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Busman’s Holiday

New York
Carnegie Hall
01/24/2010 -  
Franz Schubert: Symphony No. 8 "Unfinished”, D. 759

Richard Strauss: Das Bächlein Op. 88, No. 1 – Ich wollt’ ein Sträusslein binden Op. 68, No. 2 – Allerseelen, Op. 10, No.3 – Zueignung, Op10. No.1 – Morgen, Op. 27, No. 4 – Ständchen, Op. 17, No.2 – Wiegenlied, Op. 11, No. 1 – Amor, Op. 68, No. 5 – Grossmächtige Prinzessin, from Ariadne auf Naxos, Op. 60
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67

Diana Damrau (soprano)
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, James Levine (conductor)

J. Levine

“But the goblins were there. They could return. He had said so bravely, and that is why one can trust Beethoven when he says other things.”
E.M. Forster, Howard’s End

What do the members of the orchestra at Bayreuth wear for performances? Since they are totally obscured from view by being placed under the stage, do they come to work in tee-shirts and cutoff jeans? It does, after all, get beastly hot inside the Festspielhaus.

The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra has to be decked out in black tie because they always take a bow before the commencement of the final act, plus during intermissions, patrons come and gawk at them as if they were animals in the zoo. But on Sunday afternoon at Carnegie Hall, the ensemble opted for tasteful but less formal wear. After all, their leader doesn’t even stand while he conducts.

The proceedings began with a very dramatic reading of what the program stated was the Symphony No. 8 of Franz Schubert. This was actually very involving music, filled with high tension and loud climax. However, the net effect was more that of John Williams, a Technicolor sound completely foreign to anything that the original composer would have understood. This worked reasonably well for the forte passages, especially when dominated by earsplitting bass, but seemed completely foreign and adrift during the normally sweeter and softer passages. What was really absent was any sense of that special Schubertian lilt tinged with melancholy. I’m sorry; this was just wrongheaded.

These Met Orchestra concerts were created to give the ensemble and their fans a break from the operatic, but over time they have devolved into showcases for favorite singers of the conductor, a sort of payback for a job well done up the street at Lincoln Center. This day it was soprano Diana Damrau who had her star turn and her chance to hawk her CD’s.

The songs of Richard Strauss on display began with a very surprising opening snafu. Mr. Levine, undoubtedly an expert in the accompaniment of singers, had his instrumental forces intoning much too loudly, making Ms. Damrau shout and almost scream to be heard above the blare just behind her. Of course, she was defeated by the cacophony and before the fifth song began, she and the maestro has a long whispered discussion in full view of us all. Afterwards, the balance was restored somewhat, although by an odd coincidence, this last quartet of pieces is scored for quieter ensemble.

Ms. Damrau’s Morgen was competent, but having just heard Renee Fleming and Joshua Bell perform it this week at the Kaplan Penthouse, it suffered by comparison. Ms. Damrau has a strong soprano and remarkable pitch control, but her end product can be coarse, as it definitely was this evening. The best of the lot was the Wiegenlied with text by Richard Dehmel (the Transfigured Night guy), but all in all this was a disappointing set. Ms. Damrau is quite a tall woman and her dress (on the cover of her latest CD) was a striking harlequinade patchwork of flaming colors, described by one wag in the lobby as “Mondrian on LSD”.

Sartorial matters as well as musical ones were resolved somewhat after intermission. Ms. Damrau, already dressed as Zerbinetta and now accompanied by a chamber group, performed Grossmächtige Prinzessin from Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos. Again her vocalization was a bit rough and her attempt at comedic gestures rather heavy-handed. Having seen great Zerbinettas of the past, including the charmingly delectable tomfoolery of Roberta Peters at the old Metropolitan house, it was difficult to think of this as anything but ardent amateurism.

The program ended with a very good Beethoven 5, not prettified but genuinely powerful and suitably unclean. Although both conductor and orchestra ran out of steam in the last movment, this reading was a tantalizing reminder of how good James Levine could have been as an orchestral leader had he not veered off into the opera house after enjoying the tutelage of George Szell.

Fred Kirshnit



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