The first sentence of Igor Levit’s bio says that he is “one of the most relevant pianists of his generation.” What does that mean? I think it means that the bio-writer regards Levit as cool. It may also mean that Levit has a taste for politics. In any event, “relevant” is one of the great nonsense words of this age.
Relevant, irrelevant, or neither, Levit came to Zankel Hall to play a recital. He began with Shostakovich and ended with Beethoven. In between came Rzewski—Frederic Rzewski, an American born in 1938. From what I can glean, he pronounces his name “Zhev-ski.” He had a gold-plated education, studying at the Phillips Academy, Harvard, and Princeton. Among his composition teachers were Piston, Sessions, and Babbitt. Rzewski has spent most of his career in Europe.
According to our program notes at Zankel Hall, Rzewski “is often tagged as a political composer.” Now why would that be? What are the taggers thinking? Rzewski has written pieces about Attica Prison, mill workers, war, and more. His magnum opus is The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, a set of variations for piano. Its theme is the famous song of the Chilean Left. In an article about the work last year, a writer for the New York Times said it “endows leftist politics with irresistible glamour and force.” As the work unfolds, Rzewski quotes or alludes to songs other than the Chilean one. For instance, there is “Solidarity Song,” words by Brecht, music by Eisler.
Eisler, by the way, composed the national anthem of East Germany, or the “German Democratic Republic,” as the Communists styled it.
Igor Levit has recorded The People United Will Never Be Defeated! alongside the Goldberg Variations (Bach) and the Diabelli Variations (Beethoven). At Zankel Hall, he played a new Rzewski work, Dreams II. It comprises the last four pieces of an eight-piece work whose general title is Dreams. In his Dreams, Rzewski was inspired by a 1990 Kurosawa film, also called Dreams. The four pieces of Dreams II are “Bells,” “Fireflies,” “Ruins,” and “Wake Up.”
Composers have given us many pieces about bells, and one of those composers is Rachmaninoff, who wrote The Bells, a choral symphony. Debussy gave us Cloches à travers les feuilles; Ravel gave us La vallée des cloches. Rzewski’s “Bells” is very belly indeed. Each note has its purpose, and each is placed just so. There is an earnestness about “Bells,” even a gravity. The idiom is something like “tonal-sounding atonality,” to borrow a phrase from Lorin Maazel. As I listened to the piece, I thought it sounded Japanese. Is that because, in the program notes, I had just read about the connection between Rzewski’s Dreams and Kurosawa’s?
You have to watch these outside influences, these extra-musical influences. Honestly, you think La mer, the Debussy composition, is about the sea because the title and the movement headings tell you so. Otherwise . . .
Rzewski’s fourth piece, as you know, is “Wake Up,” but the second one, “Fireflies,” is a wake-up too. It is a scherzo movement, waking you up after “Bells.” Rzewski’s fireflies are squirmy little things, not dissimilar to Rimsky-Korsakov’s bee. They may also put you in mind of a Scriabin étude (Op. 42, No. 3, in F-sharp major). The third piece, “Ruins,” begins with Bachian counterpoint. Actually, I thought of Shostakovich, channeling Bach. (Igor Levit began his recital with some preludes and fugues of Shostakovich.) “Ruins” gets grand, very grand, and goes on and on, grandly. Is this visionary or merely undisciplined? I’m inclined toward the latter. Enjoyably, the fireflies make a brief return, if I heard correctly.
Incidentally, Rzewski, in addition to being a composer, is a fine pianist, a very fine pianist.
The fourth and final piece begins with “disarming simplicity,” as music-writers like to say. It brings us a Woody Guthrie song for children, “Wake Up.” But I soon heard something—something exciting—reminiscent of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition: specifically, the music that builds up to “The Great Gate of Kiev.” In the rest of his “Wake Up,” Rzewski is well-nigh Lisztian, calling on virtuosity and imagination, and also suggesting improvisation.
To a degree, I enjoyed Dreams II, and Rzewski is obviously a formidable composer. But I had this thought: “I bet it was more enjoyable to write these pieces—and that it is more enjoyable to play them—than it is to listen to them.” Let me tell you a story.
I know of a conductor who spends a lot of time on new music. He enjoys getting under the hood of the music, figuring out its problems, and then leading an orchestra in it. Someone asked him, “But do you like it? Do you like the music?” The conductor answered, “Well, it’s not like I’d like to sit out in the audience and listen to it.”
Taking some bows with Igor Levit was the composer himself, Frederic Rzewski. Levit was wearing a smart hanky in his breast pocket, and Rzewski seemed to tease him about it, charmingly. Too bourgeois for the composer? Incidentally, Rzewski, in addition to being a composer, is a fine pianist, a very fine pianist. So is Levit. Some people call him a great pianist. After intermission, in the Diabelli Variations, he proved it.
At the Metropolitan Opera, they staged a new production of Rusalka, Dvo?ák’s opera. The production is that of Mary Zimmerman, who also did a Sonnambula (Bellini) for the Met. I was critical of that production. And I had a worry about Zimmerman’s Rusalka: would she let the opera be the fairy tale it is? To be sure, it’s a tale laced with darkness, as fairy tales often are, but it’s still a fairy tale, and many modern directors are loath to let it be. Zimmerman, I’m happy to report, lets it be.
There are many aspects I could mention, but I will mention just three: Ježibaba, the witch, has something like a medicine cabinet resembling Dulcamara’s (in Donizetti’s Elixir of Love). She also has sidekicks, animals, who seem out of The Nutcracker, or maybe The Sleeping Beauty. Then there is the dance at the Prince’s castle: an exhilarating swirl of orange, red, and yellow. I wanted it immediately encored.
Outstanding on the night I attended was the orchestra, and the conductor who led it, Sir Mark Elder. The beginning, often botched, was unbotched. The ensuing pages had their rightful anticipation—a tense anticipation. The dance that follows was both “ethnic” and “classical,” if I may put it that way. All night, Sir Mark was alive to the subtleties of Dvo?ák’s score, and he never lost sight of the big picture, either. Furthermore, he had a sense of texture, not letting the orchestra get too heavy.
Rusalka needs a Rusalka, a soprano, and the Met’s was Kristine Opolais.
Rusalka can resemble a harp concerto, and the Met’s Emmanuel Ceysson was excellent. The horns performed manfully, and, speaking of horns, how about Richard Dallessio, who played the English horn? Dallessio, too, was excellent. (This is the instrument that Dvo?ák features in another of his pieces, the “New World” Symphony, with its “Goin’ Home” slow movement.) Even the pizzicatos were together, which you don’t really pay for.
In addition to a stage director, conductor, and orchestra, Rusalka needs a Rusalka, a soprano, and the Met’s was Krist?ne Opolais. She looked beautiful and she sang intelligently. Her aria, the “Song to the Moon,” needs beauty, considerable and melting beauty. That, Opolais could not provide, but she sang the aria intelligently, as she sang everything else. Plus, she infused her role with more than the usual drama.
Rusalka’s father, Vodník, was portrayed by Eric Owens, who was glowing and moving. Also—this is a bit of an intangible—he and Opolais sounded like father and daughter. Brandon Jovanovich was the Prince, and he sang handsomely. (He also looked a bit like Kevin Bacon, from my seat.) But he also had trouble with pitch and stiffened on high notes.
Ježibaba was taken by Jamie Barton, who looked and acted a treat. Then too, she sang well, as she can hardly help doing. But she sounded to me like a bel canto mezzo, essentially, lacking the heft for a truly effective Ježibaba. The brief role of the Foreign Princess was taken by Katarina Dalayman, the veteran soprano, who poured forth operatic power. I sat up straighter.
I will pay this performance a very high tribute: it made me appreciate Rusalka more than ever. Rusalka is more than a pleasant opera with a hit number (the moon thing). On this night, it sounded like a masterpiece.
On a Friday morning, Herbert Blomstedt guest-conducted the New York Philharmonic. The program was two Beethoven symphonies: the Eighth and the Seventh, in that order. It must be that order, for the Seventh is the grander, longer symphony—more of a finish. The Eighth is more the curtain-raiser. On this morning, David Geffen Hall was packed to the gills. “Why?” I asked a music professional. “People like Beethoven,” came the answer. Oh, yes. Go figure.
Blomstedt likes Beethoven a lot, and always has. I interviewed him earlier in the week. He remembers the first time he heard a Beethoven symphony. It was when he was a boy in Sweden. (The conductor was born in 1927.) A concert featured the Fifth. The work made a great impact on Blomstedt. (Again, go figure.) Doing the conducting was his violin teacher, who made a remark about the Scherzo’s trio—a remark that Blomstedt has never forgotten, and that I won’t either: “It must sound like when a lion brushes his teeth.”
You should have seen Blomstedt make brushing motions, and singing the trio at the same time.
The Seventh and Eighth symphonies are “twins,” Blomstedt said. They were composed one after the other: Op. 92 and Op. 93. In Beethoven’s day, the Seventh was more popular, even as it is now. Beethoven resented this, according to Blomstedt. Someone asked the composer, “Why is the Seventh more popular?” “Because the Eighth is better!” Beethoven replied. The composer liked to provoke, as Blomstedt says.
The Eighth is one of the happiest, most exuberant works of music in the entire repertory. It is Beethoven in his legendary “unbuttoned” mood. But the final movement has an ambivalence, I think: is it truly happy or is it tinged with anger? About the Seventh, everyone quotes Wagner’s remark: this symphony is the “apotheosis of the dance.” Everyone quotes it because it’s so apt.
In my discussion with Blomstedt, I offered the opinion that the second movement, that beloved Allegretto, must not be too slow. Yes, he said. “When things get popular, they tend to get slower and slower.” The Allegretto is “not a funeral march,” he continued, but “a procession.”
Every moment, of each symphony, had absolute integrity.
He conducted the Beethoven symphonies with his usual qualities: honesty and integrity. The final movement of the Eighth did not have the quivering excitement I sometimes like, and neither did the final movement of the Seventh. But every movement, of each symphony, had absolute integrity. This is not especially common in music-making, or in life.
Despite some rough edges, the Philharmonic played very well under Blomstedt’s baton—or under his hands, I should say. Blomstedt is a batonless conductor, like Karajan, Masur, and others we could name.
He met Furtwängler when he was a kid. The maestro had come to Gothenburg. Young Blomstedt asked for his autograph. “It was the only autograph I’ve ever asked for in my life. And I still have it.”
The week after the Beethoven concert, the Philharmonic played a program that began with a new work: a violin concerto by Lera Auerbach. She was born in Russia—the Soviet Union—in 1973. She came to America in 1991 and studied at Juilliard. More than a composer, she is a painter, a sculptor, and a poet. Thinking of this versatility, I thought of Benvenuto Cellini, the subject of a Berlioz opera—who was a goldsmith, a sculptor, a soldier, a musician, a writer . . .
Auerbach’s new violin concerto is her fourth. It has a name, NYx: Fractured Dreams. Nyx is the Greek goddess of the night. Okay, but why spell it “NYx”? Auerbach’s dreams have to do with New York, so she has brought out the city’s initials, and perhaps added an X factor. We have already heard about Frederic Rzewski’s dreams (inspired by Kurosawa). Auerbach has her own.
Her concerto is “an experiment in fragmentation, structured as thirteen interconnected, fractured dreams,” she writes in a program note. She has resorted to Italian for this work, and I’m not sure why. What I mean is, the thirteen dreams are labeled “Sogno 1,” “Sogno 2,” and so on. (Sogno is the Italian word for dream.) The movement headings—dream headings?—are also in Italian. The first five are “Libero” (Free), “Pesante” (Heavy), “Tragico,” “Nostalgico,” and—this is a nice one—“Scherzo meccanico,” a mechanical scherzo.
What’s more, Auerbach has written a poem to accompany her concerto—in English. I will quote the poem as if it were prose: “Feeling suspicious of all early-risers, I’m secretly envious of their routines, the predictability of their inner clocks. My own clock was broken long ago; I live in perpetual homemade jet lag, in the twilight time.” Those are lovely sentences. And I think of an artist friend of mine who says, “I work 9 to 5: 9 PM to 5 AM.”
I was looking forward to hearing this new work. (That is not a sentence I write very often.) But anticipation, at least mine, was killed when the conductor, Alan Gilbert, and the composer, Auerbach, walked onto the stage with microphones. Before any music, there had to be talking. Gilbert said that Auerbach was a “wonderful composer” and that her new work was “extremely expressive and dramatic.” Couldn’t we have heard that for ourselves, or judged for ourselves? Did we have to be steered? Auerbach then gave what I would call a speech, and it seemed memorized. She said nothing that wasn’t in the program notes already.
Auerbach uses the orchestra both sparingly and interestingly. There are solo moments for unusual instruments.
Eventually, the piece began. It starts out with the violin alone. And the music sounds Appalachian, I swear. At least it does to my American ear. Then comes the tramp of boots. Further on, there is creepy, ghoulish, Halloweeny music. Then some folk dancing, and what may be a klezmer band. Auerbach uses the orchestra both sparingly and interestingly. There are solo moments for unusual instruments. At some point—in some dream—those tramping boots come back. And the concerto ends wispily, vanishingly.
I found it all too much—too long and a bit tedious—but then, when don’t I? And anyone can recognize that Auerbach is a serious talent. The violin soloist, Leonidas Kavakos, played with impressive concentration and commitment. On the podium, Gilbert evidenced his usual meticulousness and sympathy. Contemporary composers have no better friend.
Years ago, I made a comment about Richard Strauss in his Elektra. Strauss is generally regarded to have been highly normal, for an artist, and especially for a great one. But his dreams, like Klytämnestra’s, must have been something. Anyway, that was my comment. And Auerbach’s dreams must be something too, though less horrible, I trust.
In my February chronicle, I hailed Vittorio Grigolo, the Italian tenor, who had sung Roméo (in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette). He has now sung another French role, Werther (in the Massenet opera of the same name), and I must hail him again. He sang with emotion, accuracy, understanding, and great beauty of sound. He took long, long breaths. And he was loud—a loud lyric. Moreover, he did as much as you can do with the character, whom I regard as one of the least likable in all of opera. (That’s the subject of another piece.)
Grigolo, in my opinion, is the kind of singer you tell your grandchildren about. I don’t believe that he will be widely recognized as great while he is still working. But once he is retired or dead, yes. Birgit Nilsson used to say, “I never got such good reviews as when I retired.” Because, before, it was, “Not as good as Leider. Not as good as Flagstad.” Then, some other Wagnerian soprano got, “Not as good as Nilsson.”
Grigolo’s Charlotte was Isabel Leonard, the American mezzo-soprano. She was nearly ideal, in voice, execution, dramatic appeal—everything. Also, let’s face it: Grigolo and Leonard look like a million bucks. (Well, Isabel looks like two million.) Looks are much prized in opera, but, if you can sing the way these two can, they are almost incidental.
Werther was conducted by Edward Gardner—have I mentioned that this was at the Met?—and I will say about the performance what I said about the earlier Rusalka: I left the house with a greater-than-ever appreciation of the work. But I have this criticism of Massenet: I think Werther takes too damn long to die, and I say this not because I dislike the character. By the way, the Met’s production, directed by Sir Richard Eyre, adds a twist: when Werther (finally) expires, Charlotte looks at the murder weapon—the self-murder weapon—and contemplates turning it on herself.
Let me think about that . . .
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 8, on page 71
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