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8 January 2006 Never have I seen the lobby of Carnegie Hall in such a tumult. At 2:45, there were people streaming through in almost alarming volume. The spacious pavement outside the doors was also packed. Lots of people were trying to buy tickets, which wasn't a surprise, because this year's MET Orchestra series was going to feature soprano Renée Fleming. But the sheer crowdedness was unnerving. Happily, there weren't quite so many people pushing through the doors when Ms NOLA (taking Kathleen's place yesterday afternoon) arrived at last.

I still can't explain the excitement. I'll have to think about it for a while.

It was, as these things always are, a curious program. It sort of made sense if you squinted and looked at it sideways, but that was the printed program. The music itself was miscellaneous. Tchaikovsky: Romeo & Juliet followed by the Letter Scene from Eugene Onegin. Interval. Berg's Altenberg Lieder. The Overture and Venusberg Music from Wagner's Tannhàuser. Finally, the moonlight music and final scene from Capriccio. Ms Fleming's glorious voice and alluring figure did not, in the end, do much to unify this collection. The Berg seemed willful, programmed to make the point that the MET Orchestra programs modern, difficult music. I'll come back to that proposition, but even if it were valid, the work still required a musicality, as it were, totally incompatible with that required of the singer for the Tchaikovsky at the beginning and the Strauss at the end. Nor was the Wagner unproblematic. Played by itself, the Overture to Tannhàuser would have done a fine job of restoring the tonality sent packing by the Altenberg Lieder. But that's not what we got. What we got was the rather untheatrical concoction that was premiered by the Vienna Wager Society in 1872. Just about where the original overture of 1845 ends, the Venusberg Music, written when Wagner was composing on a different planet altogether, screeched in like the IRT at Grand Central. Strauss's valedictory work for the stage, Capriccio, represents a sublimation of the wild excitement that Wagner unleashed in his later operas - and in the Venusberg Music. The chromatic, castanet-clicking orgy didn't fit.

I write all of this down because it is the reason why I'm considering dropping this very expensive subscription. One concert after another amounts to less - sometimes much less - than the sum of its parts. James Levine seems to have confused a concert program with a Christmas gift list, ticking off the goodies in no particular order. Sometimes - as in a concert from the 2002-3 season - the sheer excess of goodies is exhausting, literally deafening. (I'm speaking of combining Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante K 364, Brahms's Double Concerto, and Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto - Yikes! One begged for something modest.) A concert is inescapably a context.

Ms Fleming was superb. Mr Levine drowned her out twice in the Letter Scene, but he did it the larger-voiced Olga Borodina as well a while back. It didn't happen again. The Tchaikovsky and the Strauss allowed the soprano to show the many facets of her wonderful voice. It's a creamy voice - that's what everybody says - but it's also darker than one recalls; its darkness is always a surprise. Lovely at the top and solid at the bottom, Renée Fleming is in total command of a wonderful instrument. Peter Gelb, the new manager of the Metropolitan Opera, ought to do something quick rescheduling and so as to get her onstage as the Countess in Capriccio as soon as possible - preferably yesterday. She demonstrated her readiness to interpret this part by simply acting it right there in front of us. The conceit of the final scene of Capriccio is that the solitary Countess, who doesn't know her own mind, is consulting her reflection in a mirror - a mirror that we're on the other side of. And it's the most natural thing in the world. Capriccio is nothing if not "meta." It's got the funniest last line in opera. The Countess has just asked herself for an ending to an opera that her friends propose to write (and that may be the opera that we are watching) - an ending that is not trivial. Enter the butler: "Dinner is served, my lady." Cracks me up every time, despite the tears running down my cheeks.

Ms Fleming's Countess is, I daresay, already a fully-realized character. She is not a woman so transfixed by the ineffable glory of artistic creation that she can hardly breathe. That's the sort of Countess I'm used to, and it's probably the only Countess that a middle-aged soprano wearing plus-sizes ought to attempt. Ms Fleming is, not to nitpick, gorgeous, and her Countess is as passionately attracted to the composer and the poet as they are to her. But taking up with one means losing the other - a typical quandary, no? (That the opera is a meta-argument about the primacy of music over text in opera is, again, the most natural thing in the world.) When this Countess scolds herself for risking "burning between two fires," she does not sound like a Valkyrie, but rather like someone who finds the prospect interesting.

My familiarity with Capriccio is fully matched by my ignorance of Eugene Onegin, so I cannot pronounce upon Ms Fleming's performance of the Letter Scene, except that, in retrospect, it fully articulated the difference between a young girl in love and a youngish widow. To this I can only add that her caressing way with the phrase introduced at "Byt' mozhet, eta fsyo pustoye" seemed altogether her own. And I suppose that I ought to note that, in the hook-ish sequence of descending intervals rung by the oboe, the flute, the clarinet, and the horn, the horn burped, and not just once.

It is quite possible that I had never heard "Romeo & Juliet" in concert before yesterday. It's exactly the sort of chestnut that conductors avoided when I was growing up; they gave Tchaikovsky generally a pretty wide berth. That "Romeo & Juliet" is a beautifully scored, well-put-together tone poem must have been demonstrated to any doubters in the audience. If it hadn't deserved the attentions of the mighty MET, the fact would have shown like cheap sharkskin. Mr Levine's serious reading actually made me think of the famous lovers, and of how well Tchaikovsky captures both their bright but ignorant youth and the inexorable stupidity of tribal feuds.

Alban Berg wrote his settings of five poems - "Picture Postcard Texts" - by Peter Altenberg in 1912. The music may be difficult, but it is no longer modern in any sense of the word. It is, among other things, no substitute for works by living composers. Without making a list, I'd like to point James Levine to the skill with which Orpheus introduces music of the twentieth century into its programs. That said, I can well understand the appeal of Berg for the conductor of a precision-tuned orchestra. His scoring is lusciously meticulous* - and occasionally campy. But then, so is Altenberg's expressionist verse. "Here is peace. Here I can weep my eyes dry about everything. ... Here the snow drops quietly into pools of water." (Yes, Wasserlachen.) The word for Renée Fleming's performance was "exact."

*Forgive me, Fowler.

29 January: For once, a MET Orchestra program with some coherence. The orchestra performed three classics of twentieth-century brutalism. The Suite from the ballet The Miraculous Mandarin, by Béla Bartòk, Arnold Schoenberg's Erwartung, and Le sacre du printemps, perhaps the most remarkable thing that Igor Stravinsky ever wrote. James Levine directed magnificent performances that could have been improved only if he had not drowned out soprano Anja Silja's valiant attempt at Schoenberg's grueling score.

Both the Bartòk and the Schoenberg reminded me of Richard Strauss's first successful operas, Salome and Elektra. The Miraculous Mandarin actually hints at Salome's veil dance, while the intensely neurotic "anticipation" of Erwartung's sole character (it is a "monodrama") suggests a truly unhinged Klytemnästra. Both works seem determined on some level to explode the comforts of Strauss's attenuated tonality, and their efforts meet with success.

Ten years or so ago, Valery Gergiev led the New York Philharmonic in a performance of Le sacre du printemps that amounted to a mugging - which I mean as a compliment. We were badly shaken when it was over. Mr Levine's way with the ballet was a tad more elevated but just as terrifying. All I could think, as we sat there in Carnegie Hall, the musicians arrayed before us in furious concentration upon tricky rhythms and virtuoso passage-work, was how surpassingly wonderful it is to hear a group of highly-trained and coordinated professionals fill a hall with ecstatic but utterly primitive abandon. Le sacre is wild, but it is also lucid and articulate. The high point for me was the Action rituelle des ancêtres, which comes right before the final sacrificial dance; our excellent view of the percussion section only amplified the weirdness.

12 May 2006 A good time was had by all at the last of this season's MET Orchestra concerts. The afternoon's program consisted of a mini opera gala bracketed by two pleasing orchestral works. The singers were soprano Erika Sunnegårdh, tenor Ben Heppner, and bass René Pape. Ms Sunnegårdh stepped in for an ailing Karita Mattila last month in performances of Fidelio at the Met, but it took another illness to bring her to Carnegie Hall on Sunday: James Levine's. When James Conlon took over the direction of the concert, he scrapped Mr Levine's program, which was to have followed Charles Wuorinen's Theologoumenon with Brahms's First. Mr Conlon kept Mozart's Linz Symphony as an opener, ended the program with Tchaikovsky's Francesca da Rimini, and filled the middle with an unusual but thoroughly satisfying assortment of vocal showstoppers.

First, Ms Sunnegårdh gave us Elettra's mad scene from Idomeneo. This shows Mozart about halfway between his juvenile operatic style and that of his mature triumphs. As mad scenes go, "D'Oreste, d'Aiace" must be an uncomfortable one to sing; it isn't easy to listen to. In fact, I would call it shrill. If I didn't know it, I'd have made the mistake of attributing this shrillness to the singer. Ms Sunnegård proved herself an agile singer with a secure top but a somewhat diminished lower voice. She has the right sound for a dramatic soprano, but I'm not sure that I would find it suitable for the comedies of Mozart and Strauss. We shall see. Her gown was very becoming, and it was a sign of the times that such a lean, almost girlish figure could produce such rich volumes. The singer of today, it would seem, must spend as much time at the gym as in the practice room. That goes double for Mr Pape, who is tall but extremely slim. I'd like to see his Don Giovanni sometime; physically as well as vocally, he is a nice guy with Lothario possibilities. He might as well have been Don Giovanni, too, singing Leoporello's "Catalogue" Aria. Even without surtitles, he had the audience laughing in no time. And the sound! I've heard Mr Pape in Carnegie Hall before, but I was truly surprised by the richness of his volumes, which echoed in the hall with a sort of ping. The orchestra seemed to be in another room when he sang at full voice. It was very much a wow. The Mozarts were followed by a snippet from the end of Act I of Die Walküre, in which Ms Sunnegårdh was joined by Mr Heppner. The point of this exercise was to let the tenor show off his helden without taxing his chords; he is, after all, in the middle of a run of Parsifals at the Met.

After the interval, Mr Pape wowed us all over again with "O tu, Palermo" from I Vespri Siciliani. I think that this is my favorite bit for the male voice in all of Verdi. It is almost corny, but not quite. Mr Pape was very impressive, but I have to admit that he hadn't quite got the garlicky portamento of, say, Ruggiero Raimondi, who recorded the opera with Mr Levine a thousand years ago (1973). I am not complaining. Mr Heppner stepped out next to sign "Nium mi tema," the music that ends Otello. This is another Verdi altogether, and I'm not sure that excerpting it ought to be allowed, because it is highly referential to earlier motifs and has little or no stand-alone value. Given the lack of context, Mr Heppner managed to be heartbreaking.

I listened to Ms Sunnegårdh's performance of "In questa reggia" - the killer narrative from Puccini's Turandot - with my mouth agape. I kept expecting her to fail, and she never did. Nor was she drowned out. It seemed impossible. Wearing a different dress, she managed to look more petite than before, and her blonde bob made her look sweet enough to be something that Turandot would eat three of for breakfast. (In fact, and from a distance, she resembles, but does not at all sound like, Barbara Bonney; see what I mean?) There was something wonderfully quiet about the performance, though. It wasn't aural quiet, but rather the austere silence of singing in Carnegie Hall, with no sets and no costumes and no opera fans. The most transfixing opera experience that I have ever had was the concert performance of Tristan und Isolde that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra gave at Carnegie several years ago, under Daniel Barenboim and with Waltraud Meier, who, I'm told, is currently eating up the scenery as Kundry in Parsifal. (In those scenes that her character plays with Gurnemanz, Mr Pape's, she's virtually mute, but she has a great time with Mr Heppner.) I should very much like to see a Lohengrin with Ms Sunnegårdh and Ms Meier as Elsa and Ortrud, respectively.

For me, Francesca da Riminia is first and foremost the music that makes the Russian roulette scene, in Preston Sturges's immortal Unfaithfully Yours, truly great fun. That's unfair to Tchaikovsky's tone poem, of course, and I tried to banish it from my consciousness during the MET Orchestra's sterling performance. And I succeeded. Alfred Newman was the "musical adviser" to the film, and he knew which parts to exploit and which to drop; hearing the dropped parts - the entire lyrical middle of the piece - was very pleasant. I thought about Tchaikovsky, and of course of Tchaikovsky's conducting the world premiere of the Nutcracker Suite at Carnegie Hall in 1890. To me, hearing Tchaikovsky at Carnegie Hall is a seriously elemental experience; I shall touch the word "autochthonous." What is Manhattan if not the new homeland of transplanted Russians? It's a pity that Tchaikovsky himself didn't understand this, and relocate to Chelsea, instead of offing himself to avoid a homosexual scandal. As he does not appear to have been inordinately anti-Semitic, he would have fit right in. He'd have lived into the Thirties.

As for the Linz that opened the concert - the 36th Symphony that Mozart wrote at top speed to gratify his aristocratic host on a stopover during a trip from Vienna to Salzburg (or was it the other way round) - it was treated, as it ought to be, as one of Mozart's great C-major works. As every piano student knows, C is the key without any of the black keys - so leave it to Mozart to resort to C whenever he wanted to wander the furthest afield. Trumpets are almost always on hand to strike an outgoing, somewhat triumphal mood. I think that the Linz is the most introverted of this group of compositions, but that may be because I love the Andante, with all the repeats. Those were the only repeats that Mr Conlon elected not to take, but I forgave him, because he made the music as absolute as it could be. I may, on the other hand, call the Linz Mozart's most introspective composition in C because it is essentially a symphony for strings, with woodwind backup, not color, and only the trumpet to remind us of the key. I may love this symphony, finally, because for a long time I couldn't afford to buy Bruno Walter's boxed set.

The friend who has been buying my tickets, as an extension of his own subscription, has decided not to renew. He has been going to MET Orchestra concerts for fifteen years, but they've become extraordinarily expensive and somewhat recondite. He also has many other subscriptions. I'm thinking that I'm going to have to begin my own subscription. Despite everything - meaning James Levine's absence - this was yet another extraordinary MET Orchestra concert. As a music lover who prizes quality over quantity, I can't think of a more efficient way to hear a big orchestra do fantastic things. We'll see. (May 2006)

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