a snippet of Mozart (the Masonic Funeral Music in C Minor, a beautiful thing I’d never heard live before) and ending with Schubert’s Fifth Symphony. This set up the Fourth Piano Concerto, performed by Jeremy Denk, as the clear jewel in the crown, while also extending our sense of how closely Beethoven’s work was connected with that of his eminent forerunners and followers—a connection that was duly cemented when Denk performed the lovely slow movement to Mozart’s K545 sonata as his encore.

Comparing great piano soloists is as much of a mug’s game as comparing great Beethoven concertos: it’s the proverbial apples and oranges, with distinct virtues and risks in each case. (And the virtues wouldn’t be so commendable, of course, if the high-wire risks of these performances weren’t so very much in evidence.) But someone has to be the mug, so I will volunteer.

Orion Weiss’s solo in the Fifth Concerto, which I heard last Thursday night, was an exemplary exercise in intensity. The piano and the huge orchestra seemed to be fully equal partners, as the individual player held his own against the vast group. There was perfect coordination between their two parts, but the deep communion—the sense of intimate accord—was between the pianist and his instrument. Moving his lips in a constant silent exhortation as he played, Weiss seemed to be crooning privately to the piano, urging it on to greater and greater accomplishments as he hunched over the keyboard. When he fell silent and the orchestra took up its role, he relaxed into a seemingly passive state, and then, when it was his turn again, he came back to life in a thrillingly demonic fashion.

In Denk’s case, on the other hand, the entire concerto, both the orchestral and the piano parts, seemed to be emanating from his body. In his non-playing moments, he watched Gardner attentively, occasionally twitching his shoulders or his head in sync with the orchestra’s most emphatic notes, remaining alive and attentive to every turn in the music. And when he played, he made it look almost easy: even though we could see and hear how complicated the solo passages were, Denk’s own relaxed and companionable relation to the piano transmitted itself to us. His rhythms and dynamics were much more eccentric and variable than Weiss’s, and this too suited the performance, for the Fourth Concerto is not so much a meeting of equal partners as an orchestral piece into which some kind of miraculous beast has been introduced—a winged horse, say, descending onto a racetrack of normal thoroughbreds. Jeremy Denk’s Pegasus was a wonder to behold, and I am exceedingly grateful to have been there on Saturday night to witness it.

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A Very Full Spring

Once again I have been so busy going to things that I haven’t had time to write about any of them. I will try to do a bit of catchup here, and I hope more about some of these singular events will emerge in the coming months.

Film: In April, Film Forum began running a series on the complete early works of Frederick Wiseman. Though I have seen most of these before, I couldn’t help returning once again to Titicut Follies, his first film and in some ways my favorite. (No, I think Welfare might be my favorite; no, actually, I think my very favorite is Near Death.  Well, you see the problem.) Titicut was as great as it ever was, and so was Wiseman’s brief commentary afterward: honest and funny and bitingly accurate. Earlier in the run, I had a chance to see Juvenile Court for the first time—another excellent early one, made in 1973, only a few years after Titicut Follies. Like all his greatest films, Juvenile Court was heartbreaking and infuriating in equal measure, with some people doing their best to solve insoluble problems and others doing their best to aggravate them. Not unlike today.

Dance: It was Alexei Ratmansky season at both the New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, and I took this opportunity to see as many dances as I could by the man who is shaping up to be the best modern ballet choreographer in the world. At NYCB, I saw Russian Seasons for the first time and liked it very much; the folk-pastiche score by Leonid Desyatnikov (a living Russian composer) allowed Ratmansky to display his folk-dance-related and narratively inclined strengths. Namouna, on the same program, struck me as much less successful than it had seemed the first time I saw it years ago, but a friend who knows Ratmansky’s work well told me that part of the problem lay in this year’s casting and the slower-than-molasses musical performance. Later, I had a chance to see his newest piece for this company, Odessa, based on a film score (again by Desyatnikov) for a 1990 movie about Isaac Babel’s Jewish gangster figures. I would have to see Odessa again to decide what I think about it.  It was certainly the best dance on its program that day, but the conflict between the notable Jewish strains in the music and the decidedly un-Jewish gangster figures (slicked-back hair, tango-like dances with their molls, and other Slaughter on Tenth Avenue qualities) gave me pause. And then, at the ABT gala, I watched the New York premiere of Ratmansky’s evening-length work Whipped Cream, set to a score by Richard Strauss. This was exactly what I expected it to be—a well-danced confection, trivial in the extreme, with no emotional content that I could discern—and I will be just as happy never to see it again. But that is what happens with a prolific choreographer who is trying out everything in all directions at once:  some dances work and some don’t. My highest praise, so far, is still reserved for his multiple Shostakovich pieces and, especially, his recent Serenade After Plato’s Symposium, set to Leonard Bernstein (and discussed in this summer’s issue of The Threepenny Review).

Music: This is always the richest category of my New York art experience, and this spring was no exception. I have already praised Carnegie Hall’s offerings in my preceding post, but I can’t help mentioning the single Carnegie weekend (April 28–30) when I managed to see both Marc-Andre Hamelin and Leif Ove Andsnes performing piano pieces for four hands (a great thrill, especially the two-piano score of Rite of Spring), and an amazing Ariodante from Harry Bicket’s English Concert. I thought nothing could be better than their Alcina from last year, but this performance might have been even more inspiring. Joyce Di Donato was typically terrific as the title character, but no one in the cast was less than superb, and the contralto playing the pants part of Polinesso, a woman named Sonia Prina, was so convincing in her role that my companion initially thought she actually was a man. The great things about these English Concert versions of Handel is that you get acting and singing without staging: the plots and characters come across richly and fully, but nobody is mucking up the works with expensive sets and outrageous costumes.

My spring adventure ended with two operas on a small scale:  Heartbeat Opera‘s productions of Madame Butterfly and Carmen, both performed at the tiniest, deepest auditorium on the Baruch College campus. If the singing and acting quality is high (as it was in this case), it is always fun to go to little operas in New York, but they can be hard to find; I would not have known to go to these had I not been alerted to Heartbeat’s existence by one of its co-directors, Louisa Proske, whose Così for Loft Opera I loved so much last fall. And indeed, her rethinking of Carmen in this spring’s Heartbeat program was so outstanding that I am still reflecting on its brilliance. But I don’t have time to go into details here, and you will just have to wait for my full account in the Fall 2017 issue of Threepenny if you want to hear what I really thought.



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Carnegie Hall

Sometimes I think that my main reason for spending a lot of time in New York is Carnegie Hall. The city boasts many other attractions: great dance performances, occasional good theater, several opera companies (including some very good small ones), excellent chamber-music concerts all over the place, and art museums and galleries that, for range and depth, triumph over those in just about any other metropolitan area. But for pure consistency of pleasure, night after night, nothing else can beat Carnegie Hall.

Carnegie offers a different program on every day of the week—sometimes two or three programs a night, given its multiple halls—so when I plot out my New York stay, I always start with the Carnegie listings, since if you miss one performance, you miss everything. This spring’s visit was planned in part around two Mitsuko Uchida performances: the solo concert she gave on Thursday, March 31, in Stern (the largest hall) and the joint concert with clarinetist and composer Jörg Widmann that took place in Zankel (the medium-size hall) on Sunday, April 2. A single piece—Widmann’s Sonatina facile, receiving its New York premiere—was repeated in both programs.

Uchida began her solo concert with Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C Major, a piece you have probably heard a thousand times (and may even have played yourself, if you took piano as a child). Miraculously, she made this old chestnut sound like something new as it shyly and delicately emerged from beneath her fingers. But it was her performance of Schumann’s Kreisleriana, which came next, that really knocked me out. I had heard the virtuosic Daniil Trifonov perform it with great brio at Carnegie last fall, and had imagined then that nothing could be better; now I realized that his rendering, while extraordinarily skilled (“Like a piano-player from outer space, come down to show us how it’s done” was how I thought about it at the time), lacked the human touch that Uchida gave it. In her hands, the Schumann had immense feeling—as did another difficult Schumann work, the Fantasy in C Major, which she gave us after the intermission. That C Major key pointed back toward the Mozart work with which she had started the program, but the real echo, loud and clear, came in the Widmann Sonatina, which actually borrowed some of the familiar Mozart phrases for its repeated theme. Hence the whole program felt, in a way, like one extended composition, with various hands contributing to the music—including, not least, Uchida’s.

The very different program she and her co-star offered on Sunday afternoon gave me a chance to reconsider the Widmann work in a different context. Placed after a Berg selection of Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano and Widmann’s own Fantasie for Solo Clarinet, both of which had a jazzy, appealingly erratic, brave-new-modernist quality, the Sonatina now sounded more like a player-piano run wild and less like a sedate imitation of the classics.  It’s great when a new piece can contain multitudes in this way, can be one thing on one night and another thing on another; it suggests that it will have legs. The two well-matched performers closed out the second half of the program with Schumann again — this time his Fantasiestücke for piano and clarinet. That was certainly a deep pleasure to hear, a fitting end to a great program. But I think the work that will stay with me the longest is the Brahms Clarinet Sonata in F Minor with which they opened. Companionable, occasionally plaintive, sometimes passionately warm, it was an eye-opener for many of us—a new aspect of Brahms for people who thought they had already taken his measure. In the hands of masters like these two, even the old pieces keep growing.

Less than a week later, I was back at Carnegie to hear my hometown orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony, under the inspired direction of Michael Tilson Thomas. (“How do the orchestra members know how to follow his strange gestures?” a New Yorker asked me afterward, and I didn’t even understand what he was talking about: to me, the way MTT conducts has become the watchable norm.) My reason for going to this concert was the presence on the program of Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto, written in 1959 for his friend Mstislav Rostropovich. I thought I appreciated this work already, but I had no idea. Whether it was due to the brilliant soloist (a Frenchman named Gautier Capuçon) or the excitement of performing in Carnegie before an enthusiastic and surprisingly young audience, the orchestra shone in a way I have rarely heard it do before. Every minute of the Shostakovich was galvanizing, and though I liked the Cage and Bartok works that surrounded it, they couldn’t compare with that high point in the middle of the program. It felt as if the cello had been invented for Shostakovich to use it at the center of his piece, and as if the rest of the orchestra had been developed for this precise purpose as well. That sense of profound inevitability cannot be laid wholly at Carnegie Hall’s door; surely the composer, the orchestra, and the cellist deserve some credit, too. But I can’t help feeling that the warm, welcoming, historically important, acoustically blessed auditorium helped create the experience that gave me so much joy.

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Song and Dance Man

The two operas directed by Mark Morris that appeared at BAM last weekend were as different from each other as they could be, and yet each bore the mark (so to speak) of their choreographer-director. What this means, among other things, is that I cannot imagine a better production of either.

First up in the program was Benjamin Britten’s Curlew River, an opera I had never seen before in this or any other form. Based on a Noh drama and using musical elements that seemed faintly Japanese-y, it is a strange yet affecting composition which (like so much of Britten’s work) seems to hinge on an evocation of the sound and feel of water. Unlike every other Morris-directed opera I’ve attended, this one did not employ the Mark Morris dancers; instead, the choreographer gave subtle, interesting movements to the all-male group of singers who populated the stage. He was particularly lucky in his choice of the main performer, the brilliant young tenor Isaiah Bell, who played the central part of the Madwoman with a gestural and vocal delicacy that made the whole opera come to life. But luck, of course, had very little to do with it. Morris has long had a good eye for new talent among singers, and here he had someone whose innate abilities combined with his own choreographic genius to produce a performance in which a man dressed as a man was entirely believable as a grieving mother.

Every decision Morris made here — keeping the instrumentalists onstage throughout, dressing the chorus and the main performers all in identical white shirts and trousers, using minimal sets, and having the “ghost child” who appears at the end not appear, but instead sing from offstage (in the voice of countertenor Daniel Moody)—worked to heighten the effect of this unusual Britten work. It was at once austere and moving, weird and familiar, and though its seventy minutes did not feel short, they all earned their keep.

Dido and Aeneas, which I have been watching steadily since a few years after its 1989 premiere, is in many ways the opposite of Curlew River. The dancers are onstage while the singers and musicians are in the pit (this time led by Morris himself, as conductor); the emotion is jagged and intense and sometimes even funny, and only occasionally (as at the end) beautifully austere; the performers are garbed all in black, not in white; and the music is Purcell’s melodious best, a far cry from the modernism of Britten. The piece may well be one of the greatest things Morris has ever done, and his fans never miss a chance to see it again. This time, with Stephanie Blythe singing the roles of Dido and Sorceress (and making them even more emotionally wrenching than they usually are), the music was outstanding—so gripping, indeed, that one almost wished one could see the singers (who also included the excellent baritone Douglas Williams and a host of other Morris regulars) as well as hearing them. But there was so much great dancing to watch onstage that perhaps we wouldn’t have had time to look at anything else.

I have to admit that I have trouble seeing anyone but Morris himself in the dual role of Dido and the Sorceress; he so inhabited that part, for so many years, that any later dancer risks looking like a replacement. A few of his successors (notably Amber Merkins and Bradon Macdonald) have been able to make the role their own with marvelous results, but otherwise the gap has been insurmountable. I found Laurel Lynch to be an able but not a compelling central figure; she possesses the grace and skill but not the power or charisma to take it over fully. But this had its plus sides, in that my eye for once was free to wander to the background, where I noticed, almost for the first time, how beautifully choreographed the rest of the company’s steps and gestures were. Lesley Garrison and Rita Donahue, as Dido’s two handmaidens, and Dallas McMurray and Noah Vinson, as the Sorceress’s two witches, were especially outstanding in their roles, but everyone in the dance group looked wonderful. Dido is an example of Morris’s musicality at its most intense: not a note goes by that doesn’t get its corresponding motion, and not a gesture occurs that doesn’t echo the sense and feel of the score. It is pure pleasure. Even Dido’s final unhappiness, tear-inducing as it is in this production, brings a strange kind of painful pleasure—maybe the most intense form of pleasure there is, to those of us watching and hearing it from a distance.

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Louis Kahn

I guess I should mention that my book on this great American architect, You Say To Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn, just appeared this past week from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.  I hope you will feel tempted to buy it at your local independent bookstore, but in case there are none left in your neighborhood, here is the Amazon link to the book. And here is a sampling of my favorite reviews thus far: from Booklist (a starred review); from the Washington Post; from Architect (the magazine of the American Institute of Architects); and from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

(Not to mention one from the good old New York Times.)

I would be very curious to hear from any of my regular blog-followers who happen to read the book, so please don’t hesitate to put your comments below, if you have any. For the next few weeks I will be touring for the book—a March 25 appearance at the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth, an April 6 event at the Philadelphia Free Library, and so on—but I hope not to let these activities blot out my usual performance-attending, concert-going, reading life.  In other words, I promise I will soon get back to reporting on the various cultural events taking place around me!


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