As is traditional at New York concerts, a composer walked onto the stage holding a microphone, to talk about the piece that the audience was about to hear—a piece of his own composing, of course. This talk is now more traditional than an overture to an opera.
The concert was part of the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center. On the stage was the festival’s own orchestra, abbreviated to mmfo. The composer was David Lang, an American who teaches at Yale. In 1987, he co-founded Bang on a Can, a contemporary-music collective.
Lang noted that the Mostly Mozart Festival seldom includes contemporary music. Indirectly, he chided them for this, while thanking them, profusely, for programming a piece of his. The piece in question is a concerto for percussion and orchestra, written in 2013. It has at least three hallmarks of contemporary music: The piece has a title in small letters, only. (Lang calls his piece man made.) It is a concerto in one movement. (Pauses between movements are scarce these days.) And it has, of course, lots of percussion.
For years, I’ve said, “Today’s music has more pots and pans than Williams-Sonoma.” At least the point of this concerto is percussion. Is banging on cans, so to speak.
The point of this concerto is percussion. Is banging on cans, so to speak.
Microphone in hand, Lang provided information that was in the evening’s program notes. For example, he said that he had written the concerto for Sō Percussion, a four-man ensemble in New York. This ensemble was on hand with the mmfo. Lang said that he very much hoped that the audience would enjoy the concerto. He engaged in some special pleading, I think—but charmingly.
Sō Percussion began the concerto by sitting on chairs, four across, and breaking twigs. They broke their own individual piles of twigs, one by one. I thought of the famous (and unfair) jibe of Mark Twain, who said that James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales ought to be called The Broken Twig Series (because characters keep stepping on twigs as they skulk about the forest). Sō Percussion’s movements were in coordination, like Chanticleer opening and closing their books, or blowing out their candles.
At some point, Sō Percussion was joined by the percussion in the orchestra. Rhythms were hesitant—balky. Later, the soloists stood up and applied mallets to wine bottles. The resulting sounds were like wind chimes, to my ear.
Further along in his piece, Lang has strings make declamatory statements. There is an organized cacophony. The primitive can be exciting—witness Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring—but I found this music more trying than exciting. It has a certain minimalistic relentlessness. It becomes, I think, assaultive.
But after a while, the assault ends. A woman behind me said to her companion, “Whew.” I couldn’t tell whether she was relieved or impressed.
There is a calm section to the concerto. It is even tender. The music assumes a psychedelic quality. And on it goes, minimalistically, repetitively. All of a sudden, it just ends. The concerto just stops, mid-minimalism, as it were. The tape, or loop, simply cuts off.
man made is no doubt interesting, and no doubt intelligent—but I cannot say I got much pleasure out of it. Pleasure is not the be-all, end-all, but it is not nothing either. In any event, the audience liked the piece more than I did, and Sō Percussion returned for an encore. They played—clapped?—Clapping Music, the famous number by Steve Reich from 1972. I have no doubt they were accurate, and committed, too. The piece, which is not long, seems long to me. Minimalism requires patience.
On the podium for the concerto was Louis Langrée, the music director of the Mostly Mozart Festival. Throughout the concerto, he seemed to be counting very hard. I believe he was successful. He had begun the program with a Mozart overture: that to The Abduction from the Seraglio. The orchestra was slightly disunited at first, but it soon got on track. Jasmine Choi played the piccolo niftily—and unsqueakingly. Later, she played the flute beautifully. The middle section of the overture, in C minor, is usually a momentum-killer. But Langrée managed to continue a kind of momentum, with the help of Mozart’s puckishness. The final section was boisterous but not obnoxious. This was rollicking, smile-making Mozart.
At the beginning of his remarks, David Lang said (something like), “Seeing as Mozart couldn’t make it tonight . . .” This charming remark raises an interesting question: If Mozart were with us, would he come out before a piece of his and talk about it, and ask the audience to enjoy it? I don’t think so. I think he’d let the music speak for itself. I think Mr. Lang et al. can do the same thing—just let ’er rip. Let the twigs break, and the audience will decide for itself.
Edward Gardner guest-conducted a previous concert—and, before the downbeat, he did more talking than Lang would. There were three pieces on the program: Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music in C minor; Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major; and Schubert’s Symphony No. 5 in B flat. Gardner talked a bit about all of them. The concerto, he called “beautiful and sunny.” Well, it is that, but also other things. He talked more than a bit about the Masonic Funeral Music. In fact, I think his remarks were longer than the piece. He discussed the instruments of the orchestra, and he had members of the orchestra play samples. This was elementary-school music appreciation.
Do audiences ever tire of it? Do they ever feel condescended to, treated like babies? My impression is no.
At last, the mmfo played the funeral music, and played it decently. Then came Jeremy Denk to play the Beethoven concerto. He played it so well, I will concentrate on some faults, as I perceived them. From the beginning of the first movement, and throughout that movement, he went in for little hesitations and sudden diminuendos. One little hesitation, and one sudden diminuendo, after another. I found this wearying and inapt. But at least Denk was consistent in them—he did them where you would have expected. Also, some rhythm was imprecise and some tempos fluctuated, wrongly.
Do audiences ever feel condescended to, treated like babies?
In the first movement, the orchestra tended to the flaccid. In the second, it was oddly punchy and staccato. Was this Maestro Gardner’s idea of the period style?
At any rate, Mr. Denk played with a nobility that matched the nobility of the concerto. He demonstrated a sense of Beethoven’s spirit and purpose. In the closing Rondo, Denk played with sprightly elegance, and I believe he imparted energy to the orchestra.
As the applause was dying, he rushed back out to play an encore. I think encores after concertos have become all too de rigueur. They aren’t special anymore. In fact, the absence of an encore is almost an insult to the soloist. Be that as it may, Denk played another piece in G major, the slow movement to Mozart’s Sonata in C, K. 545. And he played it with wonderful taste.
Another festival on campus—with the general name of “Lincoln Center Festival”—featured ballet. One night, the New York City Ballet, the Paris Opera Ballet, and the Bolshoi Ballet joined forces. They danced Jewels, the Balanchine work from 1967. This was, therefore, the fiftieth anniversary. An announcer prior to curtain said that we were about to witness a “historic performance.”
Jewels, recall, is composed of three portions, three jewels: “Emeralds,” “Rubies,” and “Diamonds.” Each company on this night danced one of the jewels. “Emeralds” uses music by Fauré (his incidental music to Pelléas et Mélisande and to Shylock); “Rubies” uses Stravinsky’s Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra; “Diamonds” uses Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 3 (omitting the first movement). In the pit, we did not have three orchestras: from New York, Paris, and Moscow. Rather, there was just one, the New York City Ballet Orchestra.
May we talk frankly? The nyc Ballet Orchestra used to be kind of laughed at. It was a shoddy band on campus, sounding pick-up in nature. There must be no more laughing. This band is not merely a ballet orchestra but a real orchestra—an orchestra orchestra. Its music director is Andrew Litton, and he was the conductor of Jewels. Last I knew—I’ve been asleep—Litton was the music director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, and he was also enjoying a career as a pianist, known in particular for Gershwin. Come to discover, he has not been in Dallas since 2006; he became music director of the nyc Ballet in 2015. I should not sleep.
Under Litton, the Fauré was duly Fauré-like: courtly, gracious, and French. Solos in the orchestra ranged from adequate to excellent. The horn was admirably supple and unflubbing. The piano soloist in the Stravinsky was Stephen Gosling, who was accurate and alive. I have heard more jagged, more emphatic accounts. Bonier accounts. Perhaps the musicians were limited by the needs of the dancers. Whatever the case, the Capriccio had its impishness, gaiety, and other qualities. I was worried about whether Gosling would be able to take a bow, because ballet is so odd in its rituals (at least to me). But there he was onstage, to the side of the dancers. I wonder whether most in attendance knew who he was.
Let me tell you something about the Tchaikovsky symphonies and me: No. 3 is my least favorite of the six, always has been. In “Diamonds,” however, you see that the work is practically as balletic as it is symphonic. And Litton made me appreciate it more than ever.
Of course, the Bolshoi dancers had something to do with it. I should stay in my lane, as they say, and not comment on ballet: but the Bolshoi dancers gleamed and cut and sparkled like, forgive me, diamonds.
A few nights later, the Bolshoi alone had the stage, and the nyc Ballet Orchestra was still in the pit. The conductor, however, was Igor Dronov, from Moscow. The Bolshoi performed The Taming of the Shrew, choreographed by Jean-Christophe Maillot. The music is by Shostakovich. Did the great man compose a Taming of the Shrew? No, Maillot has put together a couple dozen Shostakovich pieces, most of them from movie scores and operettas. They work—work splendidly. Indeed, they seem to have been written for this ballet, rather than grafted onto it. These pieces, stitched together, seem like a proper ballet score. The music tells the story, along with Shakespeare and Maillot. It is by turns light, dark, jokey, sober, rude, sweet. At the end, the music is “Tea for Two,” in the arrangement that Shostakovich made on a bet. Remember? Shostakovich heard a record of “Tea for Two.” Nikolai Malko (the conductor) bet him a hundred rubles that he couldn’t orchestrate it, from memory, in under an hour. Shostakovich took forty-five minutes—and produced a lasting novelty.
There were some unexpected sounds during The Taming of the Shrew. In Act I, a fire alarm went off, and on and on. Was it a false alarm? No one knew for sure. A few people in the audience left, and then many. Finally, the leavers streamed back in, having been told that the alarm was false. Through it all, the dancers kept dancing, maintaining their concentration in this intricate, crackling show. The entire evening was a triumph, including the orchestra and the capable Maestro Dronov. I think Shostakovich would have loved it. And perhaps collected fees (for work already done)?
This space is reserved for a “New York chronicle,” but sometimes it tolerates excursions, such as to Rhode Island. Lots of people have heard of the Newport Jazz Festival. There is also a Newport Music Festival, devoted to classical music, founded in 1969. I went to a concert in Saint Matthew’s Church, located in Jamestown, which is about five miles from Newport. The festival has eleven venues—eleven!
At Saint Matthew’s, I heard a Schubertiade, i.e., a program of Schubert. There were pieces of various types, but no singing. Rare is a Schubertiade with no singing. But Schubert wrote so much, and so variously, you can compose your Schubertiade in any number of ways.
This Schubertiade began with the Fantasy in F minor for piano four-hands. The Fantasy is like a grand sonata, and it is beautiful, haunting, idiosyncratic—Schubertian. It is so private-seeming—so personal—you almost wonder whether it should be played in public. The Fantasy is not very often heard. That’s because it’s for piano four-hands, and how often is such music programmed in concert? If the Fantasy were heard more often, it would be widely loved, like Schubert’s late sonatas in A major and B flat. (Those are for two hands.)
Rare is a Schubertiade with no singing.
Next on the Newport program was a novelty—not by Schubert but by Don Jaffé, who as far as I can tell is a German-Israeli composer born in 1933. This piece is a “ballade” on the life of Schubert for violin, cello, and harp. It quotes and plays around with Schubert. Before the music began, the harpist told the audience, “It’s not meant to be taken too seriously.” The ballade begins with a quotation from the “Unfinished” Symphony, played by the cellist—who on this occasion was Sergey Antonov. What a beautiful—a shockingly beautiful—sound he makes. Antonov won the gold medal in the Tchaikovsky Competition of 2007. When you hear him, you want to give him another gold medal.
The first half of the Schubertiade closed with the Rondo in B minor for violin and piano. And the second half was devoted to a single work: the Piano Trio in B flat, that sublime creation. It, too, seems too private for public display. It is long, leisurely, inward. What an inner life, Schubert must have had (and what a talent—a genius—for expressing it). After the concert, I met a man who said that this trio had been his mother’s favorite piece of music. Not just by Schubert, but by anyone. A wise woman.
By the way, it was very hot inside Saint Matthew’s Church. I thought, “Good preparation for the Salzburg Festival,” whose venues—fewer than eleven—can be defeatingly hot.
The Mostly Mozart Festival opened with a gala concert, titled “The Singing Heart.” Most of the singing was done by the Young People’s Chorus of New York City. They sang a variety of songs, including “Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal,” made famous long ago by Robert Shaw and his chorale. The Young People’s Chorus was alert, endearing, and well trained. (Their founder and leader is Francisco J. Núñez.) They looked like they were enjoying themselves immensely. Are there activities more healthful for young people than a chorus?
There was more than singing on this program, including a Mozart symphony. It was played by the mmfo, of course, and conducted by Louis Langrée. That symphony was the “Haffner” (No. 35 in D). It was not played consecutively. That is, the young people’s songs were interspersed between movements. This was an interesting experiment, but let it not be repeated too often.
Honestly, there is no conductor I would rather hear in Mozart than Langrée. As I’ve often said about James Levine, he has a sense of just rightness: in phrasing, tempos, dynamics, etc. His Mozart does not suffer from period-style punchiness; nor is it swollen. The “Haffner” on this occasion had strength, grace, tenderness, merriment—it was completely itself. The first note of the closing Presto, Langrée held a little longer than is customary. It made me think that this was right.
Closing the program—the printed program—was Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, that strange, wondrous work for piano, chorus, and orchestra. We don’t hear this very often. Why? Well, how often do you have a pianist, a chorus, and an orchestra around? The Choral Fantasy lives under a bushel, like Schubert’s Fantasy in F minor. They are disadvantaged by logistics, personnel, and tradition—by the norms of concert life.
Mostly Mozart’s pianist was Kit Armstrong, a young American with a very American name. (I think of it as a combination of Kit Carson and Jack Armstrong—or Neil Armstrong.) He played with intelligence and facility. As he gets older, I think, he will be able to make a bigger, more Beethoven-like sound, into the keys.
There was an encore, that traditional encore for galas in America: “Make Our Garden Grow,” which ends Bernstein’s Candide. Only a churl could object to this piece. (Why are you looking at me?)
Our program notes, in addition to talking about Mozart, talked about his sister, Nannerl—“who appears to have been no less gifted.” That’s a nice thought—like Fanny was as talented as Felix (Mendelssohn), and Clara was as good as Robert (Schumann). But is it true?
Being a gala, this concert had a host, or hostess—an emcee. She was Bernadette Peters, the Broadway star. One year shy of seventy, she is still Bernadette Peters: cute, whimsical, and winning. My only regret of the evening—besides the encore—was that Bernadette didn’t sing.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 1, on page 53
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