1998: Justin Davidson, Newsday, Melville, N.Y.
7/1/1998
ASNE Staff
Award for Critism Writing
Wednesday, July 1, 1998
by: ASNE Staff

Section: Critism writing


Justin Davidson

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The Streamlined Vienna Could Use a Push

March 10, 1997

THE VIENNA PHILHARMONIC could undoubtedly play Beethoven's Fifth and Sixth symphonies without a conductor, probably without sheet music, and possibly without sleep. You could shake the orchestra's members awake at 4 a.m. and convene a concert on the spot, and what you got would probably sound much the way it did on Friday: sleek, unblemished and lustrous.

This is an orchestra as finely calibrated and precision-tuned as any piece of million-dollar machinery. It has as many moving parts as there are notes in a score, and rarely does one malfunction. The chords all balance impeccably, the pizzicatos are always in synch. The third bassoonist knows his place in the music's hierarchy, waits patiently for 70 measures and then can judge exactly how loud, long and incisive his solitary "dup" should be.

So what do all these highly proficient specialists need a conductor for? In the case of Daniel Barenboim, not much. Barenboim did not lead the performance so much as chair the proceedings, nodding at players who didn't need to be cued and then watching benevolently as they did their thing. The result was highly competent and completely generic: an interpretation arrived at by committee. Details that might have been bristles of energy were slicked down instead, leaving the performance glabrous and undifferentiated. Wherever the music called for an interpretive decision, the musicians opted for the obvious one, and the conductor did not override them. It would have been up to him to shake the orchestra out of its buttoned-down professionalism and remind everyone concerned that Beethoven's music can still sound revolutionary, shocking and violent, but Barenboim seemed to have no interest in doing so.

 The expensive sound of the Vienna Philharmonic is one of the world's great luxuries, like the oil-and-leather smell inside a Jaguar. But Beethoven, in particular, might be livid to know that his music had been turned into just another of these sedate and civilized pleasures, or that he was part of a tradition thus preserved in aspic. In the Vienna's performance, his "Pastoral" Sixth Symphony did not evoke nature so much as a bucolic mural on a cafe wall: The birdsongs smacked of the cuckoo clock, the storm was a tempest in a beer mug.

In some cases, Barenboim's cavalier conducting vitiated the music's restless ambiguities and even undermined its structure. Take, for instance, the famous transition from the third to the fourth movements of Beethoven's Fifth, in which the timpani quietly beats out the symphony's signature rhythm as the strings create a harmonic haze, veiling both the downbeat and the key but exposing an unbearable tension. When the fourth movement arrives in a loud C-major spasm, it bursts through the scrim like a revelation, and the moment resolves the previous section even as it begins the next. Under Barenboim's baton, though, the transition merely purred innocuously like an idling car, as if biding its time until the fourth movement could get on its way.

Neither Mozart nor Bruckner fared better on the following night. Mozart's Symphony No. 29 in A major, K. 201, written when the composer was 18, sounded positively middle-aged. So, too, did Bruckner's Symphony No. 9, left incomplete when the composer died at 72, aspiring to a musical transfiguration that the Vienna burghers denied him.

Bruckner built his cathedral-like musical structure from audible building blocks - phrases that repeat, climbing the scale in an ever-intensifying sequence, until they arrive at those brassy climaxes with the power of a wrecking ball, crumble, and then begin again. In Barenboim's hands, though, the work proceeded with all the excitement of road construction.

The Vienna Philharmonic is a magnificent ensemble that the right conductor can ignite, but these concerts showed that it can also suffer from a sort of plump and clubby complacency - nothing that a few women in its ranks couldn't cure.


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Kissin Powers an Electric Occasion

March 29, 1997

THE PIANIST Evgeny Kissin propelled himself stiffly onto the stage of Avery Fisher Hall on Thursday, looking rather as if his joints needed oiling. He dutifully bent his mouth into a labored and momentary smile, gave a quick jerk of his torso in lieu of a bow, and then sat at the piano where, in an instant, all his discomfort melted into power and control.

Watching the awkward young pianist plunge into music was like seeing a seal slip into water, and in the 40 mesmerizing minutes that followed, Kissin gave one of the most lissome and lyrical performances of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 that I have ever heard.

Kissin has made a specialty of playing the same concerti every other pianist does, but he is alone in his ability to make the commonplace seem rare. There was not a trill that came off as filler or a scale run that sounded formulaic in this performance, and he made the rhetorical flourishes that open the concerto so intensely poetic that by the time the first theme arrived in the orchestra, the musical argument seemed almost already complete.

In his hands, the most ephemeral details became simple, explosive devices. The piano part in the second movement opens with two notes, four-and-a-half octaves apart, and a grace note in between - a quiet, spacious gesture that both expands and delimits the middle register in which the orchestra has just presented the melody. Kissin staggered the outer two notes ever so slightly, and bridged the gulf between them in a fluid, melodic bound, as if the piano were a singer of infinite range and grace, and not the brute percussion instrument it is.

Kissin flirts with excess, but never quite surrenders his virtue. Many pianists slow down slightly at the transition to the last movement, but he pulled back the tempo as if the music were a stone in some giant's slingshot, so that the finale fired off with a crack. With any other pianist, it would have seemed overdone and mannered, but Kissin carried it off.

While he was working his wonders and looking utterly humorless, the New York Philharmonic's music director Kurt Masur seemed to be having the time of his life, beaming at the pianist with merry pride. Masur had reason to be jolly. The concert began with Beethoven's "Coriolanus" Overture, and from the manly, fist-in-palm chords of the opening to the quiet, coy pizzicatos at the end, the Philharmonic played with lucid lyricism, and, in the concerto, matched Kissin's current, spark for spark.

As Kissin and the Philharmonic neared the concerto's coda, I felt the same panic that comes from fingering the dwindling number of pages ENTER N(next story), C(next context), T(total story), NT(next take) PT(prev take), S(save), QUIT(switch databases), EXIT(terminate display) /nt the same panic that comes from fingering the dwindling number of pages at the end of a good book, and what I really would have liked after intermission was to start the whole thing again, or at least preserve the experience by spending the rest of the evening in silence.

But no: Perhaps on the theory that one good warhorse deserves another, Masur and the Philharmonic followed Beethoven with Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade." The first half's electricity still crackled through the second, powering the suite's sea voyages, and concertmaster Glenn Dicterow played the violin solo with dapper and exotic charm.


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'Siegfried': Fantastic in Every Sense

Monday. April 21, 1997

THE METROPOLITAN OPERA reached the third part and the 13th hour of "Der Ring des Nibelungen" on Saturday, and Wagner's operatic juggernaut slouched that much closer to doomsday. The sibling-lovers, Siegmund and Siegelinde are both dead, and their inbred son Siegfried has come of age: The sword has been passed to a new generation of Aryans. Just three more acts (plus a prelude) and Valhalla will fall.

Wagner's genius was to have created a universe in which singing is not merely a convention, but an aspect of natural law: Walkyries ride flying horses, adulterous gods sire superheroes who swig dragon's blood and take advice from birds, dwarves have the gills both to court and cheat river sprites at the bottom of the Rhine - and every one of those creatures sings. The orchestra provides atmosphere in the literal sense - music is the air they breathe. That is why these operas have to be so long: One cannot make a quick tour of an alternate universe.

I am not generally fond of fantasy or situations that drip with symbolism, but having let myself into Wagner's world on Saturday night, I had no desire to re-emerge. Director Otto Schenk, set designer Gunther Schneider-Siemssen, and lighting designer Gil Wechsler have been as thorough in recreating Wagner's cosmology as the composer was in imagining it. Their hobbit habitats and fiberglass forests are as vivid as they are familiar, the dragon has a slimy crustacean charm, and the weather atop Wotan's mountain changes spectacularly with the characters’ states of mind. The gods brood, and the sky goes black. Brunnhilde is kissed out of her 30-year slumber by Siegfried, and multihued light seems to come from several different suns.

If there was rarely a dull moment on this mythic planet, the credit goes to James Levine, who presided over a performance of such kinetic musicality that the hours barreled by. Levine supported the singers with an orchestral undergirding as solid and incandescent as Brunnhilde's flaming rock, and he had a valorous cast.

Wolfgang Schmidt was the titular hero, and he sang the role magnificently, matching his magic sword Nothung for well-honed, tempered heft and playing him as a good Germanic brawler: swaggering, fearless, and not terribly bright. On occasion, Schmidt played his character's thickheadedness for laughs. In that fleeting homoerotic moment when he finds the warrior-goddess Brunnhilde asleep on her rock and lovingly removes her shield, helmet, and breastplate before discovering that she is not a man, Schmidt made much of the way Siegfried's momentary horror is sublimated into instantaneous love.

Hildegard Behrens, who sang Brunnhilde (oddly, wearing a nightgown under her armor), has recovered most of her voice but not all of her focus since being afflicted by a cold in "Die Walkure," and she was the only cast member who allowed her hour onstage to drag.

James Morris could not have been more magisterial as the Wanderer, the god Wotan in human mufti. The expert tenor Graham Clark made a real character, and not just a cartoon hunchback, out of the blacksmith-dwarf Mime, expertly regulating the dosages of kicked-dog skittishness, venality, and sympathy.


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And… Music In Its Mountains: New York Opera's New Season Boasts Two Santa Fe Opera Productions. Will More Be On The Way

August 3, 1997

THE SANTA FE Opera house is a brown building on a brown hill outside of town. From a distance, it is a streak of adobe that blends with the landscape, which is itself highly operatic. An afternoon storm beat its way through the area the day I arrived, and an hour before Strauss’ "Arabella" began, the New Mexico sky was bisected in a theatrical stroke that would have earned a set designer an ovation.

To the east, over the Sangre de Cristo mountains, the sky still looked swollen, bruised and purple, like the remnants of a violent Act I. To the west, the curtain was going up on a second act of serenity and redemption, and the sheet of clear, lavender sky was striated with scarlet. In the middle was the base of a rainbow, more apparently solid and embraceable than any I have ever seen.

The whole extravagant arrangement looked rather like the Metropolitan Opera's production of Wagner's "Ring."

In such a setting, and because the opera house is only partially roofed and walled, set designers must either compete with the landscape or use it. The set for "Arabella" was a model of Vienna, tilted up to look like a city seen from a dipping airplane, with a backdrop of real sky beyond. Vienna brightened as night fell and New Mexico disappeared, and, at these altitudes, a chilly summer evening became a reasonable approximation of an Austrian winter night. More than a few of the blanket-wrapped audience members longed to join the cast onstage in populating all those cozy interiors. (Next year, a planned new roof will keep out the rain, but the wind will still careen through the bleachers.)

That the opera here can, at its best, be worth crossing deserts for matters to Santa Fe, a city whose center can seem populated entirely by out-of-towners from lands less rich in top-flight classical music. The opera's parking lot was filled with license plates from Texas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Arizona and Utah. But it is not just for affluent tourists: The bellhop at Bishop's Lodge hotel had been to see "Semele." So had Shaylor Alley, a young wrangler at the Rancho Encantado resort.

But what happens at the opera here also gets felt in the Northeast: This year, New York City Opera is bringing in two Santa Fe productions from previous seasons (Tobias Picker's "Emmeline" and Handel's "Xerxes") and if City Opera keeps up its promised rate of new productions, more may be on the way.

City Opera could do worse than simply ship in Santa Fe's whole, handsome season - although it would have to retool some of the casts. The production of Handel's "Semele" (designed by City Opera production director John Conklin) closed off the stage from New Mexico's celebrated sky and substituted its own, an Olympian firmament that remains serene even when the gods in the plot do not. Handel knew that opera audiences must be dazzled, and while this production's gilt-trimmed look and glittering costumes (borrowed from London's Royal Opera) do their part, the singers sounded drab by comparison. Elizabeth Futral was a passable Semele, the mortal woman who aspires to romance with Jupiter, but tenor Rockwell Blake was decidedly earthbound as her chosen god.

If the singing deities of "Semele" sounded less than heavenly, there were occasional intimations of immortality in "Arabella." Strauss was always at his most empathic and perceptive when writing for women, and the first-act duet between the title character (sung by Janice Watson) and her cross-dressing sister, Zdenka (Dawn Kotoski), was a touchingly performed portrait of a neurotic sibling relationship, full of unspoken jealousy and love.

The Santa Fe Opera is fine enough to make its streaks of mediocrity maddening. The quartet of lovers in Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte" stood on three solid legs - Thomas Barrett's Guglielmo, Alwyn Mellor's Fiordiligi and Mary Ann McCormick's Dorabella - but was nearly brought down by tenor Robert Swensen, who wasn't up to the task of singing Ferrando. And this company can command enough stylish and resourceful design that the second-act set, an off-putting pile of gray rocks covered in a gelatinous green slime, was all the more mystifying.

The orchestra, an impermanent band composed of seasonal laborers, was startlingly adept at switching styles on a nightly basis. John Crosby, the company's founder, general director and Strauss specialist, elicited all sorts of velvety sounds from the pit in "Arabella." Richard Bradshaw piloted the responsive ensemble through the shoals of Peter Lieberson's score to "Ashoka's Dream."

The world premiere of "Ashoka's Dream," a Santa Fe commission, was big news here. An interview with Lieberson and librettist Douglas Penick topped the front page of the Santa Fe New Mexican. Two days later, the review, larded with superlatives, took up most of page 2.

"Ashoka's Dream" is a curiously cloven work. Penick's libretto, about the Indian emperor who first unified the subcontinent in a hurricane of brutality and then experienced an epiphany of peacefulness, has the inscrutable, archaic quality of Indian poetry read in translation. Director Stephen Wadsworth has set the opera's series of tableaux against the backdrop of an Indian altar, densely carved with sinuous and sedentary gods. In front of it, singers dressed in iridescent silks assume stylized positions, bending wrists and touching fingers in a graceful but puzzling sign language.

Lieberson's music, though, bears no trace of all this exoticism. Far from being saddled with faux-Buddhist meditativeness, the score is propulsive and unsettled, as changeable as the New Mexico sky. The closest it gets to overt mysticism is in its homages to Wagner - not in the style but in the way the narrative is simultaneously propelled by a febrile orchestra and slowed by solemn vocal lines.

Penick has endowed his characters with little more than silhouettes, leaving it to Lieberson to fill in states of mind with orchestral color and shading. Rarely do the people in this opera really come to grips with each other, but when they do - as when Ashoka's no. 2 wife, Triraksha, is disoriented by her husband's sudden surge of benevolence - Lieberson inserts a Verdian love duet whose beauty he truncates too soon. It is both a moving and a frustrating moment, offering a glimpse of this opera as a potential masterpiece.

The premiere's Triraksha was mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt, one of those priceless singers whose effect on an operatic stage is like that of a good chiropractor on a spine: She makes everything snap into alignment. In her presence, Kurt Ollmann, who sang the title role, became more murderously or transcendently intense, and the music's passions seemed to flow more freely. Whether or not "Ashoka's Dream" ever makes it to New York, it is comforting to know that Hunt will be appearing at City Opera in November in the Santa Fe production of "Xerxes."


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Bringing Sibelius In From the Cold

December 18, 1997

THE COMPOSER Jean Sibelius, who was born during the middle of Brahms’ career in 1865 and died in the middle of Leonard Bernstein's in 1957, remains one of the most popular and mysterious composers of the 20th Century. In his own life and for decades since, he was routinely berated as a reactionary in a musically progressive era, the artistic equivalent of the old man who refuses to sell his dilapidated shack to make way for a highway. Forty years after his death, however, his music has stubbornly outlasted the fashions he ignored, and during Lincoln Center's two-week "Northern Lights" festival, it sounded newly modern.

After Sibelius’ reputation broke beyond his native Finland in the 1890s, he was always a significant composer, simultaneously adored and reviled for his grand symphonic style full of horn calls and sincerity, and his melodies redolent of ancient myths. Even the critics who attacked him treated him as an important bad composer. Virgil Thomson, one of America's most influential midcentury tastemakers, devoted a chunk of his very first professional music review (for the New York Herald Tribune, in 1940) to the opinion that Sibelius was "vulgar, self indulgent, and provincial beyond all description." The French critic Rene Liebowitz wrote a whole book conveying on Sibelius the unquestionable distinction of being "the world's worst composer." No artist worth lavishing such invective on can be all bad.

As a composer, Sibelius assiduously avoided cliches and yet he was almost always seen through their prism. Thomson's word "provincial," for instance, tapped into the popular image of the flinty Finn ensconced in his rural sub-arctic retreat, surrounded and inspired by pines, snow and silence. Used in 1940, when Finland was fending off Soviet invasion, the word "provincial" also meant nationalistic - a smirking nod to the fact that Sibelius had helped bring Finland into being (the country achieved independence from both Russia and Sweden in 1917). Even today, the hero-composer's legacy looms over the small nation he helped create: For one thing, virtually every important Finnish musician who came after him was educated at Helsinki's conservatory, called the Sibelius Academy.

Lincoln Center's festival began with a high-intensity, three-concert dose of Sibelius’ symphonic music, gorgeously performed by Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra. The three concerts, which included five symphonies, two tone poems, the violin concerto and a fistful of orchestral songs, would have been festive enough (if Sibelius’ doggedly serious music can be thought of as festive). But Lincoln Center supplemented those events with a series of smaller concerts and a symposium. Capping the two weeks was a concert of contemporary Finnish music performed by the chamber group Avanti!, which seemed designed to test the ornery prediction, made by the composer Constant Lambert in 1934, that "of all contemporary music that of Sibelius seems to point forward most surely to the future."

Ah, but which future? Surely not that of the Finnish musicians who came of age in the 1970s, sloughed off their Sibelian birthright, acquired educational pedigrees in Italy, France and Germany and swore allegiance to the flag of international modernism. Their organ of dissemination was Avanti!, an ensemble founded in 1983 by the conductors Esa-Pekka Salonen (now music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic) and Jukka-Pekka Saraste (now music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra). The group's youthful, cosmopolitan credo was encapsulated in its pointedly non-Finnish name, which, in Italian, is the battle cry "Forward!"

"Ours is the first generation of [Finnish] composers for whom Sibelius is not a problem," once said the composer and member of the Salonen-Saraste gang Magnus Lindberg, whose 1995 work "Arena 2" closed Avanti's concert. How ironic, then, that the group should have made its New York debut Monday as the tag end of a Sibelius festival.

In that context, Monday's concert, which took place in an Alice Tully Hall that looked about as densely populated as Finland itself, seemed like a declaration of independence. Kaaija Saariaho's "Graal Theatre," a concerto for violin and chamber ensemble, placed a solo part of grinding intensity against a stark background of pinpoint dissonances - the virtual opposite of Sibelius^ plummy and popular Violin Concerto. Lindberg's "Arena 2" was as dense, bristling and urban in feel as Sibelius^ symphonies are spacious and steeped in Nordic nature.

But, though the Avanti! players were very young and very good and most of the works freshly composed, the concert's pose of modernity seemed dated, burdened by a high-culture rigor that today's young American composers, at least, are glad to be able to shuck off. And there is the twist of "Northern Lights": that Sibelius^ style, which once sounded like the gouty and distended aftereffect of excessive Romanticism, now seems to have acquired a prescient austerity. Sibelius was chastised for his willingness to linger on a plush, comfortable chord, for relentlessly stitching and restitching a good melodic phrase, for designing vast musical tapestries with a couple of bare ideas, for making crude and illogical jumpcuts from one passage to the next.

But now newer styles have made virtues of Sibelius^ mannerisms: the sluggish chords and darting rhythms of American minimalism, the stark spiritual landscapes of the popular Estonian Arvo Part, the lushly evocative symphonic style of the young New York composer Richard Danielpour. After nearly a century in which intellectuals assumed that Sibelius^ Mt. Rushmore face was gazing into the past, in New York in 1997, it now looks as though he did have his eye on the future after all - or at least on that slice of future that is our present.

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