I was so busy attending things in October that I didn’t get a chance to write about any of them at the time. Now that we’re well into November, I’ve had an opportunity to reflect on the best of what I saw and heard. So here is my summary of what sticks in the mind.
October 3: A revisit to William Kentridge’s wonderful production of The Nose at the Metropolitan Opera. I’ve already written at length about this three-way collaboration between Kentridge, Shostakovich, and Gogol (please click on this link if you want the full story); for now, suffice it to say that the ninety-minute intermissionless opera, written when Shostakovich was twenty-two, was as rich and intense an experience as ever. If anything, it seemed to have more going on in it than I was able to notice at the premiere three years ago, in terms of background graphics and sideline acting. But I think that’s just because this time my attention was freed to focus on the peripheral details as well as the sweep of the whole. The minute it was over, I wished I could see it again. Later in the month, I was able to spend an evening at Benjamin Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was also a brilliant Met revival—the sets by Antony McDonald were stunningly original, the performances by Matthew Rose as Bottom and Iestyn Davies as Prospero were particularly outstanding, and Britten’s music went sublimely with Shakespeare’s text—but because the opera lasted more than four hours, I began to feel weary. It is not the Met’s fault or even Britten’s if I lack the stamina for the long haul, but it did make me grateful, retrospectively, for the fulfilling brevity of Kentridge’s Nose. (Perhaps the Met could consider having only one intermission instead of two in a long production like Tim Alberry’s Midsummer Night’s Dream; it would help.)
October 9: A concert at the Berlin Philharmonic, led by guest conductor Karl-Heinz Steffens. Whenever I go to Berlin (which I try to do at least once every calendar year), I time my visits in part to what’s on at the Berlin Philharmonic. This fall I was able to capture two great concerts—a lovely mixed program at the beginning of my stay, and Simon Rattle conducting the St. Matthew Passion at the end. I will be writing about the latter for the print edition of Threepenny, so here I will confine myself to the former, which featured Beethoven’s Leonore overture, two pieces by Schubert (the Rosamunde overture and the Third Symphony), and two by the mid-twentieth-century composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann—about whom, embarrassingly, I was completely ignorant. His Symphony in One Movement was an excitingly modernist piece; his Canto di Speranza (an astonishing work that included virtuosic playing, at times in near silence, by the masterful cellist Ludwig Quandt) was alone worth the price of admission. And after it we had the marvelous Schubert Third, which the Berlin Phil executed superbly. Whenever I am back in this acoustically perfect, warmly intimate hall, listening to these incredibly talented, mutually attuned musicians, I feel I have arrived at home again—the kind of home one can never spring from in real life, but can only invent as one ages.
October 20 and 21: Bernard Haitink conducting the London Symphony Orchestra as part of the Great Performers series at Lincoln Center. I got back to New York from Berlin just in time for this treat: two concerts featuring Mozart concertos paired with Shostakovich symphonies. The Mozarts were more than fine (Emanuel Ax was the soloist), but for me it was the two Shostakovich performances that stood out. On the Sunday afternoon, the orchestra played the Fourth Symphony—the first Shostakovich I ever heard, and still my favorite after all these years. About this symphony (which was yanked from its planned 1936 premiere and not performed until 1961, eight years after Stalin’s death) Shostakovich reportedly said to a friend: “You ask if I would have been different without ‘Party guidance’? Yes, almost certainly. No doubt the line I was pursuing when I wrote the Fourth Symphony would have been stronger and sharper in my work. I would have displayed more brilliance, used more sarcasm, I could have revealed my ideas more openly instead of resorting to camouflage.” I’m not sure sarcasm is what I hear in the blaring trumpets and cymbal-crashes of this nearly hour-long symphony, but I do hear a youthful energy, a willingness to invent new things at every moment, an evident pleasure mixed with equally evident pain, that is pretty much absent from the later work. Hearing it again always invigorates me and saddens me at the same time. And though on Monday night the London Symphony did a wonderful job on Shostakovich’s final symphony, the Fifteenth, I couldn’t help hearing it as a last gasp, a faintly struggling echo, of what the young Russian genius had been capable of in his youth. For Shostakovich, Rossini represented a composer who had “lived too long,” outlasting his talent and writing nothing for the last thirty years of his life; perhaps that’s why he inserted so many echoes of the William Tell Overture in his own Symphony No. 15.
October 23: A visit to the library designed by Louis Kahn at Phillips Exeter Academy. I will be writing about Kahn at length later, too (in fact, I am working on a book about him right now), but I can’t let this occasion go without mentioning how awestruck I was by his library at Exeter. It is possibly his most exciting building I’ve seen to date, and it has all the usual Kahn qualities: a relatively subdued modernism when seen from the outside (though with strange archaic features at the roofline, where empty windows in the brickwork make you feel you might be looking at a Roman ruin); a thrillingly suspenseful entrance, where you start in a low-ceilinged room on the ground level, go up a gorgeously enticing flight of curved travertine stairs, and end up in a huge but nonetheless coherently graspable atrium that rises the full four stories of the building; an engaging geometry of circles, squares, and triangles, created out of concrete, wood, and empty air; a miraculous use of natural light; and, above all, a feeling that you—the individual visitor, the human actor at the center of this—have been elevated rather than diminished by all this grandeur around you.
October 30: Andras Schiff performing Bach at Carnegie Hall. Can there be anything better than this? Schiff is the kind of performer who becomes a favorite, I think, only after you have heard him live. His recordings are great, but you only (or at least I only) perceive how great they are after you’ve seen the quiet modesty of the man, the way he makes it through a musical endurance test—in this case, all six Partitas—without visible effort, without pedals, without a score, without anything except his own fingers directly transmitting the Bach to us, as if the music were emerging from him on the spot, alive and new and beautifully eternal. He rearranged the order of the Partitas to give a particular shape to the evening: Five, Three, One, and Two before the intermission, then the longer and more complicated Four and finally Six after. Each piece felt marvelous in a different way, and rather than getting tired, we in the audience became increasingly animated as the evening progressed: it was as if we were being fed a delightfully rich meal that had no fat in it, so we could just keep gobbling it down for as long as the dishes continued to appear. At the end, after four rounds of voluminous applause (not to mention a few hearty shouts of approval), he gave us dessert: a tiny, delicate encore consistenting of one of the Two-Part Inventions. It felt like generosity personified.