A season for discovering forgotten music
New York & Boston
There is a certain thrill in the discovery of new music -- contemporary, forgotten, or (far worse) merely ignored -- that rivals even a superb performance of some masterpiece. and through a wonderful convergence, there have been numerous such opportunities for discovery this fall in New York, and one in Boston.
A work that has been utterly ignored is Alexander Zemlinsky's "Lyric Symphony ," heard recently at the New York Philharmonic. This composer, virtually unknown today, was a contemporary of Mahler, taught Schonberg, and was eclipsed by all the momentous music that came out of the early part of the 20th century. Schonberg stated that Zemlinsky's time would come. and indeed, a small glimmer of interest has been evident recently -- a recording available in Europe of one of his String Quartets, and this performance by James Levine of the "Lyric Symphony."
Zemlinsky was inspired here by Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde," setting evocative, ripe poems by Rabindranath Tagore for two soloists and a huge orchestra. The "Lyric Symphony" is in seven broodingly theatrical movements, performed without a break, runs just about 50 minutes. the huge orchestra is used with tremendous restraint, except in climaxes. Zemlinsky's coloristic ear is acute and very subtle. The orchestra is Straussian in its manner of commenting upon and elucidating the story, Mahlerian in its scope and variety of orchestration, and (early) Schonbergian in its soaring lines, yet always -- first and foremost -- Zemlinskian in the distinctive melding of all these elements.
James Levine's performance was particularly attentive to his singers -- giving them all the room to make the effects they must to ensure that this story is told boldly and hauntingly. His control of softer dynamics -- zemlinsky used a soft fabric of evocative music to accompany the more passionate moments -- was stunning. Only in the louder balances did things go noticeably awry, but surely as Levine seasons into the music his insights will grow -- as they always do in the Opera House.
Dale Duesing flatted all his german vowels and proved generally monodynamic and monochromatic in the important baritone part -- giving no idea of the interpretive possibilities. Soprano Johanna Meier, on the other hand, was in radiant voice and sang with introspective sensitivity, astutely gauging all the dynamic and interpretive shifts in the score.
Unfortunately, I was never more ashamed of a New York audience that at this Friday afternoon concert. amply fulfilling the image of the worst audience in the world, barely five minutes into the work there began a restive the hall -- even during the most touching, collective rudeness unequaled to date in my concertgoing experience.
On that same program, incidentally, was the Beethoven Second Piano concerto, with AVery Fisher Prizewinner andre-Michel Schub the soloist. His technique is brilliant, his sense of phrasing superb, and the ebullience he brought to this concerto -- as well as the lovely introspection -- set this particular performance apart as something quite special. Levine again proved an alert and sensitive partner.
At the Juilliard School, the American Opera Center turned its attention to Puccini's ignored operetta "La Rondine." How delightful to discover that the work holds up beautifully, full of rich Leharian melodies wedded to the decidedly late-Puccini orchestral sense. Even the last act, which heralds a notable slump in inspiration and plot development, does not mar a charming work that deserves a prominent spot at one of New York's houses. After all, if the chatty, cabaret-like "Mahagonny" can be done at the Met, why not "Rondine," with is ripe melodies and delectable ensembles?
The AOC production's only strength was in the stunning Casa Sormani sets. Directorially it was at best lackluster, and vocally substandard on every count. In the pit, Lazlo Halasz kept things moving turgidly, and the Juilliard orchestra was not on its best behavior.
Ursula Oppens is a multitalented musician who just happens to specialize in contemporary music. But her program in the enterprising new Charles River Concerts series held in Paul Rudolph's First and Second Church edifice in Boston proved here a master of all eras -- Bethoven, Liszt, as well as Frederic Rzewski and Christian Wolff.
Her Beethoven (the 31st, Op. 110) was a marvel of lucidity and profoundity -- warm, searching, structurally revelatory. Her Liszt -- the Mephisto Waltz -- was a virtuosic tour de force. But then again, so was the entire program. For though on first listening, the Christian Woolf did not impress all that favorably, if had its wonderful moments, and challenges the most exalted technique.
The Rzewski was the real find on the program. The "Four Pieces for Piano" proved witty, refreshing, inventive, beguiling, and supremely virtousic. They go on for well over half an hour, but time halts in the face of this gifted composer, and in Miss Oppens he has as eloquent an advocate as ever will be.