ALVIN AILEY | Festa Barocca


Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at NY City Center

Sunday, December 6, 2009, 7:30 PM

Festa Barocca (2008), choreographed by Mario Bigonzetti; music by G. F. Handel; costumes by Marc Happel.

This is a big, ebullient, full-ensemble piece that captures the spirit of the baroque—as its title and Handel soundtrack properly assert (and as its detractors have seemed oblivious to). Music apart, moreover, we see Baroque and baroqueness everywhere: in the wild abundance of color, in the generous undulations of silk, in spines’ swiveling slopes and limbs’ curlicues, in the mutability yet precision, extravagance yet playfulness overall. Amid the ornate, boisterous choreography here—especially lovely in the three duets—there are touches of flamenco, of courtly mannerism (at one moment a dancer’s stretch becomes a fancy curtsy), of hip-hop, of tango, of capoeira, of breaking, of voguing, of queeny righteousness. Where there’s baroque, there is exuberant attitudinal flaunting; so, too, here.

The piece begins with Hope Boykin dancing center-stage to the minuet from Rodelinda in front of a bright array of nearly still dancers, who move out little by little, step-wise and on beat, collectively like the slow-motion expansion of some impossibly colorful underwater plant. Boykin is MC-cum-sorceress, igniting the proceedings with each snap, conjuring forth movement from her still marionettish crew. When conscripted—or freed—into motion, the dancers in their larger formations soon reveal a choreography that is particularly upper-body-intensive. Arms coil, thrust out, frame the body at big angles, weave before the face in quick flourishes like a magician before the reveal, hoop around the partner’s body at great speed and varying heights—but without touching—like a game of tag for desiring adults.

Having now seen this performance, one cannot but find the two New York Times reviews of Festa Barocca’s debut this time last year wildly—perhaps willfully—out of touch. Alastair Macaulay complained of too much that is “acrobatic”—any trace of stunty mass entertainment clearly heretical—as well as “foot fetishism.” But what he deemed “foot fetishism” was Bigonzetti’s attempt to consider for feet in dance some role other than points of gravitation, tips of leg extension, deserving tangency only with the ground. Why not use the foot’s flexed firmness to hook and hang from, why not let the curves of that neglected ticklish surface between toes and heel run over and find rhyme along the partner’s body? Two of the most affecting duets in Festa Barocca—between Constance Stamatiou and Clifton Brown, and then between Linda Celeste Sims and Glenn Allen Sims—do just that. One gets the impression that feet—the biped’s workhorses, after all, the body parts that affirm our earthliness with every use, precisely by keeping the rest of our bodies from touching the ground—are for Macaulay, who writes so superbly on ballet, still the bloodied, bruised embarrassments to be tucked up in shapely satin.

In a less protracted dismissal, Roslyn Sulcas in her review marveled of what she deemed “no kind of refinement” that “The audience loved this, as though they were privy to some sort of insider joke.” One might marvel instead, however, that such a disdainful and uninformative sentence, along with non-descriptions such as “fake-intense, semi-sexy, semi-anguished duets,” can get by as dance criticism. That it has might even lead one to presume some telltale demographic gap between NYT readers and Alvin Ailey ticket-holders that does not in fact exist. It is Sulcas’s problem, in other words, not the audience’s. To imply that “refinement” should be dance’s sole ambition, sole criterion, is to amputate from dance’s universe a majority of its cultures and epochs. And indeed there were jokes throughout Festa Barocca. And that was the point—this transmutation and elaboration of recognizable vocabulary (recognizable from neighborhoods, from clubs, from television if nothing else) into abstracter forms, more complex formations. One need not have been any insider to revel in them, or to find splendor and take joy in the whole.

CARNEGIE HALL | Vladimir Feltsman

[the first Grandioso motif from Liszt’s B Minor Sonata]

Friday, December 4, 2009 at 8 PM
Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage

Vladimir Feltsman, Piano

SCHUBERT | Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960
SCHUBERT | “Der Müller und der Bach,” S. 565, No. 2 (arr. Liszt)
SCHUBERT | “Wohin?,” S.565, No. 5 (arr. Liszt)
LISZT | Sonata in B Minor

Dreamy programming and thrilling pianism made this a night to behold. Fairly quiet on the scene, though established in his celebrity for more than two decades since emigrating from Moscow, the 57-year-old Vladimir Feltsman may have earned himself a new army of devotees with this recital.

Recalibrations of rhythm and inspired incursions by the left hand—to be initially reductive—contributed much to what was an unusually stirring, oxygenating account of the Schubert D. 960 sonata. Simply put: last night I experienced this keystone work anew. Feltsman’s protracted fermatas and liberal rubatos had the effect of sliding the composition apart from within, giving rich pause and air to its still elusive, always still explorable interiors. From each lull, new glow. There was thoughtful love here that shared with us its intimate discoveries—neither obscure idiosyncrasy nor showy mystification as I imagine some Schubert aficionados in the audience might protest. But what purists decry as exaggeration is so often empathy more courageous than theirs. The classical Feltsman (his reputation steeped in Mozart and Bach) emerged with all crispness, anyway, upon arriving at the triplets section of the first movement. If there was Bachian lucidity and Mozartian elegance, however, throughout one could also hear ghostings in mood of Scriabin, Debussy, even (I hallucinated) Ligeti, and a chord or two near the end of the first movement took on the air of tone clusters. (These last were not finger slippages, though there were a forgivable few in this concert.) A principle of dilation continued to illuminate the second movement, made all space for its meditative hesitations, murky withdrawals, near-vanishings. In the Scherzo Feltsman’s way of shifting between scintillating fluency and richer, stranger musing became particularly notable. The Allegro evinced a committed interest in the particulars of agitation, and in this concluding movement’s moments of self-collecting unto cheer Feltsman delivered both sparkle and wistfulness. I hope he will record this work. It was a truly memorable interpretation that one’d want to savor again and keep learning from.

After performances of Liszt’s transcriptions of Schubert’s “Der Müller und der Bach” and “Wohin?” from Die schöne Müllerin that threaded the vocal lines of the original Lieder through the piano scoring with gorgeous lyricism, Feltsman descended as if inevitably into the great Liszt Sonata—with the minutest of pauses, none at all for applause to the foregoing. His approach to this work, completed 25 years after Schubert’s 1728 sonata, was concentrated and undaunted intensity—amounting to a dramatic unveiling of yet another order of his formidable abilities. I cannot remember the last time I heard such a gripping rendering of the Grandioso development. Nearly every appearance of it last night felt like the slow, reverberant unlatching of a giant vault ceiling until one began to see sky. In the fugue section, method was clearly there to keep at bay the encroachments of madness, and of course Feltsman made sure that madness nonetheless burnt through and eventually surged into the open. In driving up Lisztian frenzies to a perilous pitch he was fearless. The quieter passages offered delicate simplicity but also sinuous nestling in nooks of lyricism, e.g., the Andante sostenuto that begins to draw toward an end. The final iteration of the descending motif, a descent of no return whatever the lingering final notes, left in its wake all time and barely breath.

Liszt’s Liebesträume No. 3: the perfect encore.

METROPOLITAN OPERA | From the House of the Dead

[the trash collectors]

Leoš Janáček, From the House of the Dead
[Z mrtvého domu]
Wednesday, December 2, 2009, 8PM

Production: Patrice Chéreau
Associate Director: Thierry Thieu Niang
Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen
Main Cast: Willard White (Alexandr Gorjančikov), Eric Stoklossa (Aljeja)
Stefan Margita (Filka Morozov)

How to make a narrative of so relentless yet monotonous, time-ravaging and exitless an experience as life in this Siberian prison camp? Janàček’s oneiric, episodic opera—a very selective adaptation of Dostoevsky’s memoir-novel Notes from the House of the Dead [Записки из мертвого дома]—does not err that way. What does happen here: a death, an education, an unredemptive recognition, an evanescent collaboration. Only one of the men has a definite future outside. Other prisoners sing songs that refer invariably to their lives before, what landed them in the hope-shorn present. That one of them falls dead during this lean duration, hardly 100 minutes and sans intermission, gives us but an accidental glimpse into the men’s collectively terminal prospects. (And when Filka/Luka dies while Shishkov insistently, obliviously keeps singing, story-song takes on a Scheherazade effect.) Save the sparse chance encounter, enmity or complicity with one another from the outside—we’re never sure just how long ago—they are joined only by their common condition. Save sympathy for and sublimation through a winged animal they tend back to flight, they seem barely related in feeling. These are men who have wronged and are wronged. Dostoevsky’s stand-in, political prisoner Gorjančikov—whose entrance launches the drama but whose own past stays unknown—is the only character who attempts meaningful action within the prison, but his attempt to give young Aljeja a future (by teaching him to read) occurs only at the very margins.

Patrice Chéreau’s set of minimalist but hulking geometries and gunmetal grays in the prison yard, sparse thin-frame beds in the barracks, lends an industrial air to the premises. Over the course of the overture, materializing one by one from darkness, thirty-some prisoners slowly tread onto stage—lifeless, lumbering figures in search of space. We see the joyless swinging of buckets, hear the cold crackling of ankle shackles. One man in a corner lights a cigarette—retrieving something like personal experience thereby—and in the darkness, by default, the spark and smoke mark him as almost individual. A brawl suddenly erupts between two men for no apparent reason, because in this place there’s every reason, and the way their peers immediately converge at that wrestling knot to break it up reveals at once this group’s self-regulation and, such bare and by now habitual restoration of equilibrium apart, disaggregation as its default. In this meticulous opening scene Chéreau shows two other circumstances under which these men will readily self-assemble: the rough but swift lining up for sop ladled from buckets; the game to be had of kicking around a shoe as a ball.

The eagle, about which there’s been much discussion, soon suggests another, more poignant and more promising coming together. Upon discovering this wounded bird fallen into their midst, one prisoner starts running around with a blanket cape and stew-pot helmet in wishful mimicry. But other prisoners try raising the bird into the air. This image of arms raised aloft, the bird the high vertex of their bodies and their longings, was absolutely unforgettable. Having now seen this in person—from the nearness of the tenth row in orchestra—one can judge as moot the controversy surrounding the intended verisimilitude of this bird. Whatever Janàček’s vision, I’m not sure Chéreau intended this moment to constitute an event any more singular than the characters’ cycling through of twice-told tales. Indeed, when eventually freed into flight—to cries of “The eagle is czar!”—the bird is furtively tucked back, wings folded, into the old man’s coat.

My favorite directorial moment in this staging comes during the transition between the First and Second Acts: an avalanche of paper rubbish crashing in from above onto the vacated stage, leaving the entire set smoking with dust and debris like some aftermath of war. Not manna from heaven but an injunction to useless labor, this mess draws the men back to slowly repopulate the stage with clean-up baskets and a heavy work-song. In an affecting use of real time, the stage by the end of the scene has been entirely cleared.

In the libretto, between personal histories and two pantomimes, some solitary lines cut through. “A prisoner owns nothing.” “My dear children—I’ll never see you again.” “You’re my father!” cries Aljeja when bidding his mentor and friend farewell, while Gorjančikov can only reply, “My child! I don’t know if I’ll ever see you again.” But of all the heartbreaking truths surely this is the most tragic: “My eyes will never again see the land where I was born.”

There is much to be written on opera’s treatment of prison life. The pertinent scenes in Fidelio and Don Carlo would be richest next to From the House of the Dead, although in both of those works the inevitable individuations of romantic love get in the way of more radically exploring the possibility of populous camaraderie, while here the possibility proves precarious even when no other relation can suffice to surrogate.

On the issue of the supertitles: shifting placement helped them to melt into the set, and these projections could even have implied a quiet acknowledgment of the drama’s textual origins. I’d love to see the Met incorporate this method into other productions.

CARNEGIE HALL | Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen & Symphony #7

[program for the New York premiere of Mahler’s 7th, from the Carnegie Hall archives]

Wednesday, May 13, 2009 at 8 PM
STAATSKAPELLE BERLIN, cond. Daniel Barenboim
Thomas Hampson, Baritone

MAHLER | Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen & Symphony No. 7

I will never know the Seventh well enough, but strongly suspect that Barenboim could know it better, too. At least he took a score with him to the podium this time. His Fifth had seemed to me ‘indefatigable,’ and it was true enough last night as well that the musicians kept going, and going. But rarely did the music, amid all that music-making, much soar, or move, or shape. I almost haven’t the heart to review the memory thereof, and since coming home have had to listen to a few recorded accounts (Bernstein, Tennstedt, Abbado) just to revive a sense of this work’s revelations.

With his reading of the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, which opened the program, Hampson proved the more satisfying of the two Thomases this series, if not the most memorable Mahlerian wayfarer one can imagine. His voice settled into the songs with assured familiarity, and issued notes richer and most robust than those we’ve been hearing from Quasthoff. Occasionally, though, perhaps in an interpretive affect of simplicity, he moved from note to note with a strange discreteness that seemed to prioritize note-intoning over line-contouring. This, too, entirely differed from Quastoff’s way of sliding toward a note then skimming upon its surface. The alarming exception to Hampson’s mastery was an alteration to the first verse of ‘Die zwei blauen Augen’ that switched a crucial craning note to one several notes lower—an untoward, if helpless, falsification. This bizarre moment aside, he remained a trusty presence, and it was a pleasure to see him perform as capably and comfortably in-role here as I’ve seen him at the Met, whether as Don Giovanni or Amfortas or Onegin.

CARNEGIE HALL | Mahler’s Symphony #6

[Sextner Dolomiten in Südtirol, where Mahler completed his Sixth Symphony]

Tuesday, May 12, 2009 at 8 PM

MAHLER | Symphony No. 6, ‘Tragic’

Of the four concerts in this series I have attended, last night’s account of the Sixth has emerged as the most impressive. A world plunged deep and deeper unto itself, this is a difficult symphony to get right. Nature’s traces of bells and birds are here more distant than ever; culture’s phantasmagorias of marches and waltzes waft through only to become abstraction. It is a work that gazes through to the abyss and is eventually flung headlong into it. It knows better than to believe in redemption, yet must still seek out means of survival, forms of farewell.

Under the direction of Boulez, the Staatskapelle Berlin met the thrusting rhythmic demands of the opening movement with force and precision, delineating its martial theme as a logic refusing to be discarded or derailed. Despite the lyrical surge of the ascending ‘Alma theme’ in the strings, despite its compelling resurgences, despite this or that pizzicato-and-winds interlude, despite even moments when the theme itself almost melts into formlessness, the orchestra emphatically ensured that the heaviness always beat back into life unabated—with a life of its own and back to battering into the life of the hero. A last attempt at the ‘Alma theme’ shattered into calamity and, chillingly, was absorbed by it.

In the Scherzo following, rhythms that first seem to reassert those of the prior movement soon slide away from each other, each disbanded set struggling to find its own development, sometimes degenerating thereby. For Adorno, this movement conveyed ‘the hell of absolute space.’ Such hell was finely articulated: Boulez secured a remarkable translucency throughout that allowed layers to persist in a kind of palimpsest, precarious yet trembling onward. When the movement came to a close, the orchestra receded deftly to a faded tone, evoking the last fallings away of surface appeasements.

The symphony itself cannot fall away, however, without nestling in one last lasting pang of beauty, a kind of extended Orphean gaze. The Andante, into which floats many a wistful interval or melisma from Mahler’s earlier work, was given as pellucid an account as one could hope for. One realized here that Boulez executes Mahler’s disintegrations with exceptional fineness; one hears each grain and shred of the elemental debris (in the bleaker world of this symphony, alas, no longer stardust).

The Staatskapelle’s violin sections have not especially impressed in the performances so far, but in the opening octave motif of the Finale they at last attained a lovely, almost courageous sheen—one that would last the motif’s recurrences as well as the growing turmoil. Spare yet potent in its gestures, sprawling in length, this was the longest single movement Mahler ever wrote. Fanfare may strut through and more expansive vistas sweep in, but the essential terror of ‘absolute space’ remains. Sheer duration is the music’s (is life’s) only means of defiance throughout, but we are forced to realize that duration does not save. The hammer blows devastate from a realm of regulation wholly beyond our reach. This Finale gained much from Boulez’s distilled, almost cautious handling, while eliciting playing from the orchestra that was more densely symphonic than in their previous showings.

Boulez’s 1994 recording of this work with the Vienna Philharmonic clocks in at just under 81 minutes; last night it lasted about 84 minutes (including the extended pause, for late seating, after the first movement). Much of this significant extra time seemed to have been invested into the Finale. Call it not a notable discrepancy for the famously self-consistent Boulez, then, and rather a conscious rethinking with tremendous payoff—for audience and orchestra alike.

CARNEGIE HALL | Mahler’s Rückert Lieder & Symphony #5

[the Scherzo from Mahler’s 5th in ms at the Morgan Library]

Sunday, May 10, 2009 at 2 PM
STAATSKAPELLE BERLIN, cond. Daniel Barenboim
Thomas Quasthoff, Bass-Baritone

MAHLER | Rückert Lieder & Symphony No. 5

Daniel Barenboim resumed the podium this afternoon for an indefatigable account of Mahler’s Fifth, following Pierre Boulez’s three-night vigil through the Second, Third, and Fourth symphonies (just reviewed in the NYT). Opening with the five 1901-1902 Rückert Lieder, the program also brought back Thomas Quasthoff, whose delicate phrasings were again affecting, if in an abated capacity compared to his Kindertotenlieder Wednesday night.

In contrast to the common tragic theme in Kindertotenlieder, the wayfarer persona persisting through Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, and the shared chinoiserie source-material of Das Lied von der Erde, any principle of unity among the Rückert Lieder is less obvious or organic; they comprise rather a sort of medley, diverse in moods and meanings. A self-possessed humility and taciturn ardor are revealed through the lingering lines of “Liebst du um Schönheit,” for instance, whereas the brisk “Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder” cajoles in a spirited, almost impish manner. And while the hymn-like resolution of “Um Mitternacht” feels confirmed by the score, however hard-won, the final tranquility of “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” may still suggest resigned receding more than beatific transcendence, the protagonist having found no real refuge either from or in his Weltschmerz. If one feels compelled now to sketch some such contours of difference, it is because Mr. Quasthoff’s restrained handling of these Lieder did not do enough to. Due to occasional pitch pressures met in the upper range, moreover, and given what seemed to be general constraints on upper volume, the songs rarely came alive. What did become still clearer today is Quasthoff’s admirable sensitivity to minute gradations of quiet. This gift is not without its perils: in the final moments of “Um Mitternacht”—timpani and brass joining sung declaration of faith in chorale-like apotheosis—it became uncertain whether human voice could here survive, much less be buoyed by, the rising architecture of concomitant sound. But it was precisely this gift, too, that lent affecting subtlety to the stillnesses and subdual of the final song, “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,” aided by the excruciating attentiveness of the orchestra. Barenboim and the Staatskapelle are to be commended for taking noticeable care in supporting and tracing Quasthoff’s phrasings overall—a few discrepancies of timing notwithstanding—and they achieved particularly beautiful results during the attenuated, gleaming passages concluding “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen.”

The reception of Barenboim’s opening effort this cycle, Mahler’s First on Wednesday, ranged largely from scolding to skeptical (at least among those who’ve written about it). But what was sacrificed in scrupulousness that evening, in my opinion, was more than made up for in vigor and exhilaration. Today’s account of the Fifth certainly came off more cleanly, and at its best moments acquired inexorable propulsion. At times, though, the orchestra would have benefited from a clearer unifying directive. In both Mahler appearances thus far, Barenboim has demonstrated that he has definite ideas about beginnings: almost each movement under his leadership begins with a sense of concentration and with promise. He has also proven much energized when carrying momentum toward an ending, and this infuses additional energy into the orchestra. Many a middle stretch of this Fifth, however, seemed left to the musicians themselves, with Barenboim throwing himself into what was transpiring rather than administering the events or even much influencing them. The default license thereby granted to the players, or the implicit faith placed in them, by turns benefited the music and cost it. During the Trauermarsch and Scherzo sections, for instance, the strings sometimes seemed hastened and the woodwinds pressed by the broad gestures issued from the podium, whereas the orchestra’s collective efforts in the Rondo-Finale came together in glorious summation—in no small part due to today’s dependable brass showing. The crucial, consistent highlight of the concert was the meticulous Adagietto, at moderate tempo and unsentimental, yet shimmering in self-evident beauty.

Midway now through a demanding cycle, and so understandably, the spectre of fatigue began to haunt this performance, even as the struggle against it was steadfastly heroic and always sufficed. (Pauses between movements this time were less interpretive effects than necessary, visible breaks for breath-taking and brow-wiping.) This week the musicians will have two nights off from performing, though not likely from rehearsing. One is heartened by their fortitude, and hopes for a renewal also of focus.

CARNEGIE HALL | Mahler’s Symphony #2


Thursday, May 7, 2009 at 8 PM
Westminster Symphonic Choir, dir. Eberhard Friedrich
Soloists: Michelle DeYoung (mezzo-soprano), Dorothea Röschmann (soprano)

MAHLER | Symphony No. 2, ‘Resurrection’

For me, as for many Mahler devotees I’ve known or known of (and not only the fabled Gilbert Kaplan, for whom it was a veritable idée fixe), the Second Symphony [‘Resurrection’] was the most decisive portal into this composer’s oeuvre. During my high school years, after an English teacher lent me a recording of Abbado’s 1976 recording with the Chicago SO on Deutsche Grammophone—which I listened to probably some twenty times before buying my own copy—I went to the local library and checked out every recording of this work I could get my hands on (Bernstein, Solti, Haitink, Kaplan, Mehta, Maazel, et al., some of which were incredibly forgettable). Gradual listening to the other symphonies, then the Lieder—helped along the way by brief lurk-time on MAHLER-L and a Mahler seminar in college—sealed Mahler as the composer closest to my heart. My two go-to recordings of this symphony are now Klemperer’s with the Philharmonia on EMI and, after all these years, that old Abbado disc; occasionally, in less impatient moods, I turn to Rattle’s attentive 1986 rendition. (Many of these just mentioned are discussed in Tony Duggan’s fine omnibus review of Second Symphony recordings.) None of the others I’ve come across has really managed to bore itself into the soul. Soul-gripping and soul-assailing and soul-transporting—that is the power of this symphony when done right.

Puzzlingly, despairingly, last night’s Staatskapelle Berlin performance, led by Pierre Boulez, felt at times almost procedural, and although the orchestra and chorus lacked no power when it mattered, not until Urlicht and the final movement did the execution begin truly to rise to the score. The opening was, it must be said, extremely promising. I’ve always thought that the cellos in the opening section should have a shade of brutality, of raw and earthy rumble: it is something like the sound of existence’s grappling with earthliness, and this grappling requires a lot of textured traction. The Staatskapelle’s cellists were superb in digging into their strings here, and curiously this effect was even augmented by Boulez’s directions stipulating an unusual slowness, protracting the push and pull of strokes. As the movement went on, however, the sense of musical as well as emotional continuity became tenuous. What did those hearing (or truly listening to) this for the first time last night make, say, of some superficial abruptnesses in the music? Why a seeming biding of time one minute, and a minute later a clashing of cymbals startling everybody who’s nodded off? Mahler’s symphonies are never mere stories, but each amounts to far more than any Eliotian ‘heap of broken images.’ Each Mahlerian fragment bears within it the longing for wholeness, the wishful memory of wholeness; often longing is the story. At best, Mr. Boulez seemed interested in excavating the sonic textures of certain segments rather than in unfolding for us the whole. Indeed, in the second and third movements especially, perhaps wary of too-easy drama, he seemed to hold back a bit too much, resulting in an inscrutable plainness. One ached for a more vigilant treatment of the transitions—a more responsible communication, even, of the ebbs and flows, the whims and the throes, of feeling.

The Staatskapelle players sounded terrific overall, for their part, as did the Westminster Symphonic Choir (which sang this work with the NYPhil directed by Kaplan last December, and will appear again this cycle for Mahler’s Third and Eighth). Moments of vulnerability among the brass were more audible this time, unfortunately, and I found myself wishing—for this symphony at least—for a more glistening, gauzy sound from the violin section. Apart from the ever lovely cellos, the true star of the evening was the lush and capacious voice of Michelle DeYoung. (I saw her last as Venus in a wonderful Tannhäuser at the Met in December 2004, which also starred Deborah Voight, Thomas Hampson, and Peter Seiffert.) Pending her vibrato—which needs just a slight diminution for this music—I dare say she has the potential to become one of the great Mahlerian mezzos of our time.

Theodor Adorno was right to focus on Mahler’s ‘breakthroughs’—when the music exceeds itself, swells up from its own ground, toward new luminosities or into new tumult—a pattern of almost inexplicable mutation and transmutation that is truly at the heart of Mahler’s alchemy. The performance last night enabled the listener to imagine such magic, but not to experience it.

CARNEGIE HALL | Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder & Symphony #1

younger Gustav

Wednesday, May 6, 2009 at 8 PM
STAATSKAPELLE BERLIN, cond. Daniel Barenboim
Thomas Quasthoff, Bass-Baritone

MAHLER | Kindertotenlieder & Symphony No. 1

Last night began the Staatskapelle Berlin’s much-anticipated, ten-part Mahler symphonic and song cycle at Carnegie Hall. Three Maestros ‘B’ are here involved or invoked: conducted alternatingly by Boulez and Barenboim (the Staatskapelle’s General Music Director, and in 2000 honored as its ‘Conductor for Life’), these concerts coincide with a new all-Mahler boxed set from Bernstein, that greatest American champion of Mahler whom Carnegie Hall (and indeed all New York) celebrated last fall, on the 50th anniversary of his appointment to directorship of the NY Philharmonic. (A full Bernstein-Mahler set already exists on Deutsche Grammophon—as does, incidentally, a full NY Philharmonic Mahler set wholly sans Lenny—whereas the new issue comes from Sony Masterworks. One will need some thirty uninterrupted hours of listening time to work out comparisons, so that will be for a separate post. But for now let it be said that one feature of the new set is particularly welcome: the radio documentary ‘I Remember Mahler,’ produced by William Malloch in the 1960s, which had been available only and only in part on Mahler Plays Mahler. The addict craves more, however: say, Malloch’s eight-hour ‘Mahlerthon’ from 1975.)

Barenboim had the baton for this opening concert. The heartbreakingly sparse Kindertotenlieder of 1901-1904—its delicate life borne through the years by the likes of contralto Kathleen Ferrier, mezzos Janet Baker and Christa Ludwig, and baritones Fischer-Dieskau and Thomas Hampson—could scarcely have found a more tender custodian than Thomas Quasthoff. Amid the fragile, meandering harmonies of the first song, ‘Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n,’ he wove softly about the instrumental lines, with no presumption of greater prominence, and when the orchestration expanded—there’s nothing like Mahler’s use of harp and strings to delicately unfurl a world—his voice melted into the soundscape. It was in the second song, ‘Nun seh’ ich wohl, warum so dunkle Flammen,’ however, that Quasthoff’s voice blossomed, warm yet vulnerable, carrying us farther into the depths of sorrow. The next two songs proved slightly more challenging: the purity of Quasthoff’s voice hardened a bit amid the top notes, and between him and the orchestra there were moments of strained clamor, as if each vied to back off from vying. Still, with ‘In diesem Wetter, in diesem Braus,’ the songs came to an imperturbably luminous close. In this Rückert poem, a father repeats he would never have let his children out in such tempestuous weather, but is gradually forced to realize their demise. His resoluteness would be regret if only he could bring himself to face the actual rather than the ‘would have’—and thus amounts to denial. Quasthoff and Barenboim grasped this with rare exactitude: no mere declarative emoting, they evoked sorrow as trance, as necessary and even self-annihilating dream, during which the slow, pained movement toward truth can still take place only in the realm of grammar. Occasional imperfections aside, this performance feelingly captured the desolation and inconsolable melancholy of these Lieder. Bare of familiarly lyrical flourishes or default aggrandizing of the soloist, it ushered us with care into Mahler’s world—which, after all, is a world subtending the expressible, however exuberantly or eloquently expressed.

Quashoff’s rendition here was long-anticipated; two winters ago, his Carnegie Hall appearance for these Lieder with the Philadelphia Orchestra was cancelled due to illness. Ovations abound, the audience last night did not hold back its gratitude.

Hopes were surely high after intermission, and the Staatskapelle’s rendition of the First Symphony brought hope closer to faith. The first movement began with a deliberateness that bordered on tenuous, but in the process let some details surface afresh for the ear, and then burst into fulgent fullness after the cymbals midway through. Thenceforth the experience seized us and would not let go, from the swooping, swooning dance of the second movement—Maestro Barenboim’s own arms scooping up swathes of air—through the hair-raising finale.

Particular stars that emerged for me last night were the cellos—which had seemed subdued until one realized that their amazingly sensitive volume control pretty much underwrote the success of the entire performance—and principal timpanist Torsten Schönfeld, whose beautifully fluid yet weighted movements were mesmerizing to watch. The woodwinds blessed us with color and audacity aplenty, though occasionally the clarinets risked too much brightness. (Jury’s out on the brass; how will they do tomorrow?) Interestingly, the ensemble seemed precisest when momentum was fiercest. Barenboim’s realization of the score was at once thoughtful and driven—sustaining a sense of contemplative reverie throughout even the most excitable stretches.

One could not help but marvel at the energy, empathy and collective devotion it took for these musicians to bring Mahler’s world to life for us—with all its detailed plenitude, its wistful play at languor, its embrace of everything that is life, however dejecting or calamitous.

Metropolitan Opera in HD | Madame Butterfly

minghella butterfly

Madame Butterfly in HD [rebroadcast of the live March 7 Met performance]
March 17, 2009, Walter Reade Theatre at Lincoln Center
Metropolitan Opera
Conductor: Patrick Summers
Production: Anthony Minghella
Cast: Patricia Racette (Cio-Cio San), Marcello Giordani (Pinkerton), Maria Zifchak (Suzuki), Dwayne Croft (Sharpless)

The drama was taut, the gorgeousness detailed. The staging: imaginative, often exquisite, though always immodest enough for opera: bright scarlet blossom groves, glowing lanterns constellating unto galaxies aswirl, shimmering petals threaded onto filaments slowly descending like a seeping horizon, and of course measureless swathes of silk set unfurling. At times one almost feared it might verge on anime choreographed for wax-museum figures as directed by Zhang Yimou, but (Minghella’s English?) good taste reined things in.

Patricia Racette: powerhouse Puccinian—voice capacious, mellifluous throughout, the movement of her face and limbs in studious mimicry of girlishness. Nothing really could render her believable as an Asian child bride—the singing and emoting both were ripe too far beyond pubescence (and the ethnic makeover erred toward Morticia Addams, I thought)—but that’s the usual trouble so perhaps had to be forgiven. Marcello Giordani’s Pinkerton presented a solid amalgam of cad, brute, and dolt—nothing very complicated, though sung with soul. The whole supporting cast was surprisingly great, especially those in the roles of Suzuki, Sharpless, and Yamadori (played by an actual Asian singer—to odd yet doubly sympathetic effect somehow). Even Cio-Cio San’s mother, who barely gets any lines, lingers in this heartbreaking way on the hill upon leaving her just-married daughter—a supreme indication of the directorial care taken.

The silent puppet child, center and cipher of all this theatrical artifice, turned out to seem the most human and expressive of all—and even for this uncanny effect alone I’d recommend, and indeed repeat, the experience. Also for the thundering final act. Not one predisposed to Puccini, I left feeling dazzled and stricken. The performance will surely come out on DVD soon enough, so all is not lost to those who missed it this time.

CARNEGIE HALL | Yes to Janáček

Monday, March 9, 2009 at 8 PM

Pre-concert talk by Ara Guzelimian, Provost & Dean, The Juilliard School.

JANÁČEK | Sinfonietta
SZYMANOWSKI | Violin Concerto No. 1, Op. 35. Soloist: Frank Peter Zimmermann
STRAVINSKY | Pulcinella (complete). Soloists: Roxana Constantinescu (mezzo-soprano), Nicholas Phan (tenor), Kyle Ketelsen (bass-baritone)

The Janáček work was surprisingly revelatory—a work, one feels, modeled on nothing but its own sense of wonder and exuberance—and a reminder of Boulez’s tremendous contribution to programming. The opening twelve-trumpet fanfare immediately engages, yet so many ideas spring up and develop—entailing some transportingly beautiful spots for strings—before it returns again to close the work. Once in a while one hears for the first time, in concert or on the radio, a work one knows must urgently join one’s own inner repertoire; this piece had that effect. Juilliard Dean Ara Guzelimian’s fluent pre-concert lecture nicely evoked the faintly magical role of Kamila Stösslová—the 25 year-old wife of a small-town antiques dealer, with whom Janáček fell in love at 63 and who became the wellspring of nearly all of his important (i.e., late) output.

For my tastes the Szymanowski concerto suffers a bit from overlong lyricism—and its orchestration suggests more fantasia than concerto—but Zimmermann rendered the work with impressive precision, meeting its demand that the violinist stay strenuously in his instrument’s highest, most wracking range while producing notes of dreamlike delicacy.

A delight as always to hear Pulcinella again, especially so soon after seeing Douglas Dunn’s exhilarating, hilarious choreography.