Friday, October 28, 2011

A snapshot of music in New York

A weekend is, it goes without saying, a blip in the musical spectacle of New York City. But sometimes a blip is better than nothing. It signaled to me the excitement -- call it frenzy? -- of that stream of classical events that can be heard there. How do the natives figure out where to choose?

Friday, after flying in from Ohio, we walked to St. John the Divine (we were staying near Columbia).

This was ostensibly a non-musical part of the trip, but then inside that mammoth space, was an orchestra rehearsing (perhaps for a recording?) a klezmer influenced clarinet concerto. I'm not sure who wrote it or who was playing it. It was by turns swingy and schmalzy (which wasn't altogether bad) and it was being superbly played. One of the reasons we went to St. John was to see that space we had heard in broadcasts of the winter solstice celebrations there, with the eponymous Paul Winter in charge--a space so obviously absorbent, reverberant, such a powerful presence in itself.

Later that afternoon, we went to the Morgan Library to see the drawings from the Louvre (and some from the Morgan), by French masters from the 18th and 19th centuries.

Those incredibly active lines of charcoal and pen, those portraits, for the most part lovingly rendered if sometimes unflattering. Ingres, David, and Delacroix -- all very different were the stars. Music? well, if we had planned more time, we could have heard, in the Morgan's auditorium, the Orchestra of St. Luke's.

But we didn't. We had tickets to the Met, Donizetti's Anna Bolena. We had thought it would have Anna Netrebko in the title role, but she had moved on to something else. Just as well, given Alex Ross's idiosyncratic assessment of her singing, which didn't agree with others we talked to. For us it was Angela Meade (famous for her part in that documentary about the Met competition, The Audition. Her Anna was by turns proud and vulnerable, a combination that I especially heard in her high notes (B flats, maybe? C's?) that she would begin with the most delicate pianissimo -- and yet with presence even when it was barely heard. She'd hold that quiet for so long -- until you realized that in fact it had been growing in dynamic all along, and suddenly you were at a clarion call fortissimo! As if the character, unsure of herself at first (as well she might be in that hellhole of intrigue that Donizetti makes of the Tudor Court) remembers her own power and calls it out to whoever's listening. Who is, of course, us.

Our seats were in a wretchedly cramped but wonderfully positioned box, the most extreme on the right side of the stage. The view was sometimes blocked, and disconcertingly we could see stagehands off in the wings; but the nearness to the singers was thrilling. It also gave us the full sound and view of the orchestra, and I could really understand why some say it is the best orchestra in the nation. Too bad so many of them (the violists) have to play offbeats all the time in Donizetti. They were great offbeats, though. The clarinetist, who I take to be one of the two principals, and by elimination probably Jessica Phillips Rieske, was spectacular. It was obvious that the clarinet was Donizetti's color instrument (except in the last "mad scene" where it was the English horn), and there were lots of colors there.

Saturday and Sunday, I was spending my days at Teacher's College at a recorder workshop organized by Amherst Early Music. There, I joined a sequence of ensembles -- changing every 75 minutes, dizzyingly -- playing Josquin, Schütz, Marenzio, Bach, Dufay. . . . I had never played recorder ensembles at the high level that these were: the participants picked up bass recorders and played them like altos, put those down for a soprano or a tenor, moved in and out of medieval polyphony and Renaissance madrigal and baroque fugue (even, though not in my group, swing and Arvo Pärt!). As always, it was the thrill of chamber music: how to feel rhythms together and against each other, how to assert your line and listen to the others. Altogether serious music making. And a lot of fun. Picture: class with Larry Lipnik of the ensembles Parthenia and Lionheart.

Saturday evening we met old friends at the Metropolitan Museum (a great show of the amazing modernist collection of Alfred Stieglitz). In the hall, I ran into my cousin from Cambridge and his wife, who were going to the first of a series of concerts at the Met by the Pacifica Quartet -- who had played in Oberlin last year, and are now doing the entire Beethoven series at the Metropolitan. We went to the Stieglitz instead and then, famished, had dinner in the sculpture café -- to a jazz trio playing My Funny Valentine too loud.

More music Sunday afternoon, at the church of Corpus Christi across the street from Teacher's College. The series is called Music before 1800, and it certainly was: it was the four-woman group called Anonymous 4, singing 13th century music from a MS from the convent of Las Huelgas, a remarkably independent, if not feisty, group of Cistercian nuns, who seem to have not only administered the sacraments but also mastered medieval polyphony. Anonymous was joined by our friend, the great vielle player Shira Kammen, who with the drummer Peter Maunde improvised, accompanied, bridged between songs, and generally added oomph to the otherwise somewhat even texture of the Anonymous. Great concert, though, all around, well balanced and fascinating. As always,experience experience to hear music where the interval of the third was NOT the expected resting-point, but a moment of crunch before the cadences on fifths and octaves.They have a CD out of this program: here's the publicity and a few samples.

No more music, unless you count the odd pre-recorded "Happy Birthday" being sung in some South American pop style at a Peruvian restaurant Sunday evening. Just as well: Enough's enough.


Tammela said...

Sounds like a wonderful weekend filled with diverse musical experiences! I miss live classical music over here in Ukraine.

CHEN said...

I can feel your excitement everywhere in this post, even when you talk about the "wretchedly cramped box"~~~
BTW, I'm reading your paper about the 1868 opera Hamlet. It's very interesting! I remember that last winter term you asked me what the orchestra's role in the opera The Turn of The Screw. I still cannot find much about it. But I believe I will have some new thoughts after finishing reading your paper.