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.