The Casual Blog

Tag: James Levine

A great Mozart opera

There’s a classic New Yorker cartoon titled “Life without Mozart,” which shows a desert with a few scattered pieces of junk. Such pith! It is probably an overstatement to say that Mozart is the source of all meaning and order in life, but it is difficult to imagine so much harmony without him.

On Saturday afternoon, I took D, my mother-in-law, up to North Hills Cinema, to experience a live HD broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte. The music is some of Mozart’s greatest. I’ve listened to the opera a lot recently while working out, and the glorious fountains of melody carries me through the tough intervals.

The basic plot seems sexist and jarring to 21st century sensibilities. Here’s the concept: two soldiers are wooing two sisters and praising their faithfulness, when an older, more cynical friend asserts that all women are by nature prone to stray. They argue, make a wager, and then the soldiers put on disguises and each seduces the other sister. It’s supposed to be light and funny, but the amorality of the plot line is disorienting. Why would the guys do such a crummy thing? But this production explored a more humane side, and also more difficult, aspect of the story.

James Levine conducted this performance. Maestro Levine is a transcendently great musician, but has been in poor health these last few years, and I doubted we would see him again. But he was in great form on Saturday. The broadcast showed close-ups of his face as he conducted the overture, which showed that he conducts with his face as much as his hands. He smiled with pleasure at the beautiful phrases, and I imagined that his musicians felt well supported and inspired by his warmth and enthusiasm.

The show was altogether wonderful, and much more emotionally complex than I expected. There was humor but also strong notes of pain. The sisters seemed genuinely conflicted and struggling with the temptation of new lovers, and the lovers were tortured by forces they did not understand.

The work is an ensemble piece, in the sense that various combinations of voices have great moments – duets, trios, quartets, quintets, and sextets. The acting of this cast was particularly compelling. Susanna Philips as one of the sisters (Fiordiligi) seemed to truly anguished in struggling with the temptation of new love. Her soprano was a little thin at the bottom but full at the top, and very expressive. She had a way of easing into notes, so that the sound seemed to emerge gently from the silence. She had a couple of long pauses where the silence itself was filled with powerful emotion.

The other sister (Dorabella), played by Isabel Leonard, was less complex, but she sang well and looked sensational – she’s quite a beautiful woman. As to the soldiers, there were not simply heartless cads, but in part victims pushed by larger forces (authority, peer pressure, pride, vanity) to betray their lovers and themselves. Tenor Matthew Polenzani and baritone Rodion Pogossov as the soldiers/Turkish suitors both had great moments, and Maurizio Muraro as Don Alfonso anchored the ensemble with a full bass baritone. I thought Danielle de Niese as Despina, the scheming house maid, was funny and sexy, but as a full on proponent of the view that love meant nothing other than having fun, too exuberant and bubbly for this darker Cosi.

On Sunday I had a piano lesson with Olga. She’d warned me that she was juggling a lot of end-of-school-year projects and could only give me an hour, but in the end we worked for an hour and a half. Like Maestro Levine, she’s a generous musical spirit, patient but also exacting. We did a Brahms Op. 39 waltz, Rachmaninoff’s Elegie, and Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu. We talked about slow versus fast attacks and worked on some pedaling techniques that were new to me, including doing a slow release. I always go in thinking I’ve been listening to the music carefully, and she always makes me hear new things.

Listening to the Tokyo String Quartet for the last time

On Sunday afternoon Sally and I went to a concert of the Tokyo String Quartet. It was a wonderful concert by one of the world’s great chamber music groups, After 44 years, the TSQ is calling it quits after this season, so I don’t expect I’ll hear them again. It made me listen with more-than-usual concentration. They played Haydn’s quartet in D Major, Op. 20, No. 4, Webern’s five pieces Op. 5, and Schubert’s Quarter in G Major, Op. 161, D. 887.

It was such a privilege to hear these master musicians performing such great music. The group performed on Stradivarius instruments made in the early 18th century and collected by Niccolo Paganini for his own performances. Paganini loved the viola in this group he commissioned a work by Berlioz that featured it. I’ve wondered at times if the Stradivarius name was overhyped, but the sound of these instruments as individuals was gorgeous, and together they were stunningly beautiful. I particularly loved the cello, which sounded to me as rich as I’ve always imagined a cello could sound.

I particularly loved the Schubert, which has one of the most beautiful cello melodies ever written. If you do not know the piece, you should sample it. Here’s a performance on YouTube by the Skampa quartet. The TSQ’s performance was brilliant and very moving. I got major goosebumps.

As valuable as recordings are, they are no substitute for a live performance. At my last piano lesson, Olga and I discussed this. She’s drilled me in the importance of considering each tiny detail of the music, thinking about the many different ways each note could be approached, and planning out each aspect of each gesture. After all that, I was surprised to hear her say that she expected that each time we play a piece, it will be different. Each piano is different, the acoustics of each room are different, and we’ll have different feelings each time. The master musician is not a CD player.

I don’t think this is a well understood aspect of the classical tradition. I once heard an interview with James Levine (the conductor of the Metropolitan Opera), in which he said that a recorded performance was to live performance as a postcard of the Grand Canyon was to the actual Grand Canyon. I thought he meant that the sound was different, but he may have meant what Olga meant: master musicians are making unique music at a particular moment in their lives and ours, responding to subtle variables that will never again recur.