“Meet Jaap,” say banners near Lincoln Center. They mean Jaap van Zweden, the Dutch conductor who is the new music director of the New York Philharmonic. Van Zweden has just finished a decade-long tenure with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. His tenure in New York began with an oomp, i.e., an obligatory opening modern piece. This one was by Ashley Fure, a composer from Michigan with an impressive pedigree. She earned her doctorate at Harvard and now teaches at Dartmouth. She has won the Rome Prize, a Guggenheim, etc. The Philharmonic played Filament, which the orchestra itself commissioned.
Our program booklet quoted Fure on the music she writes. She likes “the muscular act of music-making and the chaotic behaviors of raw acoustic matter.” She seeks to cause “a certain jolt of presence, which is why there’s often a mix of violence and fragility in my work.”
Before Van Zweden gave the downbeat for Filament, the house was completely dark. Then there was a shushing sound, and squeals, and something like wind chimes. Then there was a glaring light, which hurt. I believe it was supposed to hurt, and that the music was, too. “Was this how they tortured Noriega?” I thought. The piece struck me as something to endure.
It is “assaultive,” as critics like to say (in praise of a piece). I thought of a car crash that keeps happening. Indeed, there are sirens along the way. Also, the composer experiments with sound. I wondered, “Do you need a symphony orchestra for this? Can it not be done on computers, or with other technology? Do you need trained violinists, cellists, and so on?”
Toward the end of the piece, a group of people near me, standing in the aisle, made heavy-breathing noises through megaphones. (I should stress that they were official participants in the performance, not rogue elements.)
Sitting there, I thought of something that Mariss Jansons, the Latvian conductor, told me in an interview this past summer. When he was the music director in Pittsburgh, he said, he had to program a new piece by an American composer every week—otherwise, the critics would kill you. I’m sure that this applies to New York, too, and even more so. Is new music—by Americans, specifically—the toll you have to pay, to move on to, say, Beethoven (as Van Zweden and the Philharmonic did on this particular night)?
After Filament was over, the man behind me—not a critic, so far as I know!—said, “Yeah! Yeah!” with great enthusiasm. Did he mean it? Did he really like the piece? Or did he think he was supposed to, because here was a piece by a composer with a Ph.D. from Harvard and a chestful of awards, a piece that was commissioned for Opening Night of a major symphony orchestra? I don’t know. Would he know, if you asked him?
I am perfectly prepared to believe that Filament has musical merit, in addition to intellectual merit, or the spirit of adventure. If it does, however, it was lost on me. The name “Ashley Fure” may be pantheonic one day. Then the joke will really be on me. Again, I don’t know. I just don’t.
Let me skip, now, to the end of the evening—when Van Zweden and the Philharmonic performed an encore. I was glad to hear it, by which I mean any encore. Encores are an important part of concert life. For a few years while he was music director in New York, Lorin Maazel conducted encores, but then he stopped, for reasons unknown to me. An encore can be like a dessert, or, if really brief and light, an after-dinner mint. What Van Zweden and the Philharmonic played was no after-dinner mint, unless an extra-strong one: it was “The Ride of the Valkyries.” A man sitting near me—not the “Yeah! Yeah!” guy—muttered to his wife, “Flight of the Bumblebee.” In his defense, the “Ride” does have a buzzy beginning.
The next concert of the Philharmonic also began with an oomp, this one by Conrad Tao, a composer from Illinois. This piece, like Ashley Fure’s, was commissioned by the orchestra. I was quite looking forward to hearing it, because I had heard Tao’s music once before: when he was eighteen, playing a piano recital. “The highlight of the program,” I wrote, “was his own work, vestiges.” (Modern composers are in love with small letters.) This is a work in four movements, and “they are beautiful and intelligent,” I wrote. “I would be pleased to see them on any other pianist’s program. They are more than one pianist’s private scribbles.”
Tao is now twenty-four and his piece for the Philharmonic was Everything Must Go. Midway through it, I had a sinking feeling: this was an oomp like a thousand others. You have heard it all before: the prehistoric noises, the jungle noises, the shudders, the sci-fi gloops, the ample percussion—the standard ingredients. Tao’s piece was a cut above the average oomp, maybe: sharper, more alacritous, and with a smart use of rests and rhythm. But it still came from the oomp store (where everything must go?).
If this is the music that is within Tao, fine. But if he feels he has to run with the herd in order to make his way in the music business—what a shame. I hope he will always feel free to express his individuality, so obvious in his teen self.
Jaap van Zweden made Everything Must Go run straight into the next work, Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8: no pause, no nothing. More and more, conductors and other performers are doing this, and it is almost always a conceit. I look forward to the passing of this fashion, this conceit. If there is a true connection between one piece and another, it will be heard, even with a normal, human pause. Consider this: Conrad Tao came out and bowed with Van Zweden, after the Bruckner—an hour and twenty minutes after his own piece had ended.
How had the Bruckner gone? Well. It was solid, conscientious, and no-nonsense. On the whole, it was brisk. I am also tempted to say it was Beethoven-like. For decades, I wrote that James Levine’s Verdi or Wagner, let’s say, was “Beethoven-like.” You could have asked for more warmth or spiritual exaltation from Van Zweden’s Bruckner 8. But at least it was never bathetic, showy, or wayward. I loved being in the presence of the music.
I also loved being in the presence of Sherry Sylar’s sound. I am talking about an oboe, slinky, liquid.
There was no encore at this concert—because what can follow the Eighth? (The Ninth could follow it, but that would give you a very long evening, incomplete as the Ninth may be, without its fourth movement, which the composer did not live to write.)
The Metropolitan Opera opened its 2018–19 season with Samson and Delilah, Saint-Saëns’s hit from 1877. In the title roles were Roberto Alagna, the Italian-French tenor, and Elīna Garanča, the Latvian mezzo, who have teamed before. I reviewed this Opening Night performance for this magazine’s website, but will tell you something important here. Alagna had a rough night. In Act III, his high notes were chancy. He went up for the final one—the one that serves as the climax of the opera—a B. And nothing came out. Or rather, what came out was a horrible, strangled croak. It was possibly the most horrifying thing I have ever experienced in an opera house.
But “life is not a studio recording,” I often say. Singers are like athletes, and sometimes they whiff or fumble. Alagna’s croak may enter operatic lore, but so have many of the stellar nights he has given the public.
The next night, the Met revived La bohème, which is never really in need of revival, I suppose: it is never dead or dormant. Mimì and Rodolfo are important in a Bohème, but not more so than the conductor, who determines the character of the evening (along with Puccini, the composer). In the pit on this night was James Gaffigan, making his Met debut. When I write about him, I take care to say that he is not Jim Gaffigan, a well-known comedian. James Gaffigan is an American conductor who works in Switzerland and Holland. He had a fabulous night with La bohème, letting the music be its high-spirited, charming, sweeping, poignant, tragic self. Every page was alive. This certainly includes Act II, which I consider a scherzo of sorts. It is easy to “fall on your butt” in this act, as Maestro Franz Welser-Möst once remarked to me in an interview. Gaffigan had a slight coordination problem but did not fall.
Also making a Met debut was our Mimì, the Australian soprano Nicole Car. She did not have a particularly distinguished Act I. She sang with due strength and penetration, but not much beauty, frankly. Later, however, she found the groove of her voice and sang with beauty, strength, and the other necessary qualities. Her Rodolfo was Vittorio Grigolo, that golden tenor, who sang goldenly indeed. He was both lyric and loud, very loud. He poured forth that golden, Italianate sound all night. If I had my way, he would do a little—a little—less scooping (i.e., approaching of notes from below). But this is a matter of taste.
I wondered whether I could go again to La bohème, that hackneyed thing. No problem. Puccini wins you, time after time, especially if the performance—especially if the conducting—is good. (If you don’t love La bohème, don’t conduct it. Let someone else do it.) I had with me a young friend who had never seen the opera before. Rather thoughtlessly, I remarked during the first intermission, “You know, Mimì should sound fresh and youthful in Act I, even if she is dying of consumption.” My friend replied, with playful rebukefulness, “Um, spoiler alert!”
The Met then revived Aida, Verdi’s masterpiece (one of them). You have heard of “abc houses”? Some people use this phrase to mock houses that put on Aida, Bohème, and Carmen. Well, the Met is doing all three this fall, along with less familiar fare. In the pit for Aida was Nicola Luisotti, late of the San Francisco Opera. Throughout Aida, he was competent, or defensible, and sometimes he was positively inspired.
Starring as Aida was Anna Netrebko, the Russian soprano—who had a typically compelling night. It is rare to speak of a smoky soprano. Mezzo voices are smoky, not soprano voices—but Netrebko’s is an exception. She executed Aida’s music with exemplary control, as well as magnetism. Her high pianos were especially impressive. “Thinks she’s Caballé,” I wrote in my program. (In fact, the great Spaniard was to die about ten days later.) I might point out that Netrebko wore dark, or darkish, makeup, as the Ethiopian princess. Yet the Met has banned blackface for Otello. I wonder what the reasoning is.
Anita Rachvelishvili, the Georgian mezzo, was Amneris, and she was smoky, yes. In Acts I and II, she sang very well. In the final two acts, she rose to another level, singing like an all-time Amneris. When she and Netrebko sang together, I actually thought, somewhat cornily, “I’m lucky to be hearing this.” Amonasro, the Ethiopian king, was a baritone I had never heard before: Quinn Kelsey, from Hawaii. What a beautiful and rich voice, which this singer knows how to deploy.
Our tenor—our Radamès—was Aleksandrs Antonenko, the worthy Latvian. He had a very unfortunate “Celeste Aida” (the aria that opens the opera). He got better from there—you almost had to—but he did not have a representative night. At curtain, he was booed. He kept his dignity, facing down the audience, and standing there for a long time. But I felt for him, and I despise booing, certainly in American houses. (In Parma, do as the parmigiani.) If you don’t like something, don’t clap—or clap less heartily, as the truly polite do.
On this night, I had with me another young friend, who had never seen Aida. As the curtain fell, she said, “No, no! I wanted them to escape from the tomb and run off together.”
Carnegie Hall opened its season with the San Francisco Symphony, under Michael Tilson Thomas, its longtime music director. (He is leaving the orchestra after next season.) The soloists in this gala concert were two singing stars, Renée Fleming and Audra McDonald. The next night, the sfs and mtt gave another concert, all-Stravinsky. It began with Pétrouchka, the ballet. May I offer an opinion (as though you had a choice)? Pétrouchka does not work as a concert piece. It must be danced to. It requires the visual. This is not true of Tchaikovsky’s ballets (Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker). It is not true of Prokofiev’s big ballets, Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella. Nor is it true of Stravinsky’s Firebird. But Pétrouchka? It simply does not have enough standalone music—truly standalone music—to warrant its performance in concert.
In the 2004 movie Mean Girls, one of the girls tries to popularize the term “fetch,” to mean “cool” or “hip.” The meanest girl says, “Stop trying to make ‘fetch’ happen.” This sentence soon entered our culture. In its spirit, I say, Stop trying to make Pétrouchka happen, as concert music.
Anyway, the San Franciscans played it with color and panache, if not perfect unity. How about another Stravinsky ballet, The Rite of Spring? Does that work as concert music? Better than Pétrouchka, I would say, and not as well as The Firebird. In any case, the San Franciscans closed their concert with it, successfully. The Sacred Dance had its thrilling savagery. In between the two ballets came Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto, in which the soloist was Leonidas Kavakos, the famous Greek. He did not have his best sound or cleanest technique, but he was good enough, and characteristically intelligent. In my opinion—here I go again—the Stravinsky Violin Concerto is a lot of work with little musical payoff. A payoff came in an encore, a movement from a solo-violin sonata by Nikos Skalkottas, a Greek composer who lived from 1904 to 1949. Kavakos played with truly Kavakosian sound and technique, plus an obvious affection, even a delight.
After The Rite of Spring, Tilson Thomas offered no encore, though the audience called him back again and again and again (unusually for New Yorkers, who tend to rush to the exits). He finally made a sleeping motion, meaning, “Nope—time for bed.”
The next night, Jonas Kaufmann came into Carnegie Hall. Backed by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, the starry German tenor sang Richard Tauber music, which is to say, operetta numbers from gay Weimar days. He had a strained first half. He had no high notes, unless he could sing them fortissimo. But in the second half, he was “hooked up,” crooning and floating at will. This allowed him to convey his charm, and the music’s. Jochen Rieder was his excellent conductor. Rieder gave the orchestral excerpts on the program their spice, Schlag, or whatever other ingredient they required.
A few nights later, Kaufmann was at the Metropolitan Opera for La fanciulla del West—he was in the audience, that is. As he walked up the aisle for the first intermission, he whistled a Fanciulla tune—and pretty well.
Saint Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue has a big music program, and they now have a big new organ, costing $11 million and comprising 7,069 pipes. The dedicatory recital was played by Daniel Hyde, the music director of the church. The recital was sold out within twenty-four hours of its announcement. Hyde’s program began with a bang: an arrangement of the overture to Wagner’s Meistersinger. It also included Bach, of course, and variations on “The Star-Spangled Banner” by Dudley Buck, an American composer of the nineteenth century.
I say “of course.” In remarks to the audience, Hyde said, “For me as an organist, all roads lead to and from Bach.” As a rule, I don’t like remarks to the audience, but I certainly liked that one, and Hyde, a Brit, talks so charmingly, who would wish him silent?
At the front of the church was a large screen that showed what Hyde was doing, as he played. I found this an imposition, to a degree. It’s not all that interesting to watch an organist read music. (The pedaling is more interesting, to be sure.) Personally, I prefer to be alone with the music and the church (whatever the church happens to be). The screen makes the player, the performer, more central than he ought to be.
But this is a matter of taste, and perhaps of habituation. Plus, everyone at Saint Thomas got a kick out of seeing Daniel Hyde’s socks as he pedaled: one of them showing the Stars & Stripes, the other showing the Union Jack. A nicely diplomatic pairing.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 3, on page 51
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