The Third Annual Lully Awards
In one of those bizarre moments which lead some into spiritualism, I was reading John Irving’s Setting Free the Bears earlier this season when Mayor Mike Bloomberg announced on television that, because of the severe economic crisis in our city, he was seriously contemplating closing the zoos of New York. It is impossible not to think of fiscal matters when covering the serious music scene in this town in the new century, as oceans of unoccupied seats often greet expectant patrons at major events. But perhaps the most disturbing story of the year, and one which negates the strangely comforting idea that low attendance is the direct result of the budget crunch, and thus temporary, was the experience of “Free for All”. Some forward thinking arts execs came up with the idea of offering high quality classical music concerts at Town Hall (not one of Mr. Bloomberg’s presidential palaces but rather a treasured and storied performance space) at no cost to the public. Like Shakespeare in the Park, the tickets would be available early on the day of the concert. Everyone expected long lines of eager bargain-hunting aesthetes queuing up to hear Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and Anne-Marie McDermott in what I have no doubt was a fine and interesting recital, but, in actuality, there were reports of empty seats even when price was not an issue. Audience erosion is now happening at the speed of Amazonian deforestation; drastic measures are called for, but programmers seem disappointingly unqualified for the task. As the debate rages in the press, arts organizations fumble with unclear directions: what is the panacea? contemporary? classical? crossover? cancellations? capitulation? I have no answers, only awards.
Best Concert of the Season: The Hungarian National Philharmonic
Perhaps a bit of a surprise, this highly charged exploration of the unique accents of the music of Hungary featured one of the truly great pianists of our age and also one of its most inspired conductors. Remarkably, they are the same person: Maestro Zoltan Kocsis. From a 70mm, Dolby Surround Sound explosion of a Liszt Concerto # 1 to a wild and wooly Bartók Dance Suite and a kaleidoscopic Hary Janós complete with cimbalom, this was an afternoon to revel in the exoticism of a culture just on the further banks of the classical mainstream, reminding us that, in Vienna, the spice in the cuisine comes from the Hungarian side of the old empire. The ensemble was brilliant throughout, flawlessly executing dynamic ranges and complex rhythmic patterns only dreamt of by American orchestras and thrilling the Lincoln Center audience as a result. The encored Rakócsy March in this Berlioz year was the most exciting single moment of the entire season. Sadly, I appeared to be the only representative of the press in attendance.
Worst Concert of the Season: Orquestra de Sao Paulo1
I have recently discovered that I have assumed the role of the devil incarnate in Brazilian chatrooms as a result of my original review (at least someone is listening!), so to help diffuse the whiff of Eurocentrism, let me point out that I am a frequent and zestful visitor to Latin America and love all things south of the Rio Grande. However, in the very same visiting orchestra series at Avery Fisher which brought us the treasured Hungarians, there arrived a woefully unprepared unit from that most international and cosmopolitan of South American cities which only added fuel to the fire that insular, Continental traditions don’t travel well. Choosing one of the least worthy of Heitor Villa-Lobos’ thousand odd scores was a major miscalculation and the inclusion of a piece by a contemporary Brazilian composer that, as Mahler used to say, the cat wouldn’t even play with, shamelessly wasted the considerable talents of duo guitarists the Assad brothers. After the interval, an embarrassing traversal of the Brahms 2, that most delicate of symphonies, at the decibel and sensitivity levels of a marching band, was simply awful.
Best Concert Series of the Season: Philadelphia Orchestra Schumann Evenings
The best orchestra in America and the four Schumann symphonies would probably have been more than enough, but even I was not prepared for the exquisite balancing of that signature transparent sound often tampered with by well-meaning Schumann enthusiasts like Gustav Mahler and George Szell. With the minimum of tinkering and the maximum of care, outgoing music director Wolfgang Sawallisch put together a persuasive primer with the object lesson being to leave well enough alone. It turns out that Schumann actually knew how to orchestrate after all. Next season, Daniel Barenboim and his Berlin Staatskapelle will traverse the same fertile ground, except that he will do so all in one week. The Philadelphians spent an entire season lingering in these aromatic bowers, a fitting farewell bouquet from Sawallisch as the Eschenbach era begins.
Best Instrumental Performance with Orchestra: Vadim Repin
One of the sacrosanct principles of great musical performance is that playing with abandon requires an intensive degree of control. The discipline of Vadim Repin in this extraordinary performance of the Sibelius concerto with a deeply committed Cincinnati Symphony whipped into an absolute frenzy of despair by the charismatic Paavo Jarvi was remarkable. While the ensemble strings were passionately tearing into the piece, exploring its lower depths of Scandinavian darkness, Mr. Repin chose to communicate his own sense of wintry melancholia by standing as unflinchingly as a guard at Buckingham Palace and navigating the frosty landscape with total control, superb tone, amazing dexterity and formidable expressiveness. Often as a critic, one must separate the technical from the poetic, as most artists have a proclivity for one or the other; with Vadim Repin, the technique and the emotion are as one. In this particular case, adjectives like chilly and emotional are actually complimentary, a fact that only true Sibelius fans can comprehend.
Worst Instrumental Performance with Orchestra: Julia Fischer
This award should probably go to 19-year-old Ms. Fischer’s handlers, for it was painfully obvious when she attempted the same Sibelius concerto with the New York Phil that she was nowhere near ready. She can certainly grow out of her bad habits, particularly her escaping from notes too hurriedly in order to be prepared for the next passage, but a tendency to break phrases at the wrong moments, a flaw in many singers who, after all, do need to breathe sometimes, was especially disconcerting in a violinist, making this reviewer question Ms. Fischer’s innate understanding of music as a communicative art form. Hopefully this is not telling tales out of school, but an acquaintance from the Phil string section relayed the thoughts of many of the orchestra’s members who were astonished at this particular soloist’s lack of preparation. I’m told by other critics that she improved on succeeding nights (I attended the premiere performance), but, having often experienced Philharmonic apologists who use this technique ad nauseam (“well, yes, they were terrible the night that you heard them, but on the other evenings they were quite spectacular”), I choose to retain a healthy skepticism. Later in the season when Maestro Maazel substituted Ms. Fischer at the last minute in the Brahms Double with the Bavarian Radio Orchestra, I turned in my tickets and enjoyed a night off at home.
Best Solo Instrumental Performance: Evgeny Kissin
This was really a tough choice. No less than three other piano recitals this season were memorably moving and extraordinarily impressive. Ax, Serkin and Perahia all created a magical atmosphere for their individual efforts, while Pollini cancelled his turn and I was away for the courageous presentation of Maxim Vengerov, who dared perform an entire evening of Bach for unaccompanied violin that my spies tell me was transcendental. But I must reserve a special bow for Mr. Kissin, whose performance of the D960 of Schubert was as deeply touching and architecturally sound as any that I have ever experienced. Long past the prodigy stage, Kissin is a profound poet of the piano and still a consummate showman. This particular recital had a definite organic growth to it: a journey from the ethereal to the corporeal, from Schubert’s cosmology by the ocean of time to Liszt’s hair band, in your face modernism, from delicious introspection to outrageous exhibitionism. The bridge was a set of Schubert songs arranged by Liszt, thoughtfully ordered to lead us by steps down the garden path to the wild world of the unabashed virtuoso. If I only had two hours to teach the history of 19th century music, I couldn’t have done a more comprehensive job.
Best Chamber Performance: The Panocha Quartet and the Schiffs
At the very outset of the season we were treated to a concert at the 92nd Street Y so joyful and brimming with élan that I said at the time that an end of the year award was probably on the horizon. Of course, a combination of three buoyant works of Antonin Dvorak, the best string quartet in the Czech Republic, and two wonderful sidemen was an extremely hard one to surpass. Jiri Panocha, the winner of the Steve Martin look-alike contest (my companion and I always expect him to break out a banjo for at least one number), leads an ensemble whose quiet sound is indescribably delicious and poetic in the extreme. Juxtaposing the more zaftig viola sonority of Yuuko Shiokawa with this supreme example of group delicacy made this rendition of the famous ”Viola” Quintet one which will remain in the inner chambers of the heart of memory for many years to come. Husband Andras Schiff is no slouch either: his leadership in the Piano Quintet was extraordinary, the entire performance brought up to the level of aristocratic utterance without sacrificing that signature, earthy common touch of the great Bohemian who loved so the openness and promise of America. I thought long and hard about whether to crown the Kocsis or the Schiff concert as the very best; next year will be even more difficult, as the Y features both of these incredible heroes in recital in the same season.
Best Vocal Performance: Susan Platts
I first encountered mezzo-soprano Susan Platts when she agreed on very short notice to substitute for an ailing singer and perform the Urlicht of Gustav Mahler not once but twice in the same day at this past summer’s Bard festival. Accompanied by piano in the afternoon, Ms. Platts immediately captivated this listener with the purity of her voice, each note an organic, evolving shape of beauty. In the evening, she bravely intoned the same music in its guise as the fourth movement of the ”Resurrection” Symphony in the outdoor venue of the college’s tent. Those moments, with her dignified and emotive voice intensely controlled, accompanied by the singing tone of American Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Erica Kiesewetter or the faraway strains of the offstage band, seem now genuinely golden. The following weekend, this young artist’s rendition of Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen immediately became the highlight of the whole convocation.
Worst Vocal Performance: Jane Eaglen
The New York Times called her “the greatest Isolde since Flagstad” but friends from the local chapter of the Wagner Society told me immediately that this was not just hyperbole but truly wrongheaded. Ms. Eaglen may possibly be the laziest musician that I have experienced in my professional career. Blessed with a large and powerful instrument, she does absolutely nothing beyond intoning the notes as written, attempting no subtlety of characterization, no genuineness of emotion, no shadings of meaning, in short, no art. Appearing in a Wagner and Strauss evening with Zubin Mehta and the Phil, this soprano was able to project her sterile tones to the back of Avery Fisher with ease, but there was never any sense of magic fire. With Jane Eaglen, one gets neither perspiration nor inspiration.
Best New Artist: Alicia Gabriela Martinez
Before establishing his international reputation, Yehudi Menuhin often had the experience of listening to his elders tell him that he could not play certain concerti because of his youth. His rebuttal was actual performance; once these “experts” heard him perform the Brahms or Beethoven concerti, they abandoned their recommendations that he should stick to simpler Mozart fare. Had this brash wunderkind been a young pianist of today, he might very well have chosen the insanely difficult Concerto # 2 of Prokofieff, if only to hear the horror in his teachers’ voices at the very thought of conquering this raw-boned and large-handed explosion. Brashness indeed is the key element of the piece; the composer expected that few other than himself would ever perform it. In that most unlikely of places, the extremely conservative conservatory, a splendid colt of a pianist dared to throw off her bit and run free with this wild stallion of a work, executing every grand gesture daringly and securely, every arpeggiated passage thrillingly. Even though there were some missed inner notes along the way, this performance was so exceptionally confident as to send sparks through the mostly student audience at Lincoln Center. A rare moment of heart-pounding electricity at a time in our collective American musical lives when risk-taking is viewed as slightly abnormal elicits from this reviewer only the highest of praise for this emerging artist. One wonders if Alicia Gabriela Martinez has come from Venezuela to study at Juilliard with high hopes of becoming a star-turn concert pianist. Often, students matriculate there for other, more grounded, reasons. Here’s hoping that she has the dream and follows it to fruition. We, the audience, desperately need more adventurers like her.
The Infected Foot Award for the Biggest Disappointment of the Year: Zarin Mehta
“Who?”, you ask. Well, Mr. Mehta, brother of Zubin and general manager of the New York Philharmonic, is the man responsible for the firing of Kurt Masur and the subsequent hiring of Lorin Maazel. It was never clear what the reasons for the transition were, only that they were muddled at best. Masur was told that he was too old for the post (he was then 73); after much wrangling, Mehta hired the 71 years young Mr. Maazel. Further adding insult to injury, Mehta paraded his outgoing maestro in a series of obviously uncomfortable public appearances, ignoring angry shouts from the Lincoln Center crowd the night that they last appeared together. The audience asked point blank why Masur was sacked; Mehta answered only in doublespeak. Now Maazel has been at the helm for an entire season. I was traveling (as a matter of fact in Latin America) the early part of the year, and so missed the mass hysteria which led many of my colleagues to state that the ensemble sounded considerably improved. Before too long, however, most critics were out from under the spell: one even anointed Mr. Maazel as “soulless”. The performances now are glitzy and superficial, while still being technically flawed. The conductor, certainly his own worst enemy, alienated the local press by granting interviews wherein he was supercilious and insulting to reporters; not being part of the good old boy network, I was blissfully unaffected by this condescending posturing, but was certainly dissatisfied with the smarmy new orchestral product. Ultimately, Maazel can’t help being Maazel; it is the upper management that made the decision to hire him who should be held accountable. Beating that dead horse whose blanket reads “contemporary equals better” yet again, the tiresome cultural commissars of the print media have now mounted an attack against the maestro for his unmitigated temerity of programming Beethoven next season. I can’t say that I agree. I’ll just wait patiently to slam him for the poor performances when the time comes.
Best Performance Within a Performance: Ann Schein
This category made its Lully debut last year, rewarding the aforementioned duo of Salerno-Sonnenberg and McDermott for a truly inspired Brahms ”Rain” Sonata in the midst of an otherwise ordinary evening of chamber music. This year the prize goes to a woman who didn’t even make the listings on the cover of the program booklet when Suzanne Mentzer and several friends had their recital at the Y. The afternoon concert was pleasant enough, but was evolving as just another unremarkable experience, when the accompanist had an opportunity to perform a solo. The resulting Sonatine of Ravel was a shimmering wonder: a close-up of an intricate spider’s web just at the moment of tingling excitement when the prey is first caught. Moments like these are ones to treasure; so many background musicians slave away in obscurity for so long, that the occasional luminescence of their exceptional talents fills one with a sense of historical import and genuine purpose. One has to slog through an awful lot of mediocrity to be a music critic, but it is all worthwhile when the reward for dogged persistence is to be present at such a fine creation.
Saddest Story of the Season: The Passing of Jerome Hines
For me, Jerry Hines defined the phrase “larger than life”. A tall and imposing man, his deep, deep basso thrilled opera audiences for decades, especially in his performances of Gurnemanz and Wotan with Hans Knappertsbusch in the early days of the reconstruction of German opera on its home turf. Jerry had this magnetic aura about him (the voice helped the illusion a lot) and meeting him in person was a singularly memorable experience. The voice was exceptional, even within the top echelon of professional singers. His casting as the Grand Inquisitor at the Met left no doubt as to who possessed the real power: any other bass who dared sing King Philip opposite him was immediately cut down to size, the very effect that Verdi had hoped for but seldom receives in live performance. Mr. Hines was also a composer and a deeply religious man, but one with a devilish sense of humor. He would have loved his own obituary in his local New Jersey newspaper: they wrote that, at the Met, he sang the title role in his own opera, I Am The Way (which role was that, “Am”?). In later life, he grew into a new part, becoming the devoted caregiver to his longtime bride, the former opera singer Lucia Evangelista, who suffered from Lou Gehrig’s disease. I had the privilege of attending a master class with Hines at a New Jersey university. Never have I seen such quick transformations from neophyte to artist as at this event. Just a few well chosen words (or, even better, a few phenomenal notes) could inspire a student to greatness. A rough and uncompromisingly direct Californian, Jerome Hines did not mince words, but his type of tough love really helped young aspirants much more than volumes of high praise. He represented a generation with very high musical standards. We can ill afford to lose too many more like him.
Biggest Story of the Season: Pops Go the Weasels
Without a doubt, the most important news story of the year for the survival of serious music in this country is the steady decline in the size of the audience at live events. Much of this is tied to a stagnant American economy, reaching far beyond its own borders. Before this season even started, the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse cancelled its entire US tour, specifically citing the lack of funds. The Finnish National Orchestra did appear as scheduled at Avery Fisher but, except for one other local appearance, curtailed the remainder of its projected North American trip, again because of near bankrupt conditions. Certainly, attendance is down in New York, not just at musical events, but in museums, theatres and galleries as well. One can even ride out and see the Statue of Liberty now without waiting in line for most of the day. But a very disturbing responsive trend could spell the demise of our beloved art form: many panicky orchestra executives are turning their ensembles into pops groups, ostensibly to boost revenues. In Pittsburgh, the number of pops concerts for next season has risen from 52 to 72, and now, even the New York Philharmonic will don the white jackets and checked cummerbunds next season (another Zarin Mehta decision, no doubt). I strongly suspect that the real reason for this shift is the dumbing down of the executives themselves: since they prefer shallowness, they assume that we all do. Personally, I don’t care how many pops concerts there are in town; my concern is that, in reality, each one supplants a classical equivalent. Even Carnegie Hall disappointed us all at the press luncheon this year. While touting the new Zankel Hall in the basement (which promises to have a really fine inaugural season), the management was forced to admit that the total number of classical concerts at the three branches (Zankel, Weill and Carnegie itself) would remain the same as when there were only two venues. Therefore, there is no net gain for serious music lovers. Further, the news that the New York Philharmonic will be moving back to Carnegie, not as a tenant but rather a managing partner, has cast a pall on the future of the classical scene in town. Not only will the Phil monopolize four evenings a week at this venerable venue starting in the 2006-07 season, but it appears that their management (guess who?) will have hegemony over all programming decisions. In the old days, Carnegie had a rule which stated that a work could not be performed more than once a season, a transparently protectionist policy that kept the Phil from having to compete too directly with more proficient visiting orchestras. It will be interesting to see if this policy will be revived. With the fate of acoustically challenged Avery Fisher in serious doubt, a concertgoer in just a few slight seasons may often find themselves with considerably fewer and less satisfying options for their ticket dollar.
I have a modest proposal for long suffering house managers. Just announce a recital featuring Martha Argerich as your headliner and watch those tickets sell themselves. When she inevitably cancels, just hire some hack to fill in. The crowd might stay away, but at least the seats will all be paid for.
Frederick L. Kirshnit