Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond


October 16, 2011

Fabio Luisi with John Harbison, and Chritine Rice Photo: mine 2011
On Sunday, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra made one of its regular jaunts over to Carnegie Hall for a concert away from the usual prima donnas and what have you that go along with the opera stage. The concert was one of the many events originally scheduled to be led by the Met Opera’s Music Director James Levine and it is also one of the many now being led by their new Principal Conductor, Fabio Luisi. Of course, this is a much-discussed topic in and of itself, and I continue to be bewildered about what the big deal is. Sure questions about leadership can exact a toll on any organization, but this isn’t China, it’s an opera company. The Met is hardly going to cease operation due to this issue. I wish Levine a speedy recovery and would love to hear him conduct again. If it is not to be, Luisi seems like a fine choice from what I’ve heard of his conducting, but there are certainly many other options. Probably the only thing the company could do wrong is to turn everything over to a twentysomething from Venezuela with lots of energy and huge gaps in his conducting experience. But no American arts organization would be foolish enough to do that, would they?

But I digress. Sunday’s program served as a reminder that even one of the world’s great orchestras, regardless of their musical leadership, isn’t infallible in every aspect. There are strengths and weaknesses and any changes in leadership will likely shift that balance. The show started with Mozart’s overture from Die Zauberflöte followed by his Piano Concerto No. 25 with soloist Richard Goode. Both were well played, but I felt overall the performance suffered from the same problems that plagued the new Don Giovanni production that Luisi led at the Met this past Thursday. This was big orchestra, polished, romantic Mozart. It’s sweeping and full-bodied and totally sucks the life out of the music. Maybe Mozart would have loved this kind of contemporary performance and maybe he wouldn’t have. But I’m with those who think Mozart’s music sounds best when it’s just a little scrappy and speaking volumes more than the physical resources of the ensemble playing it might suggest. The sheen on the Met’s Mozart leaves it pretty but ultimately cold and vacant and Luisi did little to alter that trajectory.

The second half of the show was a much better fit for the orchestra. There was Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, which was lush, comical and well balanced. But the highlight of the afternoon, and honestly the whole weekend, was a new commission from John Harbison, Closer to My Own Life. The work is a collection of four songs set to snatches of prose from Alice Munro’s The View from Castle Rock. The title of Harbison’s song cycle refers to Munro’s reasoning behind excluding older stories from prior collections which she then later collected in Castle Rock. And as one might expect there is a certain intimacy to many of the themes and scenarios included in the songs—from childhood memories to finding a breast lump. Harbison took bits of prose and placed them amidst broad, open-ended music that is both disquietingly modern, but accessible. And by that I mean it’s not music that prescribes certain emotional reactions to the material in the text, but at the same time works off recognizable harmonies. All four songs were sung by mezzo Christine Rice, who gave them rich detail with her superb diction. It was lovely and exciting music I know I would love to hear again elsewhere. In fact, they could have performed it again right then and I'd have been perfectly happy, which is how I often feel about Harbison's work. So enjoy the good news. The Metropolitan Opera and it's fine orchestra live on. Regardless of who's in charge.



"Probably the only thing the company could do wrong is to turn everything over to a twentysomething from Venezuela with lots of energy and huge gaps in his conducting experience. But no American arts organization would be foolish enough to do that, would they?"
Of course not, except maybe for the same American arts organization that a few decades ago turned everything over to an even YOUNGER twentysomething from India (which was, if anything, a more remote backwater in terms of classical music at the time than Venezuela is now) with lots of energy but considerably LESS conducting experience - and after sixteen years of that youngster's musical leadership found itself in a better shape, artistically and otherwise, than it was before his arrival. Go figure!
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