Friday, April 5, 2019

Musical Experiences

Saturday, March 23rd

Taking advantage of our niece’s Times Square apartment, we spent a week in New York City to sample the riches of its cultural offerings. And what offerings they were!

Arriving early in the morning, we rested for much of the day and attended the evening performance of the Metropolitan Opera’s Tosca. Sir David McVicar’s production, with John MacFarlane’s sumptuous sets, take advantage of the MET’s vast stage and aim for absolute realism. The Church of Sant’ Andrea della Valle, the Palazzo Farnese, and the Castel Sant’ Angelo were as close to “the real thing” as can be imagined. This makes perfect sense because no other opera is more tied to its setting than Tosca– Rome. The locations of all three acts are actual places in Rome anyone can visit today.

Jennifer Rowley’s (Tosca) and Joseph Calleja (Cavaradossi) were vocally and dramatically a good match for each other. But for me it was Wolfgang Koch’s portrayal of Scarpia, as well as his interaction with Tosca, that captured my attention. In spite of this opera’s title, the work could just as convincingly be called Scarpia, for it is the evil spirit of this character that pervades the entire drama. Indeed, the very first thing we hear in Act I is the dramatic and manacing Scarpia motif. 

Koch’s singing and acting of the role of Baron Scarpia is indeed masterful, in turn menacing, fawning, and lustful. At the conclusion of Act I, when Puccini’s ingenious theatrical instincts combines the height of the Te Deumwith Scarpia’s line, “Tosca, mi fai dimenticare Iddio,”, Koch’s Scarpia knelt and, in an exaggerated gesture, struck his breast three times, the Catholic sign for “Mea Culpa”. The end of this first act also afforded us the opportunity to experience, alas too briefly, the power and beauty of the MET chorus. 

Saturday’s performance of Tosca’s Act II had to be the dramatic highlight of the evening. The lighting of Scarpia’s richly appointed office, with his underlings surrounding him, gave the impression of a scene from The Godfather, and the interaction between Tosca and Scarpia gave the impression of two archetypes, two strong emotions pitted against each other. In Tosca’s Vissi d’arte, Rowley paced the aria beautifully. Before her final line (“perché me ne rimuneri cosi?”), she took a very pregnant pause (Puccini indicates a luftpausehere) – perhaps not what the composer had written, but it worked in this instance. The scene between Scarpia and Tosca was electrifying, and genuinely frightening.

Carlo Rizzi conducted the MET orchestra with a real sense of urgency and drama throughout. In Act II, when Tosca intoned the line, “Questo è il bacio di Tosca”, the orchestra’s electrifying playing of the chords made the entire scene all the more horrifying. At the beginning of Act III, Rizzi evoked a wonderful atmosphere from the orchestra, and the clarinet solo at 11 was filled with a real sense of despair. 

With all the dramatic tension, it is all too easy to forget about poor Cavaradossi. Indeed his “E lucevan la stelle” was beautifully shaped and paced. Calleja sang the line “le belle forme disciogliea dai veli” with an incredible, and incredibly controlled, diminuendo.

Toscadoes not tug at the emotional heartstrings like La Bohemeor Madama Butterfly, it doesn’t thrill us with vocal pyrotechnics like Turandot, and it is not harmonically innovative like La fanciulla del West. But a great performance of Tosca, such as the one I witnessed last Saturday, can leave us gaping in horror at the battle between these emotional archetypes. 

For me, all the elements came together on that Saturday performance - the absolute commitment and incredibly high level of singing, great playing by the orchestra, as well as the dramatic involvement of all the principals – it made for the most affecting and riveting ToscaI have experienced. It is great to be back in this great opera house.

Monday, March 25th

In 1853, upon finishing a scene in one of his Ring operas, Wagner wrote to Liszt, “My friend! I am in a state of wonderment! A new world stands revealed before me…everything within me seethes and makes music. Oh, I am in love!” I experienced some of the composer’s feeling of exaltation after attending the MET’s season premiere performance of Die Walküre. For me, this performance was the most theatrically and musically overwhelming experience I have had in a long while. 

Conductor Philippe Jordan drew truly beautiful playing from the orchestra. He led a performance that was nuanced, passionate, and one that had a sense of totality of Wagner’s vast canvas. The strings and woodwinds really shone in the beauty of sound they produced throughout the evening. 

There has been much attention on Christine Goerke’s Brünnhilde. For me, her dramatic involvement in the role was even more compelling than her vocal prowess (which was considerable). She really captured the transition from a boisterous warrior, dedicated solely to doing her father’s will, to someone touched by love, having witnessed the passion between Siegmund and Sieglinde.

For me, the voice that caught my ear had to be Eva-Maria Westbrock’s Sieglinde. She sang with an emotive quality that I found absolutely compelling. The brief passage she sang after she was told that she was carrying Siegmund’s child was simply thrilling, certainly the vocal highlight of the evening. Westbrock was well matched in vocal beauty and dramatic ability by Stuart Skelton’s Siegmund. Günther Groissböck made for a manacing Hunding, much more physically abusive towards Sieglinde than we are used to seeing. Greer Grimsley was a commanding Wotan, and successfully portrayed the god’s feeling of helplessness as his plans unraveled one after another. His farewell to Brünnhilde was filled with both compassion and humanity. 

The stage machinery functioned without a hilt the night of the performance. I feel that Robert Lepage’s concept and design for the operas was truly ingenious. Using a simple series of metal beams as well as extremely effective lighting and projections, we see before our eyes the transformation from forest to Hunding’s home, from rocky mountain heights to Brünnhilde’s place of magical sleep. I believe that only with the MET’s awesome technical capabilities could this production be carried out. 

After the performance, I could not help but think how Wagner’s tale of gods and men remain relevant today as it did when it was first performed. How like Wotan are we today, when we think we have the ingenuity to control every element of our lives, not seeing the many other elements that are unraveling beyond our control.

Tuesday, March 26th

was happy to learn that Jaap van Zweden, the New York Philharmonic’s music director, would be conducting during our week’s stay. I had long admired Maestro van Zweden (along with a long line of distinguished conductors) for his work with the Hong Kong Philharmonic, elevating it to a truly world class orchestra.

The programme is one that showcases the Philharmonic’s many strengths. The evening began with Charles Ives’ Central Park in the Dark. It is difficult to believe that so many of Ives’ groundbreaking works are now more than a century old. The Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein had begun championing the work of this very original American composer. I believe van Zweden’s conception of this work was a sound one, taking the audience through a series of sound pictures, or dreamscapes, like a stream of consciousness. He allowed the music to build towards the climatic cacophony of band music and street noise.

It is not difficult to understand why John Adams is today’s most popular – and perhaps most performed - contemporary operatic composer. His sensitivity to the text when writing music is apparent in The Wound-Dresser, for Baritone Voice and Orchestra (1988), performed by the great baritone Matthias Goerne. This is a musical setting of a fragment from the poem by Walt Whitman, a poem that describes the horrors and tragedy of the American Civil War, seen through the eyes of a battlefield nurse. Adams sensitivity in setting music to words is apparent in many instances throughout this short but intense score. For instance, with the words, “I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that could save you”, the strings took on palpable warmth and played an emotive, upward sweeping figure. In the line, “Hard the breathing rattles”, there were faster moving figures in the strings, and the music took on an almost disjointed quality.

Adams’ work highlighted the many outstanding instrumentalists of the orchestra. Concertmaster Frank Huang played a beautiful violin solo to the words, “The hurt and the wounded I pacify with soothing hand.” The score also called for heroic trumpet work throughout, and principal trumpet Christopher Martin raised magnificently to the challenge. 

Matthias Goerne sang with great sensitivity to the text – no surprise here since here is one of the great lieder singers of our time. In the climatic moments, most notably with the words, “Cleanse the one with a gnawing and putrid gangrene, so sickening, so offensive”, Goerne’s voice soared above the sound of the orchestra. Van Zweden conducted the score with great authority and feeling.

Van Zweden’s reading of Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 was very much in a Toscanini rather than a Bruno Walter vein. From the ominous strokes of the timpani in the beginning to the triumphal ending of the 4thmovement, van Zweden and the orchestra gave a performance that was highly dramatic, taut, intense, almost driven, and with utmost awareness to the architecture of the large work. The tricky transition from the Un poco sostenutointroduction to the allegrowas expertly handled. The strings played the opening theme of the Andante sostenutomovement with great warmth. The pacing of the movement made me feel that the music was leading inevitably to the beautiful violin solo at letter E. The third movement somehow felt like, for the first time, a very brief intermezzo. Van Zweden drew magnificent playing from the players throughout, but especially in the final movement. 

Sitting in Row 3 of David Geffen Hall (I still secretly think of it as Avery Fisher Hall), I felt not only the incredible power of this orchestra, but I noticed the incredible level of involvement of every member of the ensemble. This is van Zweden’s second season with the Philharmonic, and I hope that he can keep the musicians on this level of inspiration during his tenure. 

Wednesday, March 27th

We ended our musical journey in New York in Carnegie Hall, with a recital with Emanuel Ax. Ax has reached the stage of his musical journey when he has nothing to prove. It was not a recital that sets out to “impress”, but just very beautiful and natural music making. 

I liked Ax’s pacing and the rich sound he evoked from the piano in Brahms’ Two Rhapsodies, Op. 79. I appreciated his pacing of these large works, and how he was able to weave through the composer’s thick textures.

The programme continued with Piano Figures, a set of very short pieces by George Benjamin with evocative titles such as SpellKnotsHammersMosaicAround the Corner, and Whirling, to name just a few. Ax rose to the considerable technical challenges set out by the composer in every one of the pieces, and managed to highlight the unique character of each number. 

Other than the aforementioned work by Benjamin, the programme of Brahms, Schumann, Ravel and Chopin made me think of Arthur Rubinstein, for this was the kind of programme Mr. Rubinstein loved to perform. Indeed, the next two works in the programme were ones that the great pianist played until the end of his career. 

Emanuel Ax ended the first half with Robert Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op. 12. The pianist played the suite of pieces with great imagination and beauty of sound. The opening DesAbendswas played in a songful manner, and the pianist projected the melodic line like a giant arch. Aufschwungwas, appropriately, impetuous and soaring, with beautiful voicing of the calmer middle section. In Warum, Ax played the short work simply, clearly delineating the musical texture. He played the opening chords of Grillenwith great energy and a real feeling of forward motion, as well as voicing each chord beautifully. There was a wonderful balance between the vertical and horizontal aspects of the music, as well as a real sense of logic in the transition through the different episodes. In der Nachtwas played with a real sense of Schumannesque “fever”, and with the middle section beginning like an apparition. The beginning of Fabelwas played in a disarmingly simple manner, alternating with the considerably faster moving episodes. Ax’s playing of Traumes Wirrenwas exhilarating and breathtaking, conjuring up a whirlwind of sound. In Ende von Lied, he played it with almost a feeling of mock seriousness. The B section was rhythmically impeccable, and the end of the work had just a tinge of regret.

The pianist revealed in an interview that he had studied Ravel’sValses nobles et sentimentaleswith Arthur Rubinstein, and that the older pianist had something insightful to say about every single chord. Ax’s own playing of this fin de sièclework of Ravel was truly masterful, and for me, the highlight of the evening. He managed to bring out the unique characteristic and sound world of each waltz. In the opening chords of the first waltz, Ax certainly observed the composer’s indication of très franc, with a suitably dry sound. The chords in the Assezlentwere wonderfully voiced. Ax played the third waltz (modéré) with a caressing tone and subtle pedaling. The technically challenging seventh waltz (Moins vif) was technically impregnable. In the Épilogue, he conjured from the instrument an otherworldly beauty of sound. 

The recital ended with a group of Chopin. Ax played the Nocturne in B major, Op. 62, No. 1 with great beauty of sound as well as depth of feeling, and with a sense of organic unity. The coda was played almost as a single breath. The Three Mazurkas, Op. 50 as well as the Andante spinato and Grande Polonaise brillante, Op. 22 were also played with musicality. I did feel that, in the mazurkas and in the polonaise, it was a cosmopolitan kind of Chopin playing. I did miss the Polish flavour, the smell of Polish earth, and the indescribable feeling of żal, a combination of sadness, suffering, a feeling of passing, and of having lost everything. Beautiful as they were played, the uniquely Polish flavour, the essence of Chopin, was somehow missing. 

That aside, it was a highly satisfying evening of music making by one of today’s most loved pianists. I feel grateful for this week of memorable musical experiences, ones that I will be carrying with me for a long time to come.

Patrick May

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