The Second Annual Lully Awards
It’s that time again. The centerpiece of Lincoln Center Plaza has been turned off (is it still a fountain if there’s no water?) in the midst of a rather significant drought brought upon by the warmest winter on record. The economic dominoes set in motion after the terrorist attacks are beginning to fall and it is virtually impossible to have dinner anywhere near Avery Fisher Hall any longer as nearly all of the nearby restaurants have closed. Concert attendance, like all tourist activities in the Big Apple, was noticeably off this season and the city has fallen into the funk of petty bickering once again, artistic executives repeating the mantra of governmental abandonment rather than exploring the paths to more creative, audience engaging programming and pricing (it is ever thus: Berlioz, writing about funding issues in the 1840’s, categorized serious art music as “a waif that the world is trying to turn into a prostitute”). The New York City Opera is threatening (some would say promising) to leave the complex and set up shop on the site of the old World Trade Center. Perhaps the aura of resurrection that should envelope that hallowed ground will infuse them with a new spirit of integrity and allow them to jettison their offensive crutch, that cursed amplification system. A look back at the season that was features a number of remarkable highs and lows and contains in its sense of closure the hope that next year will be decidedly better for us all.
Best Concert of the Season: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
The Fates were really smiling on me this season, as the only concert which I was able to hear twice was the finest of the entire year. Outgoing music director Riccardo Chailly led his most legitimate candidate for World’s Best Orchestra (only Berlin can compete in this rarified atmosphere) in two spectacular readings of the Mahler 2nd. The New Jersey performance might have been just a tad more exciting and defined than the Carnegie, the ensemble utilizing the entire palette of this “Maler” who has gone in 100 years from the cap and bells to the throne of public adoration. Oddly, neither the RCO nor the Berlin Phil will be coming to New York next season (the latter perhaps a pawn in new president Franz Xaver Ohnesorg’s personal grudge against Carnegie Hall) and each is in transition: the search will now open for a candidate to lead the Concertgebouw into the 21st century (here’s an early vote for Dutchman Reinbert De Leeuw) while the silken sounds of the Berliners clash head-on with the gritty and grainy aesthetic of Sir Simon Rattle.
Worst Concert of the Season: New York Philharmonic
Kurt Masur is just a memory now and the same scoundrels who dogged him for eleven years will probably be lionizing him in the fall after Lorin Maazel takes over. Masur’s record was spotty at best and audiences never seemed to warm to his centralist style. There were few remarkable performances but a goodly number of substandard ones, including a dreadful assault on the ears of the patrons at Carnegie Hall, where the Phil overplayed their annual guest appearance shamefully. On the program was a Shostakovich First performed so loudly that one wished for ear protection to be provided by the management rather than cough drops and where any sense of humor was swallowed by Herr Masur’s inexorably Teutonic stolidity. Things didn’t improve much for a Bruckner 4 bereft of proper intonation and one wondered why Carnegie would schedule such a deficient visiting orchestra. Incidentally, Maestro Masur will be back in the very first full week of the new season, leading his new London Philharmonic.
Best Concert Series of the Season: London Symphony Orchestra
Msitislav Rostropovich won the Lully last year for the best single concert of the season (in Philadelphia) and repeats with a fine series of programs honoring his friend and mentor Dmitri Shostakovich. Leaving aside the excellent play of Garrick Ohlsson, Denis Shapovalov, and the London Symphony for a moment, the real wonder of these evenings was the sense of historical import, the opportunity to be present at the creation, the glorious provenance of hearing authoritative and warmly preserved renditions of these modern classics. Rostropovich himself, fresh from celebrating his 75th birthday, was an inspirational fount of energy and there was a palpable sense of masterful communication to his players and fans alike. The performance of the 8th Symphony was as intense as any orchestral reading should be; any more emotion and the crowd would have had to cry enough. The level of play was consistently high and the LSO, not the most consistently accurate ensemble in the world, was all hands on deck for this charismatic captain.
The Infected Foot Award for the Worst Concert Series of the Season: Kirov Orchestra
Valery Gergiev’s publicists are working overtime to attempt to obtain positive press for the Energizer Bunny of the classical world, but the buzz in Gotham City is that the Metropolitan Opera may have bought a pig in a poke when it so wholeheartedly mortgaged its future on this whirling dervish’s reputation. While the media is filled with Gergiev apologists, the man himself does little to further his cause when appearing before the public. His series of four concerts with the admittedly decimated Kirov band were arrogant essays in musical pandering, decibel level replacing any sense of taste in a rock concert style of glitzy superficiality, complete with preening and posing megastar wannabe. Three nights and one day of meretricious phrasing and incredibly ugly brass pounding out a consistent fingernails on the blackboard sonority totally obliterated the fine efforts of a disciplined string section and left this critic shaken but not stirred. I’m just a country boy and not involved in the polemical battles in the local press, but the empirical evidence on Gergiev is not encouraging. Perhaps if he cut back to only 300 performances a year, he might be able to slow down and hear the flowers. I have attended inspired performances led by him in the past, but this is New York and he hasn’t done much for us lately.
Best Instrumental Performance with Orchestra: Helene Grimaud
The Lully Award season is roughly from June 1 to June 1 and the pyramid shape of the inner ear’s memory often relegates summer performances to the depths of recollection, but the Rach 2 on opening night of the Caramoor Festival still holds pride of place thanks to the incredibly expressive playing of this transplanted local treasure (Ms. Grimaud lives upstate near Caramoor and raises wolves on her property and, yes, she feeds them with those same hands) whose extremely confident style of play was reminiscent of the sainted composer’s own. The major Rachmaninoff works for piano are especially difficult to perform outstandingly because not only is one competing with the great interpreters of his music alive today (I heard excellent evenings this year with both Ohlsson and Bronfman) and the memories and recorded jewels of the last 100 years (notably, for this particular composer, Richter and Horowitz), but one has to go head-to-head with the composer himself, one of whose hands could easily have cradled both of Mademoiselle’s. What was most impressive was that she did not offer a compromised version of this mighty concerto, as others with a more quiet conception have done to neutralize the comparisons to the departed, but rather played with the same gusto and spirit as the auteur, amazingly navigating those gigantic runs with pinpoint accuracy and infectious panache. The Orchestra of St. Luke’s, although playing their hearts out for summer conductor Peter Oundjian, were simply too small a group to properly communicate the lushness of the score, although the “Full Moon and Empty Arms” of the violas was a moment to treasure, but Grimaud’s interpretation was so electrifying that even the accompanying ensemble was swept away.
Worst Instrumental Performance with Orchestra: Alexander Toradze
Where do I begin to tell the story of this awful event? The supercilious attitude of the artist is as good a place as any, Mr. Toradze a prime example of Russian rudeness (the Communists successfully transformed that most courtly of societies into the most bestial). Purporting to be an expert in the “secret” wishes of the composer in a self-serving printed hand-out, this pianist performed the normally lively and angry Concerto # 2 of Prokofieff at a tempo so slow as to leave one constantly irritated and conscious, as a listener should never be, of the passage of time. Not having excessive speed to blame, there was certainly little excuse for the bushels of wrong notes disgorged by this sloppy practitioner and, the unkindest cut of all, when his monotonous double forte attack was not sufficient, this shameless poseur actually stood erect at the keyboard and brought the full fury of his frame down upon his instrument like Siegfried at the forge! Of course, equally to blame in all of this sophistry and tastelessness was the conductor, who just happened to be Valery Gergiev.
Best Solo Recital: Andras Schiff
2001-02 seemed to be a piano year. Last season all of the major Lullys were won by violinists, but this season belonged to the keyboard. In my own personal rankings, three current pianists tower above their competition. Mitsuko Uchida, uncharacteristically, did not spend any time in New York this season. Maurizio Pollini was here thrice and performed two amazing recitals, the first overlaid with the palpable nervous tension immediately following September 11. Andras Schiff, continuing his series of comprehensive presentations, devoted an evening to the music of the mature Mozart, limiting the material to one small period in his output. The resulting portrait was as precise as a laser-generated hologram, transporting us all directly into the world of this most sublime of geniuses. Schiff is particularly adept at exposing the relationship between pure mathematics and finely crafted music and does so with an uncanny degree of accuracy and dynamic nuance. As he had done with Bach in the past, this performer, totally immersed in his subject matter, dazzled in almost imperceptible ways, the smallest transition between mezzo piano and mezzo forte an event to celebrate. Next season, Uchida is one of the featured artists at Carnegie and Weill, including an appearance as the conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, Pollini returns for recitals and concerto evenings, and Mr. Schiff is everywhere, dividing his time between a series at Lincoln Center and nights at the 92nd Street Y and Caramoor. Those violinists will really have to shine to capture a 2002-03 award.
Best Chamber Recital: Peter Serkin and Friends
When Peter Serkin was rushed into the hospital for emergency retina surgery, it appeared that his season of concerts was over even before it started. Indeed he did cancel several appearances in the fall, but rallied to lead two evenings in October devoted to a comparison between the inventiveness of the two Viennese “schools”. Combining with an alumni reunion of the counterculture chamber group Tashi, now, in their dotage, the central committee of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Mr. Serkin reached into the arcane repertoire of Arnold Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances, an organization to which his father was tangentially attached, and performed Webern’s arrangement for small ensemble of his mentor’s Chamber Symphony # 1 in a highly disciplined and self-deprecating manner, never allowing the piano to dominate the proceedings. Also on the program was a knockout version of Pierrot Lunaire with singing, screaming and whispering performance artist Mary Nessinger, who cut through the haze of pantonality and reached the Ueberbrettl center of this essentially sweetly decaying cabaret act. What was most revelatory this night was how revolutionary the piano trio of Haydn sounded in this slightly askew context: the world as in a concave mirror.
Best Vocal Performance: Renee Fleming
A ticket to the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra at Carnegie Hall is one of the most expensive in town, and yet patrons fall all over each other to fork over almost 200 dollars at the box office (and who knows how much more out on the street) for an opportunity to attend one of these events. When Renee Fleming is the headliner, the feeding frenzy only increases and the overall gate must be staggering indeed, the only regret of management that the potential stage seats were all taken up by the orchestra members. Ms. Fleming graced us with a total of less than fifteen minutes of face time, singing the Seven Early Songs of Alban Berg as a curtain raiser for the main event, a traversal of the Mahler 6. It was journalistically interesting to observe how many patrons did not return after the opening act, making Ms. Fleming’s hourly rate approximately 800 dollars (even more than a personal trainer in this town). And yet she was worth every penny (easy for me to say, since I sneak in for free) and is one of those extremely rare artists who are extensively, but not overly, hyped. The voice is not only silken and seamless (there is not even the hint of the necessity of breath), but the approach is very well considered and stylistically perfect. Ms. Fleming is deeply immersed in Strauss these days, and invested the Berg with just the proper aroma of a wilting bouquet.
Best New Artist: Delphine Bardin
My colleagues in the print media are loathe to attend debut recitals (unless there is a political or familial opportunity for them to write a puff piece), but I attempt to cover as many as time permits for two reasons. The first is that I feel it is important to encourage young musicians and introduce them to a larger audience. The second reason is purely selfish: these recitals are often far superior to those of more established performers who may have lost some of the inspiration and inner imperatives which led them to become artists in the first place, and I love to be there when a major new star is still fresh and daringly uninhibited, thinking only of the music and not of the next publicity photo. Usually, these evenings are ones of technical surety but lack some interpretive maturity and serve as important waystations on the road to aesthetic completeness. But very occasionally a fully developed performer emerges from pubescence ready for the higher circles of their calling: such an aspirant is Delphine Bardin. Her playing of a mature Schubert sonata was magnificent for a performer of any age; for a young executant it was miraculous. Equally satisfying viscerally and intellectually, this performance alone would have catapulted Ms. Bardin into the ranks of the mature communicators, but the second half of rhythmically fascinating Chopin and luxuriously understated Ravel was pure bliss. Remember this name: if she so desires, Delphine Bardin can be a significant twinkle in the firmament of the 21st century.
Biggest Surprise: Christine Schaefer
I was already familiar with this consummate contemporary music specialist and was thus not at all surprised by her sensitive singing of Berg songs with the New York Philharmonic or her kaleidoscopic performance of the work of George Crumb at Alice Tully. What was unexpected was the topping of these fine readings with even more sensational Mozart concert arias in the big hall and exquisite and delicate Schubert and Schumann in the more intimate setting. It is extremely rare to find a singer who is equally at home in the classics and the music of our time (in fact, the only two who come to immediate mind are Thomas Hampson and Ewa Podles) and, as such, Christine Schaefer should be savored and treasured as often as possible.
Biggest Disappointment: Munich Philharmonic
James Levine is a puzzle wrapped in an enigma. For years an icon in this town, the patina of genius has been flaking lately, disturbingly deteriorating in parallel to his physical stamina. It would be understandable if the Maestro, suffering from, at the very least, a chronic sacroiliac condition, began to cut back on his performing appearances, but, in a curious obverse, he seems to be attempting to fill his life with new assignments, most notably the recent assumption of the music directorship of the troubled Boston Symphony. One of his quixotic adventures showed up rather inconveniently, like a pregnant mistress, at our door this February. The Munich Phil job was expressly taken on as a demonstration of Jimmy’s fabled orchestral rebuilding skills, but the amateurish and enervating round of concerts that resulted was little more than an awkward embarrassment. The readings ranged from a pedestrian Mahler 4 to a simply awful Three Places in New England of Charles Ives and caused normally stouthearted Levine idolaters to slink out in disarray or abandon their golden boy at intermission. Recent evenings with the MET orchestra have also proven oddly routine, and perhaps the Maestro simply needs a sabbatical to recharge his batteries. Trusting only himself as his ultimate physician, however, his decision to increase rather than curtail his activities, may be as ineffective and finally destructive as a good old-fashioned bloodletting.
Best Performance within a Concert: Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg and Anne-Marie McDermott
When you go to as many concerts as I do, you develop a thick skin and often settle in early to evaluate rather than appreciate a given performance. There is so much chaff through which to wade that when a delicious kernel of emotional truth comes your way it is indeed reason to celebrate. Modern performers tend to play it safe, running a Dorothy Parker gamut of feelings and wrapping themselves in restraint, perpetuated by an unadventurous conservatory system (the corresponding trend in film acting makes the very occasional moment of genuine catharsis, say the eulogy in “Four Weddings and a Funeral” or Sharon Stone’s driveway scene in “Casino”, stand out in bas-relief). Therefore, when such daring performers as Anne-Marie McDermott and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg expose the raw nerve endings of the Brahms ”Rain” Sonata to public scrutiny and approach the experience positively religiously, one can only shudder in admiration. The remainder of this concert, populated with other performers, was only average, but this shimmering rendition, so perfect in its fragile vulnerability, will remain in the memory for many years to come.
Most Interesting Concert: American Symphony Orchestra
I had the privilege of preparing some notes for the Erich Wolfgang Korngold portion of this concert of expatriate rarities presented so lovingly by Leon Botstein and so was aware well in advance of its content, but was not at all prepared for the revelations of “A World Apart”, a presentation of works by Marcel Rubin, Julius Buerger, Egon Wellesz (who?) and Korngold which capped a very exciting season for these intrepid explorers. Of especial interest was the Third Symphony of Wellesz, whom I knew of only as a renowned scholar of Byzantine music. It is rare for me to be so inspired and I proceeded immediately to the performing arts library in back of the hall to search out some more nourishment from this freshly discovered spring. The ASO is consistently the most interesting ensemble in town and, in the last two seasons, has significantly raised the level of their overall musicianship, so that when featuring the more familiar, as in their recent terrific reading of Strauss’ Alpine Symphony, there is no longer that musty smell of academicism to mitigate a critic’s wholehearted praise. Somewhere along the way, this group was labeled as “educational” (in a take your medicine kind of way) and has worked very hard to remove the pejorative connotation from the pigeonhole. It is time now for the local press to catch up and recognize that adventurous programming and excellent presentation are not mutually exclusive.
Best Piece of New Music: Fabio Vacchi
Former Federal Communications Commissioner Newton Minnow’s characterization of television as a “vast wasteland” can equally be applied to the climate of new music being produced in the classical world today, but, even in the most arid of deserts, there are plants that are not only beautiful but also intoxicating. Fabio Vacchi is a card-carrying member of the Second Venetian School whose music is reminiscent of the generation that emerged around 1960. His stark, lonely colors remind of his mentor Bruno Maderna or those equally striking Antonioni chiaroscuro landscapes of the period (Monica Vitti telling Gabriele Ferzetti to embrace her shadow in “L’Avventura”). Receiving such a committed performance of his Third Quartet from the commissioning Tokyo String Quartet doesn’t hurt either.
Biggest News Story: Responses to September 11
As in all activities in the New York of 2001-02, the events of September 11 colored aspects of daily musical life. Initially, regularly scheduled concerts were cancelled and hastily arranged memorial tributes were presented in their stead. After the shock came a period marked by a dichotomy of attitudes: European orchestras were unanimously striving to show their support, changing programs or adding musical tributes, while American ensembles were attempting with just as much resolve to return to normality by not acknowledging the cataclysmic attack and its aftermath. European performers continued to cancel as the year wore on, some even attempting to commence an American tour in New York, only to forego the remainder of their peregrinations and return home prematurely. Those who appeared often displayed a certain emotional overlay of nervousness (this was not limited to the Europeans) and I suspect that recordings from this period will carry an evocative provenance for generations to come. Now that the dust has settled, two major effects remain. Firstly, the destruction has had a devastating effect on the local economy and it remains to be seen how much concert attendance, already a bit shaky, will be affected going forward (one didn’t even want to think how many of the empty seats at this year’s subscription concerts might have been purchased in advance by denizens of the World Trade Center). Certainly clear as well is a diminished capacity for (and desire of) the city government to support its artistic venues financially going forward. Also on the horizon for next season is a spate of memorial pieces that, if those rushed into performance this year are any indicator, will assault us all once again with another global scourge: the fundamentalism of mediocrity.
Frederick L. Kirshnit