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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Concert Review: A Pair of Deuces and a Queen

The MET Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Soprano Anna Netrebko. No that's not the puffball dress she wore on Sunday.
Photo by Thomas Bartilla for
James Levine and the MET Orchestra returned to Carnegie Hall Sunday afternoon with a program that originally planned to balance two traditional German symphonies with bold works by Alban Berg and Elliot Carter. That symmetry was shattered, however when the Berg (the Seven Early Songs) was yanked off the program (along with mezzo Elina Garança) and replaced by a concert appearance from Russian soprano Anna Netrebko.

Mr. Levine opened the concert with Beethoven's Symphony No. 2. It was refreshing to hear this early Beethoven symphony played with such commitment by the orchestra. Freed from their usual confines in the Metropolitan Opera pit, the players brought a bold, dark coloration to the first movement that lent it power and thrust. However, slow tempos and muddy textures in the strings brought the Larghetto to a near standstill. The last two movements were more lively, and made one wonder what a full Beethoven cycle by this conductor and orchestra might sound like.

There's no question that Ms. Netrebko is the diva of the decade and the poster face of the Metropolitan Opera. However her little recital, consisting of a Dvorak aria and a song by Strauss, seemed a slight substitute for the previously programmed Berg. Happily, there was nothing slight about her singing. Turning her back on the audience (allowing a full view of her fur-adorned gown) she slipped on a dreamy expression, going into character as the love-struck mermaid from the opera Rusalka. She sang with full, rich tone, caressing the vocal line and ending that famous aria with a chest-powered note that thrilled the audience.

Richard Strauss' Cäcille (part of the composer's Op. 27) was sung with warmth and power, although a similar fortissimo note at the end was a carbon copy of her first. It was interesting hearing Ms. Netrebko sing in German, prompting speculation about what directions her repertory might take in the next decade. The diva took no encores, and stolid security people stationed at the corners of the Perelman Stage prevented two enthusiastic well-wishers from giving her the traditional flowers, as if any bouquet might contain might contain anti-Putin propaganda.

It is to Mr. Levine's credit that the music of Elliott Carter remains a priority for these Sunday afternoon concerts. He programs least one Carter composition per season at Carnegie Hall. This concert featured the return of Three Illusions, a 2005 triptych based on Western literature. The first, Micomicón was inspired by Cervantes' Don Quixote and written as a birthday gift for Mr. Levine. The second, Fons Juventatis and third, Utopia were drawn from Roman myth and the philosophical writings of Sir Thomas More.

All three were short works with jagged strings, spiky woodwinds and large percussion parts that went from thunderous to melodic. Carter deploys an exotic array of instruments here, from the contrabass clarinet to exotic un-pitched percussion (temple blocks and log drum) to create a sense of musical ceremony, that is drowned repeatedly in melodic runs on the woodwinds and xylorimba (a xylophone with extended low notes.) Each of these pieces is aphoristic and brilliantine, welcome glances into this composer's vivid imagination and bright sound-world.

The concert ended with Robert Schumann's Symphony No. 2. This work, which deals with the emotional state of the composer following his release from a sanitarium in 18__ is one of his robust scores, providing an essential bridge between Beethoven and the major works of Brahms. Schumann fuses Beethovenian structure with choral and counterpoint ideas borrowed from Johann Sebastian Bach. The MET Orchestra, uplifted by the addition of its robust horn sound, swelled and surged through this music, delivering a performance of great vitality under Mr. Levine's direction.

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