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Monday, March 9, 2015

Concert Review: A Superfluity of Musical Intelligence

The MET Chamber Ensemble at Zankel Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
James Levine on the podium at the Metropolitan Opera House.
Photo by Jonathan Tichler © 2014 The Metropolitan Opera.
Within the constraints of his position as Music Director of the Metropolitan Opera, conductor James Levine can pretty much do as he pleases. On Sunday afternoon, he led the MET Chamber Ensemble and a group of young singers in a diverse program at Zankel Hall. Its focus: the development of modern music in the 20th and 21st century, from the early experiments of Charles Ives to the neoclassicism of Stravinsky, all the way up to modern experiments by John Cage, Elliot Carter and Charles Wuorinen.

This concert was a celebration of the cerebral in American music by one of its most important creators. It opened with Stravinsky's Octet, a work that announced that composer's rejection of Russian ballet and embrace of the cosmopolitan neo-classical style. Written for four pairs of instruments (four woodwinds, two trumpets and two trombones) this work filters the composer's acerbic wit through strict 18th century forms: a slow-fast Sonata, a set of theme and variations and a brisk Rondo.

Following the slow introduction, Mr. Levine spurred his players forward, conducting from his wheelchair without the specialized podium that he usually uses. The Met orchestra  players sounded liberated and energized by this intimate and entertaining music, with duelling bassoons and trombones twisting and turning through the elaborate melodic lines. The theme and variations was fine and detailed, with Mr. Levine leading the shifts in tempo from very slow to brisk and aggressive. The Rondo, based on an old Russian dance, looks forward to new horizons and back to the composer's roots.

The next work was by Charles Ives, the insurance executive who quietly became one of the most important and iconoclastic American composers in history. Scherzo: Over the Pavements attempts to capture the sound of New York's hustle and bustle, of feet moving and marching on the sidewalks of the city. Ives' work is circular in structure, a kinetic dance of rhythm and drive in the composer's quirky style. Mr. Levine led his wind players in this brief work with a quick baton and steady hand, capturing its musical humor as it suddenly stops in media res.

The first half ended with the world premiere of The American Sublime, a late work from the Indian summer of New York composer Elliott Carter. Mr. Carter wrote this song cycle, a setting of five poems by Wallace Stevens for baritone, percussion and chamber orchestra, for Mr. Levine in 2011. These five poems were interpreted by bass-baritone Evan Hughes, who captured the combination of  broad-shouldered thrust and ironic poise in the Stevens' text. The Met players scraped, bowed and tooted, against percussive effects from the piano and a diverse array of drums, gongs and wood-block sounds.

The second half of the concert opened with a short performance of Atlas Eclipticalis by John Cage. This is one of the composer's indeterminate works, created by placing a star-chart against five-staved music paper and then writing down the results. Mr. Levine chose a medium-sized ensemble and to make the performance of short duration, conducting the five movements with a slow and inexorable clock-like movement of his left hand. The results were strange and enchanting, spidery sonic effects coming together to make a song out of whatever happened to appear in the night sky.

For the final work on the program, Mr. Levine yielded the podium to composer Charles Wuorinen, whose It Happens Like This is a setting of seven bizarre, verbose poems by James Tate for four singers plus chamber orchestra. Soprano Sharon Harms, mezzo Laura Mercado-Wright, tenor Steven Brennfleck and bass-baritone Douglas Williams essayed these absurdist texts, telling tales of a jumpy gun-toting neighbor, a turkey visiting the narrator's living room, and of a dinner guest who becomes a necessary human sacrifice.

Mr. Wuorinen seemed at ease conducting his own music. The spare accompaniment framed a mix of spoken word and song, with the dance meter of  dinner-poem forming a sort of Scherzo and the elegaic account of a reincarnated dog recalling church modes. The final song of the turkey was a humorous ending to a fascinating concert, closing in an unexpected quiet coda and ending this concert on a surprising and transcendent note.

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