The least important thing I'm going to do in this space...
October 1: The Marriage of Figaro - Washington National Opera
I thought it started at 8, not 7. It was a completely traditional, thoroughly adequate, thoroughly delightful evening in the company of my favorite opera that I'll travel around the world to see if I have enough money. Fin.
The first time I heard the Simon Bolivar Symphony, they were a youth orchestra, and quite frankly, they were better. This is not the place to get into the relative merits of El Sistema vs. the dysfunction of Venezuela. I don't know what it is that's lacking, the size of the ensemble is still overwhelming, but there is a conspicuous lack of women in their new incarnation. Does the lack of women deplete the frission the orchestra used to have? Whatever it is, the orchestra that used to be a conglomeration of 200 attractive men and women that played with their entire bodies is gradually becoming just another orchestra of jobbing musicians in their thirties who are disproportionately male for whom a concert is just another concert. That first time I heard the Bolivarians live, it was a Rite of Spring for the ages, played by the kinds of youthful, energetic people for whom the Rite of Spring is created. Dudamel's conception was roughly the same, but the weight of the orchestra - in the dead space that is the Kennedy Center concert hall no less, was astonishing. You didn't just hear their sound, you felt it - everything from the basses up to the highest flutes and trumpets registered not only in the bodies of the players, but in the bodies of the audience. In their Rite of Spring which opened the Carnegie Hall season, there was only just a small fraction of that frission.
Growing up among dance rhythms and the glorification of youth that is Latin American culture, the Bolivarians have a hotline to The Rite of Spring that many more refined orchestras lack. They do not, however, have a hotline into the upper class elegance and nostalgia necessary for a La Valse for the ages. It's something they will have to work towards over a period of decades. This was a fine performance, Dudamel, due to conduct the Vienna New Year's Concert for 2017, has a fine ear for the bends and byways of waltz rhythm, but it was still too mechanical - a generic Ravel piece rather than a macabre love letter to a culture killed by Big Bertha. It was followed by a hodgepodge of 'greatest hits' dance music from 'around the world' which contained few surprises. Hoedown... Trisch-Trasch Polka... Hungarian Dance #5... Ginasteria's Estancia... West Side Story Mambo. Excellently played of course as the Bolivarians always do dance music, but unbelievably awkward in the silence of how pieces which need no introduction were introduced one after the other with a spoken introduction in Dudamel's still quite halting English.
I believe in Gustavo Dudamel - he has not only not forgotten his roots in Venezuela, he has refused the hyper-prestige appointments which orchestras have no doubt thrown at him behind the scenes with little regard for whether he's ready - staying loyal to the musicians who brought him to eminence in a manner that contemporaries of his like Yannick-Nezet Seguin and Andris Nelsons were all too willing to ditch for more glamorous and prestigious places. In twenty years, I'm positive that Dudamel will be a Maestro for the ages. But in the meantime, the Simon Bolivar Symphony has to undergo the same growing pains that every musical ensemble must after the thrill of youth leaves and one struggles to find one's mature voice. So long as their core stays together with Gustavo Dudamel at the helm, they will reach the promised land of musical greatness.
October 7: Simon Bolivar Symphony - Dudamel - Carnegie Hall
THIS was more like it. Somehow, eighty-five odd years after its composition, this was the Carnegie Hall Premiere of Villa-Lobos Bachianas Brasillieras #2. There are all sorts of sleeping giants in the 20th century classical repertoire, with outputs large enough to equal Bach's, and probably similar in how it contains hundreds of treasures alongside hundreds of generic duds (my opinion of Bach's is not everybody's...) - Villa-Lobos, Martinu, Hindemith, Milhaud, Henze, Rautavaara, Penderecki - perhaps even known giants like Sibelius and Nielsen and Messiaen and Britten of whom the world still only skims the surface of their outputs. Even now, they lie in wait for performers and audiences to catch up to them and cull the wheat from the chafe - masterpiece after masterpiece seemingly content to collect dust until the world takes notice.
If Dudamel puts the weight of his prestige behind Villa Lobos the way Beecham did for Delius, it will be a career well-spent (better than Beecham's... and I LIKE Delius). Alongside a few more light-weight Latin Dances, this was a revelation from a still unexplored continent of music finally brought to life in a new hemisphere. The orchestra slimmed down to (relative) chamber size, and an orchestra that sounded tired the day before came to life with the excitement of new discovery. The Bolivarians are learning how to do new things.
What followed was a Petrushka that was 10x as charismatic as the day before's Rite. Dudamel is no master yet - he still sometimes, as in the Russian Dance, relies on fast tempos to provide the excitement that phrasing and color should take care of - and speed for speed's sake is rarely as exciting as it seems. But within this Petrushka was character galore - the contrabassoon's famous belch elicited an entire concert hall's worth of laughter. Every solo seemed to have an original bend of the phrase. This is the way to make music.
October 8: Met - Tristan und Isolde - Rattle/Stemme/Skelton/Pape
There are five conductors in my idiosyncratic personal pantheon for whom I will track down every performance of every vintage, and only one of them is living: Charles Munch, Dmitri Mitropoulos, Rafael Kubelik, Leonard Bernstein, and Simon Rattle. There is not a single performance in my experience from any of these five from which you can't learn something, and often something extraordinary. For other conductors, music is an autocracy. For these five, music is a democracy - seemingly no limits in the repertoire they choose, seemingly no limits in the new takes they'll find on old repertoire. Dictators like Szell and Dorati and Muti can thrill through their precision, philosopher kings like Furtwangler and Celibidache and Barenboim can engender awe through their loftiness. But these five do not rule, they are presidents, who proactively inspire their ensembles with inspiring ideas, and thereby inspire their orchestras to the same. In the cases of these five, the goal is neither to capture the spirit of the composer nor the recapturing a lost performance tradition nor the exploitation of music to make philosophic points. The goal is musicmaking that lives purely in the moment of its performance, a living document that is neither bound by the score or by previous performances.
Of course, such a conception of music should be generally alien to the music of its preeminent philosopher-autocrat, not that it stopped, or should have stopped them, Kubelik particularly was a Wagnerian of distinction whose performances have been preserved quite well. But if any music lives in the moment or sinks by the hour, it is the music of Richard Wagner. Wagner has to live and breathe, every phrase newly minted and originally conceived, or he dies. It should come as no secret then why so many music lovers find his operas moribund.
It is almost impossible to write about Wagner without aping his extreme length and bloat. One can't possibly do justice to the plethora of elements, particularly if one is not particularly passionate about Wagner. I personally find Wagner a great composer, a good dramatist, a bad poet and a horrible philosopher, and because Wagner's musical genius is hidebound by his ideas, his music dramas can be cripplingly dull indeed.
Tristan generally falls somewhere between the top to the middle of my interest in him - not as interesting to me as Die Meistersinger and parts of the Ring, but hundreds of times more interesting than Parsifal. Even so, there are moments in Tristan, whole quarter hours even, that are breathtaking and my life would be far poorer without. What a shame that the director, Marius Trelinsky I think, underlined them with the subtlety of a kid with a squirt gun. When Brangene interrupts Trisolde's love duet, and all that remains are two string lines intermingling in counterpoint with each other like the merging of two souls, Trelinsky closes the fucking curtain, as though we're too dumb to perceive the blissful oblivion for ourselves. When it's time for the Liebestod, Isolde is left on the stage alone with what one can only assume is a dead Tristan sitting on a bench after he's presumably bled to death from the wound (in this case a gunshot wound) given him by Melot.
One could hear boos for the staging during the applause, complaints in the audience ("Go back to Stuttgart" I heard a neighbor say). In truth, the staging was neither shocking nor pseudo-shocking in the manner of so much European opera. It was simply unsatisfying in a manner that neither helped to elucidate Wagner's philosophical ideas nor improved them.
Musically, what can one say? We were in the presence of Nina Stemme, the great Isolde of our era, Rene Pape, the great Bass of our era, and Simon Rattle, the great Maestro of our era (for me at least). If they can't provide a great Tristan, nobody can. It says a lot that Stuart Skelton, not a Tristan for the ages, did very little to embarrass himself. His voice was clearly extremely tired by Act III, but then again, Tristan is on the edge of death and madness, perhaps that's precisely what Wagner intended - his exhaustion only added depth to his scenes. Stemme was, of course, as close to perfect as the largest role in the soprano repertoire can allow. But if anything, her performance showed the limits of perfection. In this least perfect of all composers, perfection is the enemy. Wagner is nothing if not his own musical death cult - he demands that his lead singers give everything to him and risk their entire future career on every performance. A singer unwilling to do so may have a brighter future, but he or she is not a born Wagnerian.
It was ultimately Rattle's show of course, and Rattle nearly accomplished the impossible - to make the entirety of Tristan truly sing with an unending melody. It was not the plush and rectilinear Met Wagner of Levine or Leinsdorf, thank god, nor was it a Tristan much like any other Wagner conductor. It was a human scaled Tristan, I found myself thinking again and again 'this is how Giulini would have conducted it.' Rattle once said in an interview that he thought of Tristan as Schubert on steroids, and what emerged was an intimate music drama of extremely human dimensions. In this most artful of composers, Rattle fashioned something that felt nearly artless. The effortlessness with which the central love duet spun out was a thing of wonder, for once, Tristan und Isolde did not seem like two philosophical nodes upon which grandiloquence is hung, but two human beings, very much in love. Rattle is the one living conductor who can achieve what is in my view the most impossible task in music: he can make Wagner seem human.
October 10: Philadelphia Orchestra - Mahler 6 - Rattle - Carnegie Hall
Vassily Petrenko is as gifted as a conductor can get while still giving no indication of any sort of intellectual or emotional depth. In Shostakovich, he clearly knows how to get precisely the right sonorities and balances in loud and soft passages and everything between to make your hair stand straight up. In Beethoven piano concertos he knows exactly how to accompany in such a manner that deflects attention to his soloist and fits the soloist like a glove.
But Shostakovich 10 is not just a Prokofiev-like rollercoaster. It is, like Mahler 6, one of the great tragic statements in music, and again like Mahler 6, all the more tragic for being so ironic and strange. When the playing is so magnificent, one might be thought ungrateful for uttering any 'but' in addition to awesome praise for an awesome performance... but...
I went back home afterward, I listened to Shostakovich 10 as rendered by Mravinsky, Kondrashin, Oistrakh, Sanderling, Gergiev, Nelsons, Ancerl, Mitropoulos, Jansons, Shipway, (yes, I'm weird, get over it), and particularly when one hears Oistrakh and Gergiev, you immediately perceive a songfulness, a tragedy, a loss, a humor, a depth, about which Petrenko might not have the foggiest idea. The noise was awesome, but a beginning listener could walk away from that performance without it occurring to them that Shostakovich 10 is about anything at all.
The soloist, on the other hand, Inon Barnatan, is Beethovenian to the marrow. Everything a magnificent Beethoven pianist is supposed to be, Barnatan is. Effortless virtuosity and iridescent fire, leavened by every bit as much poetry and humanity, and an organizational mind to fuse it all together seamlessly. This was as great a performance of Beethoven 3 as the world can ever hear. I hope to hear this pianist many more times over the years. Petrenko was a perfect accompanist to him, a perfect conducting machine - a second Karajan or Mravinsky who could probably drill an orchestra to the level of the world's greatest, but it might be left to guest conductors to find the music which such precision makes possible.
October 22: Baltimore Symphony - Lintu
If I had to venture a guess, Marin Alsop will leave the BSO in 2021. Her contract is up, she'll be 65, and she'll try to use her seventies to chase one last chance for a prestige appointment. I have no doubt she's chomping to get her hands on the San Francisco Symphony when MTT leaves, or perhaps the BBC Symphony. Will she get them? Will she want to stay once she gets these poisoned chalices? Who knows, even if she ends up in St. Louis or Detroit or Cincinnati after Baltimore, it will be a career well spent.
If the BSO manages to stay a full-time orchestra after Alsop leaves and only 500 listeners show up to any performance, the director will probably be Hannu Lintu, one of the army of tall blond Finns bombarding the orchestral scene at the current moment. Like the Hungarian maestri of yesteryear, these Finns all seem cut from the same cloth. Superbly analytical musical minds that respond incredibly well to new music, quite capable and musically sound in traditional rep, but a little bit arid and too given to virtuoso grandstanding like fast tempos and crisp precision.
I yearn, I wilt, I pine, for Markus Stenz to be the next director. But it's amazing that a conductor both this advanced in his career and this genuinely great has agreed to come to Baltimore as a principal guest for three weeks a year, let alone ten or twelve. Stenz is not a perfect conductor, given to flights of virtuoso grandstanding in which he takes fast tempos, seemingly for the sole purpose of showing off his magnificent conducting technique that can hold an orchestra together at tempos that most conductors would find impossible to manage (in the 90s, David Zinman had the same problem). But while Stenz is occasionally given to the same virtuoso slickness as Petrenko or Lintu, he provides musical revelation after revelation whenever he doesn't.
Hannu Lintu has the same virtuosity problem as Stenz, and gives into it rather more frequently. Lintu's been in Baltimore every year for the five I've lived in Baltimore as an adult, and he clearly finds it difficult to give into the better angels of his musical nature. The good news is that the better angels are most certainly there. And in these five performances, never have I heard them to better effect than this weekend.
Rautavaara's magnificent Cantus Arcticus received its Baltimore premiere this weekend, because Baltimore is finally ready for music composed in 1972..., and it was bloody magnificent. I love Rautavaara's music deeply. No composer of his generation wrote more gorgeous sonorities and harmonies, and while there is occasional unmistakable drift into Enya-like new age banality, a composer who wrote so much music has to have some duds. There is magnificence everywhere in his output, and still more in this particular music. Even amid such magnificence, you could see the elderly crowd grinding their bridges into dust as the bird soundscape made its electronic appearance - you could see their thought bubbles: MUSIC ISN'T SUPPOSED TO HAVE BIRDS!
What makes Cantus Arcticus so magnificent is not just the beauty of the string and wind writing, which might seem a little saccharine if taken on its own, or the bird soundscape, which is merely a soundscape without the music. When one puts the two together, you get something between beauty and ridiculousness, precisely the strangeness where sublimity can reside. By the end you have no idea what to make of this... strange bird... (I'll show myself out...)
Another Beethoven Piano Concerto, the first, this time with Angela Hewitt as the soloist. Hewitt is a very fine pianist beginning to get up there in years, you hear an occasional smudge in the runs, but you'd hear that from many pianists half her age. Hewitt is a very probing musician, perhaps too probing at the expense of other qualities, but Lintu wasn't quite with her. In the middle slow movement, she came in with a very slow and flexible tempo and gorgeously soft dynamics, yet Lintu seemed completely unaware of the specialness of what was developing right next to him, and inevitably brought the orchestra in at a faster, metric tempo and louder dynamic. But when Hewitt got to break free, she turned the piece into something completely different - the incredibly long and taxing cadenza in the incredibly long and taxing opening movement was absolutely magnificent - Hewitt seemed ready to tackle an Alkan Transcendental Etude at the end of it.
But within Lintu's gargantuan but lanky frame with its silver aging hipster faux-hawk and immaculately polished shoes is a real musical mind and heart, and it was on his sleeve during their performance of Dvorak 8. No musician in the world could probe more deeply than he made the BSO probe here. Whether it was cutting loose with the raucousness of Dvorak's Slavonic dance-party, or the breathtaking (and unmistakable in this performance) imitations of nature in the second movement, or the luminously beautiful panoply of melodies Dvorak invites us to share with him all through the score, Lintu gave us Dvorak as he should always be - bathed in the light of the air and the dirt of the earth, rubato everywhere, pianissimos so soft you had to strain to hear them from the front row (where I was sitting), uproarious noise when Dvorak is extraverted, stunning sensitivity when Dvorak is introverted.
The eighth is my favorite Dvorak symphony - there is no straining for a grand symphonic statement, just an invitation to share in Dvorak's humanity and decency. Three seats to my right, there was an elderly man so slouched over that he looked a month away from the big concert in the sky. During that soft G-Major glimpse heaven towards the end of the finale, he began to cry as his wife consoled him. "It's so nice" he said to her. It was such a beautiful moment that I didn't begrudge him talking in such close proximity to the players, had they seen it, I doubt they would have either.