The First Annual Lully Awards
When I was a little boy I was struck by the story of Jean-Baptiste Lully, who died almost as grisly a death as his Christian namesake, when blood poisoning developed after his staff, with which he used to keep time, penetrated his foot in the world’s worst conducting accident. Somehow, even though he gave his all for his art, this innovative composer has never been given his due and, in my miniscule way, I would like to honor him by naming my new prizes in his memory. It has been a tremendously exciting season and the following piece of fluff, in the truly maniacal American spirit of ranking everything under the sun, is just a reminder of some of its high and low lights.
Best Orchestral Performance: The Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Msitislav Rostropovich
The most thrilling night at symphony this season was not in New York at all but rather at The Academy of Music. It is a magical experience when a close friend of the composer is able to convey his innermost thoughts. In Rostropovich, we have a living national treasure as the Koreans say, and we should cherish every opportunity to hear his personal renditions of Prokofieff and Shostakovich. The Romeo and Juliet was as powerful as anything that I have ever heard and this uncanny Russian émigré even can make the fabulous Philadelphians sound amazing at this acoustically challenged hall. It seemed that we were all a part of history this night and I am already looking forward to this masterful cellist turned maestro’s series of Shostakovich concerts at Lincoln Center next season.
The Infected Foot Award for the Worst Orchestral Performance: The Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Pierre Boulez
What was particularly irritating about the Bruckner 9 perpetrated upon us by Pierre Boulez was his squandering of the considerable resources of the Vienna Philharmonic. There was no sense of chiaroscuro in this reading, no feel for proper klangfarben, no let up from the blaring, out of balance brass section. I still seethe when I think back on this sacrilegious assault on our sensibilities and remember the unpleasant physical effect of so much unnecessarily loud noise destroying the delicate dialogue between the humble supplicant composer and his very private deity. A close second on the schlock scale was the mindless rendition of the Mahler 6 by Eschenbach and the New York Phil, but Boulez wins the prize because his orchestra had so much further to fall.
Best Instrumental Solo Performance: Kyung-Wha Chung (violin)
Although I heard a number of great piano recitals this season, none could match the purity and spirituality of Ms. Chung’s Bach. In one of those very rare concert experiences, the performer became the music, standing stock-still as she communicated the most exultant of phrases. As the performance built in intensity, the revelations about the supreme craft of the composer came thick and fast. I was positively breathless at the conclusion. Ms. Chung spent the rest of the Avery Fisher afternoon showing how protean she is, performing in differing styles always expertly. There are many reasons to admire this consummate artist, not the least of which is her total disregard for musical fashion as demonstrated by her generous use of portamento. Her personal decision to severely cut back her concert schedule in order to raise her family is of course admirable and understandable, but it is too bad that more audiences can’t have the benefit of her very special aesthetic.
Worst Instrumental Solo Performance: Olly Mustonen (piano)
At the risk of receiving more impassioned email from the dedicated students of the Sibelius Academy, I can’t forget the sloppy, not ready for prime time performance of this fledgling composer masquerading as a concert pianist. His bizarre and off-putting gestures are not the reason for my distaste; rather it was his lack of concentration, consistently missed landings and paucity of emotion which remain in the memory.
Best Instrumental Performance with Orchestra: Sarah Chang (violin)
For several years now I have read about a young violinist of remarkable maturity, but recently I heard Sarah Chang for the first time. Playing in the larger context of the London Symphony’s Czech Festival, Ms. Chang totally blew me away with a spectacular performance of the Dvorak concerto, a work unjustly neglected by the major soloists of our time. Her huge attack instantly conveyed the warmth and depth of the piece as no other in memory. She seemed to lead the orchestra in this emotional journey and was so wrapped in the chrysalis of the performance as to begin to unconsciously dance about the stage with a charmingly girlish abandon. All of us in the audience caught the fever of the moment and I felt as if I had been at an experience far above the average concert edification: this was a journey to the center of an artist’s soul. Despite her immense popularity, Sarah Chang is a wonderful musician.
Worst Instrumental Performance with Orchestra: Kennedy (violin)
Back home in Connecticut, there used to be a Chinese restaurant which had only one tape for its portable stereo which served as the dining music. You knew that you had been too long at table when you began to listen to the Beethoven Violin Concerto for the third time. This extremely repetitious work requires a violinist of exceptional character and tonal color to keep the interest of the audience. Instead we were subjected to an intensely boring production by a surprisingly uninteresting musician with the additional annoying habit of counting beats with his foot like a carnival horse. I would hope that Mr. Kennedy’s popularity isn’t solely based on his costumes and hair, but I don’t hear much substance behind the glitter.
Biggest Surprise: The Cincinnati Symphony
A program of De Falla and Tchaikovsky by a provincial orchestra was hardly my first choice of concerts when I first mapped out my January schedule. I debated long and hard before attending this event, remembering some of my disappointments with ensembles from smaller mid-Western American cities. To my surprise and delight, what I got instead was a world-class performance of the Pathetique, revelatory in the extreme for this listener and marvelously balanced in its overall sonority. Maestro Jesus Lopez-Cobos was saying farewell to Carnegie Hall at this concert and his inspired leadership of the Spanish second half of the program was electric. These are really the best evenings of all: when your expectations are relatively low and the finished product is so spectacular.
Biggest Disappointment: Cecilia Bartoli
Not having Anne-Sophie Mutter on my calendar this year, I had to settle for this over-hyped but endearingly idiosyncratic personality. The popularity of this mistress of the arcane is a great puzzle to me. Her singing is totally unemotional (my colleague in the old gray lady got it exactly right when she stated that all of her songs sound exactly the same) and her bel canto ornamentation a remnant from a bygone and almost forgotten era. I would think that in order to make it big in the popular imagination, one needs to exaggerate the emotions and, judging by most of the pop stars that I am forced to overhear, not quite sing on pitch. Ms. Bartoli is just the opposite: her notes are always flawless but also always meaningless. But she must be doing something right; the scalpers have a field day outside Carnegie whenever she appears.
Most Improved: The New York Philharmonic
Having been the fattest kid in junior school, I know that this award can be given out of pity, but I really do want to praise Kurt Masur for his steady and systematic improvement of the musical values of this most frustrating of orchestras. While jackals like me nipped at his heels, Masur went about his task in a workmanlike manner and now, seven years in, his ensemble is much more solidly professional in Central European repertoire and can even come up with the occasional thrilling evening. There has always been talent there, but the attitude just plain stinks. Let’s not be Cassandras and wait to see what effect Loren Maazel has on this rowdy group.
Best Chamber Performance: The Artis Quartet
The idiom of the Second Viennese School is a particularly difficult one for a string quartet, as this was the medium favored by its major adherents for experimentation. Performing at a level far beyond their years, this youthful group presented works of Berg, Webern and Zemlinsky in an authoritative and entertaining manner, not compromising technique for clarity and not condescending to the audience at all. The resulting recital was highly energetic and imbued with the rebellious delights of Keatsian youth and truth.
Worst Chamber Performance: The Guarneri Quartet
The yang to the Artis’ yin was the tired scrapings of this once venerable ensemble. Age was not the issue here so much as spirit; the old routine has left this quartet with nothing left to say. One of the most crowded concerts of the year (there were stage seats and SRO tickets) turned out to be the most disappointing. Next season there will be some new blood in the group and not a moment too soon.
Best Vocal Performance: Jessye Norman
There are many good concerts in New York each season, but not too many significant events. This three part series had the feel of something special. The crowds were more energized; the spotlights were spot on, the repertoire left undecided until the last minute; this was showmanship of the highest order. None of the glitter would have amounted to anything without an exceptionally burnished performance by both Ms. Norman and her accompanist James Levine. The voice has become even more laden with character; the thespian abilities honed to perfection. A recent disappointing traversal of the Wesendonck Lieder by a much less talented singer only called to mind the intensity of Ms. Norman’s emotion at the first recital. There was a certain swan song quality to the affair as a whole, which only added to the majesty. This performance will probably last the longest in the memory of any of the fine evenings of the year.
Best Performance by a New Artist: Shunsuke Sato (violin)
The acid test at this recital was that if one closed one’s eyes, one could fantasize that the performer was a highly skilled and seasoned veteran, one who had worked long and hard to develop mature conceptions of the pieces which he was presenting, not to mention spending years honing his prodigious technical skills. The surprise was that, with eyes open, we perceived that the performer on the stage of the 92nd St. Y was only 14 years old. Parenthetically, I received an email from Shunsuke Sato sometime after I wrote his review. Rather than being concerned with self-aggrandizement, the violinist promised me instead that he would continue to work very hard. I have no doubt that he will be a major star in the near future.
Best Piece of New Music: Ron Ford for Salome Fast
For me, the highlight of last summer’s Lincoln Center Festival was a fantasy for computer tape, live instruments and spoken voice evocative of Shelley’s Ozymandias. The use of a non-musical speaker whose native Syrian was as close to Aramaic as we can possibly get lent an air of credence to the proceedings. The entire mood was akin to a first visit to the Pyramids (or at least the Metropolitan Museum) and the intoxicating state of mind which such an experience fosters. As the voice trailed off in electronic incarnations, we all felt the insignificance of man’s efforts in the grand scheme of the universe. Pretty heady stuff for a summer evening.
Best News Story: The Search for New Conductors in New York, Philadelphia and Boston
Endless grist for the journalistic mill, the fumblings and bumblings of the three major Northeastern US orchestras and their out-of-touch boards of directors would have been hilarious if they were not so pathetic. Philadelphia lost the best of the lot of candidates in Simon Rattle and ended up with possibly the worst of the litter in Christoph Eschenbach. New York fired its 73 year old music director, telling him that he was too old (how do they get around the laws against age discrimination?), only to hire a fresh young buck of 71 to take his place. Boston forced out the prestigious Seiji Ozawa and then looked around and found that there was literally no one to take his place. If Hollywood wanted to make a film about this season, the three chairmen of the respective boards would have to be played by Larry Fine and Moe and Shemp Howard (with a special guest appearance by Curly as Isaac Stern, defending the perceived Fascist tactics of now ousted Carnegie grand vizier Franz Xaver Ohnesorg).
Saddest Story: The Demise of Werner Klemperer
Not all of us children who are hypnotized by classical music into wishing to make it a part of our adult lives have the talent necessary to become performers. Some of us become critics, while others channel their creative energies in other directions. There was so much more to Werner Klemperer than his portrayal of Colonel Klink. A lifelong advocate of actor’s rights, he became a major force in the wars of respect that have characterized the theatre scene here for many years. Growing up in a famous musical household, Werner regularly was encouraged as a child by the likes of Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Mann. He combined his prodigious talent and love for the theatre with his joy in communicating classical music and forged a second career for himself as a speaker. Werner would play for any audience, whether a noontime crowd at Bryant Park, where he recited the Ogden Nash verses in a student presentation of Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals, or the more sophisticated audience at a Bard College retrospective of the music of Schoenberg wherein he presented an ethereally inspired sprecher in the Gurrelieder. His leave-taking reminds me of a line in the film King’s Row (scored by his friend Erich Wolfgang Korngold), when Maria Ouspenskaya’s character of the grandmother is preparing to die. The most prominent men of the town, the lawyer and the doctor, discuss this grand musical woman. “When she passes”, the lawyer says, “an entire era dies with her”. True gentlemen like Werner Klemperer are an increasingly rare breed. He will be missed.
Frederick L. Kirshnit