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My Dinner With Andrew

New York
Carnegie Hall
02/12/2004 -  
Gustav Mahler: Adagio from Symphony # 10
Richard Wagner: Act II of Parsifal

Michelle DeYoung (Kundry)
Thomas Moser (Parsifal)
Eike Wilm Schulte (Klingsor)
Women of the Westminster Choir
Cleveland Orchestra
Pierre Boulez (conductor)

A Month at Carnegie Hall

Part Five

Our Daily Bread

“All that is merely fashionable goes out of fashion in
its turn; and if you continue to cultivate it till you are
old, you will become a simpleton whom no one values.”

Robert Schumann

“We have met the enemy, and they are us.”


Although I personally find The Nutcracker rather a dreadful experience, I was still deeply disturbed to read recently that it had been cancelled in Boston this past Christmas in favor of a road company of the Radio City Rockettes. For some perspective we might consider that no more than a dozen years ago, the first nail in the coffin of Seiji Ozawa was hammered into place when he dared to take the BSO to Asia in the month of December, leaving locals with no nuts to crack. The frothy ballet may very well be the canary in the mine for classical music in the United States: for Bostonians to go from outrage to indifference in such a short time only increases the fear that the downward spiral is accelerating at an alarming rate. Of course, we New Yorkers like to think that we are different, but how accurate is our own self-image? Here are some random incidents which may shed some light on how Carnegie management is tending our own garden of earthly delights:

1. Composer-in-residence John Adams, the musical equivalent of beige, stated in an interview that, in his role as a programmer of pieces and ensembles for the hall, he especially admired the late Carnegie executive director Robert Harth because he knew more about Afro-Cuban music than Mr. Adams himself.
2. The number of classical concerts at Weill Recital Hall was drastically reduced this season.
3. Carnegie board chairman Sanford Weill was the creator of the ill-conceived plan to “merge” with the Philharmonic and worked very hard, albeit ultimately unsuccessfully, to make it happen.
4. The board of directors, who wholeheartedly embraced the takeover by the Philharmonic, will now be appointing a new executive director.
5. During the Philharmonic flap, proposed co-executive director Zarin Mehta, who would in all likelihood have been in charge of programming had the Philharmonic indeed moved in, stated that his favorite singer was Frank Sinatra.
6. The 2004-2005 season of Carnegie sponsored events, announced just yesterday, includes ten performances of a Stephen Sondheim musical, something called The Magnetic Fields, a concert featuring Sheikh Hamza Shakkur, described as the Koranic reader of the Great Mosque in Damascus, four nights of Flamenco and an evening of Brazilian hip-hop.
7. Like the rest of us, Carnegie staffers found out about the Philharmonic takeover by reading about it in the papers. This reporter happened to be at the hall when the news broke that the deal was off; the response of the employees was akin to that in Times Square on VJ day.
8. The 2004-2005 season of Carnegie sponsored events, announced just yesterday, includes ten performances of a Stephen Sondheim musical, something called The Magnetic Fields, a concert featuring Sheikh Hamza Shakkur, described as the Koranic reader of the Great Mosque in Damascus, four nights of Flamenco and an evening of Brazilian hip-hop (sorry, I just can’t get over this!).
9. The new Zankel Hall opened a year behind schedule with much fanfare but many problems, including invasive background music tapes and inexcusable noise from the nearby subway system. I asked board member Klaus Jacobs, who has graciously agreed to fill the role of acting executive director, if there were any plans to abate the extremely intrusive racket. He responded by telling me that they have contacted the Metropolitan Transit Authority to see if they could do anything to “keep it down”. I would just like to point out that this approach does not work with my noisy neighbors, but perhaps Carnegie will have better luck.
10. Zankel’s schedule for this season lists 45 classical concerts, 35 pop and “world” events, and 9 hybrids (which, at least if I remember my freshman botany, means that they have a much more difficult time reproducing themselves) wherein classical music is mixed with some other genre.
11. The Carnegie press office had planned to stage an open-mouthed kiss between Renée Fleming and Martha Argerich but abandoned the project when the volatile Argentinian cancelled at the last minute (actually, I made that one up!).

In delightfully anecdotal comments the other evening at the French consulate, Pierre Boulez told of how Wieland Wagner showed him a little sliding window that cuts into the conductor’s kiosk at Bayreuth. “It was here that my grandfather used to stand and whisper to the conductor…” (at the premiere performances of Parsifal) “Faster, Levi, Faster!” Boulez’ first foray at the Festspielhaus was indeed this sublime work of spiritualism and he has recently been invited back by Wolfgang Wagner (the French conductor was always above the fray in the internecine wars of the “Royal Family of Bayreuth”) to lead it once again. On the question of tempo, Boulez, rather surprisingly to this reviewer, pointed out that the slowest Parsifals on record were those of Toscanini in the very early 1930’s, one first act at Bayreuth, where they keep archival records of the timings of all performances, clocking in at a mind-boggling two hours and twenty minutes! Last evening, maestro kept his tempi quite brisk, enhancing a superb performance from this great orchestra, the ebbs and flows of the undercurrent, so vital in Wagner, practically hypnotizing the audience and serving as a gyroscopic base for the vocal declamations at their back. Yes, taking a Beethoven 9 approach to the acoustical problems inherent in concert versions of opera, Boulez positioned his three principals with the chorus, a stratagem about which I was skeptical until Eike Wilm Schulte intoned his first booming notes, so resounding in fact that I at first thought that the singers must be miked. However, this was simply sheer vocal power.

When Michelle DeYoung sang excerpts from Les Troyens earlier this season with Eschenbach, she wisely eschewed Cassandra’s big “souer d’Hector” number as being beyond her range. Her approach to Dido was one of quiet resignation and she pulled it off brilliantly. I thought at the time that Kundry might be a stretch for her and last night unfortunately proved me right. Not needing to shout thanks to good platform placement, she did anyway, never realizing the center of the complex sexual/spiritual/eternal character. As she went along, Ms. DeYoung grew sharper and sharper, both in terms of pitch and grating qualities. I was reminded that the celebrated Boulez Ring of the 1970’s was feted for its incredible orchestral playing (for my money, the best on recordings), but certainly not for the Bruennhilde of Gwyneth Jones. Perhaps as a conductor as well as a composer he is more of an instrumental man underneath. Thomas Moser as Parsifal was a bit of a non-starter, outgunned by the strength and stamina arsenals of his two mates. The chorus was not always in tune, but they all were inspired to high energy by the enthusiastic performances of their young standouts, who spun their siren songs very convincingly. Schulte was magnificent, creating a frightening, cavernous atmosphere.

The highlight of the evening was unquestionably the Mahler. Boulez has shown great affinity for this man since he began his conducting career and his approach has only deepened with age. This was a breathtaking performance, the strings of the Cleveland Orchestra responding to the main theme as lushly as any that I have ever experienced, the horns, when asked to expand upon this melody, rallying to dizzying heights of broad lyricism. Once again the sensitive acoustical master who lives somewhere inside of Mr. Boulez took over: the one searing dissonant chord (those who know the piece will recognize the moment) was so chilling that many around me were physically startled, the subsequent passages combining upper strings and lower brass sonorously arresting and unbelievably moving. The whole approach to this lovely movement was almost monstrous, the composer standing a little too close to us for our comfort. Disturbing as only a truly profound work of art can be, these are the moments that make one realize what a privilege it is to be in the audience at Carnegie Hall.

One would hope that Carnegie, as an acknowledged leader to whom everyone looks for guidance by example, will not fall into the trap of placing priority on popularity rather than integrity. The example of public television looms large, however. Originally created to preserve artistic tradition and to fill a void in the vast wasteland, hopefully presenting the highest quality programming regardless of its lack of mass appeal, over the years the organization was infiltrated by management types who began to steer programming to a larger audience, as if the public station were in direct competition for the advertising dollar with its commercial neighbors. Over time, classical music was eaten away by crossover, eventually morphing into some sort of grotesquerie as exemplified by such current performers as Andre Rieu and Yanni. “Classic” music then replaced classical, so that the bulk of concerts on public TV are now designed to appeal to the aging suburban set, who, apparently, are only interested in doo-wop revivals and geriatric reunions of folk musicians (if you haven’t seen the film “A Mighty Wind” yet, you must at your earliest opportunity). Perhaps Carnegie management needs to step back and see itself from the outside. Rather than flailing around adding pop programs, we all might be better served if they trumpeted their distinct advantage as the most famous concert hall in the world and courageously took the lead in reviving serious music programming, concentrating perhaps on high profile festivals and educational opportunities rather than trendy vapidity. Those flower maidens might look enticing, but always remember that they are simply an illusion propagated by an evil magician.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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