Nachtmusik: Sondheim, Anne Hutchinson, Denk, Levin, and Abbado
The title A Little Night Music is only the first of the many inspired elements of Stephen Sondheim’s inspired 1973 musical version of Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night (or, more correctly translated, I’m told, Smiles of the Summer Night—i.e., the night of the summer solstice). Of course it calls up both Bergman’s most subtle comedy as well as Mozart’s most famous serenade. And although Sondheim’s stream of waltzes and other triple-meter dances more directly evolves from Viennese operetta than Viennese opera, there’s a consistent Mozartian elegance and chiaroscuro to this work. The high water mark of Sondheim’s career was probably in the 1970s, the decade of Company (1970), Follies (1971), Pacific Overtures (1976), and Sweeney Todd (1979), all collaborations with director Hal Prince. Everything that followed was more problematic, although many admirers would add Into the Woods (1987) to this list, and I’d also include the moving Passion (1994). Sondheim himself regards his Pulitzer Prize-winning Sunday in the Park with George (1984) as his best work.
The quality I most admire in my favorite Sondheim musicals is what some critics have called pastiche—the way Sondheim uses traditional musical forms: vaudeville and musical-comedy, with its song-and-dance tunes and torch songs, in Company and Follies; Japanese folk songs, Gilbert & Sullivan, and Offenbach in Pacific Overtures; British music hall in Sweeney Todd; and of course operetta in Night Music. But what in some hands would be simple parody in Sondheim is transformation, creating something entirely new and personal out of those traditions, injecting those traditional elements with a radical new freshness, urgency, and depth. And in no show has Sondheim achieved more musical cohesiveness than A Little Night Music. With its themes of human folly (Follies is another great Sondheim double-entendre of a title), marital betrayals and forgivenesses, of a life force that emerges from an acknowledgement of death (“Every Day a Little Death” is one of the most trenchant songs in the show), A Little Night Music might well be Sondheim’s Marriage of Figaro.
Given the history of Mozart and Strauss operas at Emmanuel Music under its late founding director Craig Smith, it’s not so far-fetched that Emmanuel’s current director Ryan Turner would turn to A Little Night Music for its first attempt at a Broadway musical. It was imaginatively staged by mezzo soprano (and now cantor) Lynn Torgove on a series of platforms (with no conventional scenery and the orchestra on stage) at the Boston Conservatory Theatre. Torgove also played one of the two central characters, the actress Désirée Armfeldt (who sings what Sondheim once referred to as a “medley of my greatest hits: ‘Send in the Clowns’”). Baritone David Kravitz was Désirée’s former lover, the lawyer Fredrik Egerman, whose 18-year-old second wife, Anne, after 11 months of marriage, is still a virgin. “That’s monstrous!” Désirée exclaims when Fredrik confides in her “You Must Meet My Wife”). At the first of the two performances, it took both Torgove and Kravitz a little while to settle into their complex roles (she a bit broad at first, he a bit unfocused), but soon they were both completely believable in their mutual affection and deeply affecting in their reconciliation and bemused resignation. Torgove’s “Send in the Clowns” (singing “Losing my timing this late in my career” with a poignantly ironic spin on “career”) and their final duet (She: “Was that a farce?” He: “My fault, I fear.” She: “Me as a merry-go-round.” He: “Me as King Lear”) were, as they had to be, the emotional high points of the evening.
As Désirée’s ancient, worldly-wise mother (the role created by the legendary Hermione Gingold), with her checkered past and singing of her lucrative “Liaisons” with upper-echelon royalty from whom she “acquired some position / Plus a tiny Titian,” veteran Boston actress Bobbie Steinbach (pretty legendary herself around these parts) gave the most thoroughly secure and consistently articulate performance, her dramatic concentration, rich voice (both speaking and singing), and impeccable diction a model for everyone in the company.
Two technical challenges affected various aspects of the production, sometimes seriously. The biggest problem for the cast was probably that the orchestra was on stage with them and not in a pit. And the different levels and locations of the platforms made for inconsistent acoustics. So even though Turner succeeded in keeping the orchestra’s volume levels down and the tempos slow enough for the singers to articulate Sondheim’s intricate patter (we sometimes forget that he got his Broadway start writing only lyrics—for West Side Story and Gypsy), much of the speaking and singing from the upstage platforms was close to inaudible. Too many of the rapid-fire internal rhymes and complex alliteration (“It’s a very short road / From the pinch and the punch / To the paunch and the pouch / and the pension”) got lost, sometimes because the singers simply weren’t loud enough, often because their enunciation also lacked bite. At least we must be grateful that their voices weren’t artificially amplified. But one of the great pleasures of a Sondheim musical was frustratingly lacking. If you were familiar with the lyrics, you might fill in what you couldn’t hear; if they were new to you, you were largely out of luck.
Still, there were many pleasures. Besides Torgove, Kravitz, and Steinbach, there were Dana Whiteside as Count Carl-Magnus (a pun on Cro-Magnon?), Désirée’s belligerent, jealous, pea-brained paramour; glamorous Krista River as his miserable, mistreated-yet-devoted wife (“Every day a little death”); and Jonas Budris as Egerman’s unhappy son Henrik, a stumbling divinity student desperately but silently in love with his young step-mother. These artists combined strong vocal performances with convincing acting. One disappointment was the usually appealing, silvery-voiced Kristen Watson as Anne, who couldn’t be heard in crucial passages—especially in her self-defining section of Sondheim’s rhythmically and verbally contrapuntal “Now/Soon/Later” trio where she tries to rationalize her sexual inhibition by singing to her napping husband: “If I were perfect for you / Wouldn’t you tire of me?” Watson never quite got under the skin of this only superficially superficial character.
It was a sweet gesture to have two students from the Boston Conservatory’s outstanding music-theater program in important roles. Kellie McKay had the right brassy timbre for Petra, the sexy maid who revels in “what passes by.” But she lacked the projection and precision of diction for her climactic song, “The Miller’s Son” (“The pinch and the punch / To the paunch and the pouch”), and what needed to be the loudest, most celebratory song in the show was too small to make its necessary effect. Grayson Mills had some nice moments in the mainly speaking role of Désirée’s daughter, Fredrika.
One of Sondheim and Prince’s most inspired ideas for A Little Night Music was to use a vocal quintet (called the “Liebeslieder Quintet”) as a kind of Greek chorus, introducing and commenting on the action, and Sondheim gave them some of the prettiest waltzes in the score. Torgove had them enter waltzing on their separate platforms. The outstanding singers were sopranos Jayne West and Sonja Tengblad, mezzo-soprano Majie Zeller, tenor Matthew Anderson, and baritone Sumner Thompson.
With Jonathan Tunick’s insinuating, almost Mahlerian delicacy of orchestration, A Little Night Music is a wonderful vehicle for an orchestra, and here Emmanuel Music excelled. Ryan Turner led a lilting performance, with a full orchestral complement (not the increasingly typical reduction), which included such splendid players as concertmaster Danielle Maddon, Rane Moore on clarinet, Jane Harrison on oboe and English horn, Martha Moor on harp, and Michael Beattie on piano and celeste (I could go on). In the “Now/Soon/Later” trio, when Henrik accompanies himself on the cello, the lavishly beautiful cello sound was actually produced by master cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer.
Intermezzo, under the artistic direction of John Whittlesey, has for a dozen years been one of the most adventurous of Boston’s smaller opera companies, producing 30 chamber operas, 10 of them new commissions. Two of the productions of relatively neglected 20th-century masterpieces—Kurt Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins and Benjamin Britten’s Curlew River—are among the best productions I’ve ever seen. Now Whittlesey is leaving Boston, and I hope Intermezzo can continue without him.
The last production under his directorship played two performances (January 25-26) at the beautifully restored little Modern Theatre on Washington Street (near the Paramount and the Opera House). It was Dan Shore’s Anne Hutchinson, with a libretto by William Fregosi (who also designed the minimal set) and Fritz Bell. Bell and Fregosi were also the librettists for my least favorite Intermezzo commission, A Place of Beauty, an opera with music by Robert Edward Smith about Isabella Stewart Gardner. Anne Hutchinson, which probably should be called The Trial of Anne Hutchinson, is a more sophisticated and professional enterprise, and it offered first rate performances by such admired Boston singers as contralto Marion Dry in the title role, baritone David Kravitz (only a week after A Little Night Music) as John Winthrop (the governor who banishes Hutchinson from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for her alleged heretical views), tenor Ray Bauwens as the conflicted Reverend John Cotton (Hutchinson’s theology mentor), and baritones Jason McStoots as another of Hutchinson’s judges, Paul Soper as Hutchinson’s father, and David McFerrin as Hutchinson’s husband and equal partner. Edward Jones led the singers, a superb chorus, and an orchestra that could have used a bit more rehearsal. Stage director Kirsten Z. Cairns did what little she could with the cramped space. The repeated gesture of the chorus members stretching their arms forward seemed both pointless and self-conscious. “Heil Hutchinson!” a friend remarked.
During the intermission, I overheard a woman in front of me asking her neighbor if this opera didn’t seem a lot like Robert Ward’s The Crucible, the 1962 Pulitzer Prize-winning opera about the Salem witch trials, based on Arthur Miller’s famous anti-McCarthy play. The answer is yes, and that similarity, which invites invidious comparison, is only one of the opera’s problems.
Shore’s music is pleasant and conventionally tonal (if someone told you that it had been written in the 1950s, you wouldn’t be surprised) and, to my ears, unmemorable. And complacent—not searching, not pushing any boundaries, not seeking its own individual identity. Places where one wanted the vocal line to soar were merely recitatives. Almost none of the music seemed to convey character or dig very deeply into what the characters were feeling.
At the beginning of the second act, Cotton has an aria in which he is tormented by whether he should support Hutchinson (risking his own status in the community) or betray her by joining the other judges in condemning her. His short staccato phrases begin to suggest something of his inner turmoil, but that’s as close to real drama as the opera gets. Bauwens poignantly delivered this internal struggle, though his otherwise splendid voice couldn’t sustain the climactic high notes of his aria. The other characters remain too simple. Hutchinson is entirely good and right, Winthrop is a stock villain. Dry, in fine voice, at least made Hutchinson a figure of both moral force and personal charm. There wasn’t any room for Kravitz to do anything but sing well, which he certainly did, with stentorian power.
The worst part of the opera comes at the very end. In an embarrassingly sentimental choral scene, members of the chorus portraying Mary Dyer, Abigail Adams, Frederick Douglas, Rosa Parks, and someone carrying a sign from the Stonewall uprising (“Out of the closets, into the streets”) all hail Hutchinson as their spiritual ancestress. “I spoke so you can be free,” Anne sings. Alle Menschen werden PC!
At the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (January 12), the brilliant pianist, blogger, and recent MacArthur Fellow Jeremy Denk gave one of the most satisfying and gratifying recitals I’ve heard in some time. What a delicious program! Two Mozart sonatas (the big, late Number 15 in F, K. 533, and the poignant Number 8 in A minor, K. 310), three scintillating Ligeti Etudes, and one of the very greatest works for solo piano, Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze (this suite of waltzing wedding dances is the only Schumann work choreographed by George Balanchine). “Just a collection of pieces I love,” Denk told the audience.
Denk is one of those players who’s so good, it’s fun to argue with him about details yet still come away from the entire experience feeling unqualified pleasure. The last time I heard him, I did more arguing than usual. But this time pleasure won. The Mozart sonatas had elegant energy and life. I’d have liked him to have slowed down a bit more for some of the more poignant moments—like the uncannily repeated notes in the slow movement of the A-minor sonata. Artur Schnabel, for example, on his famous recording, makes this passage feel as if time had stopped. Denk made you feel time racing by. It was refreshing to be offered the fresh perspective, just as in the F-major, you heard Mozart’s surprising and disturbing harmonies more vividly than usual. Denk called them “infinitely ambivalent” and “heading well toward Mahler.”
These days there’s probably nobody who plays Ligeti’s etudes both more accurately and more beautifully. Denk gave us En Suspens, a “hesitation waltz” with its different simultaneous tempos; gamelon-like Galamb Borong, with a different scale for each hand; and L’escalier du diable (the devil’s staircase), which Denk describes in the liner notes to his Ligeti recording as having “that great Escher feeling of always ascending, never descending…a kind of thrilling illusion.” Ligeti takes the classic etudes of Chopin and Debussy a giant step (a devil’s step) further. Denk’s swirling playing enveloped you in its own whirlwind.
There might have been more to argue with in the Schumann, but Denk’s rhythmic liveliness and deft and/or shocking transitions kept the dance impulse front and center. In this piece, Schumann evokes most explicitly the two sides of his personality, whom he called Florestan (the extrovert) and Eusebius (the figure of inward contemplation)—like Milton’s “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso.” Denk’s uninhibited Florestan obviously had a lot to drink at this wedding, but his Eusebius was the one with whom you wanted to hang out.
Another remarkable piano recital, though in several different ways, was Robert Levin’s free concert at Sanders Theatre (January 26) celebrating his retirement from the Harvard Music Department, where he’s taught for two decades and will be sorely missed by the students. Levin’s impressive pianism was no surprise to the hundreds of well-wishers in attendance, and it was present in full force: the dazzling accuracy at bravura at high speeds, the delicate colorations of the most intimate passages, the boundless energy, the infinite sensitivities, the forthrightness. But what was most special about this concert was that Levin was playing pieces that were all composed for him—pieces by a select group of composer friends: John Harbison (Levin’s friend since they were graduate students at Harvard), Yehudi Wyner, Bernard Rands, and the Transylvanian Hans Peter Türk. Even the encore, “Like a Music Box,” one of Thomas Oboe Lee’s delightful Twenty-Nine Fireflies, was from the set of them written for Levin.
Wyner’s 2005 Pulitzer Prize was for Chiave in Mano, a piano concerto commissioned by the BSO and written for Levin, who played the sensational premiere. The three Wyner pieces Levin chose to begin this “farewell” recital were on a smaller scale, but cheeky, high-profile pieces, combining great panache and great delicacy: Straccio Vecchio (1991), which Wyner calls “an old rag” of sneaky insouciance (“Robert Levin,” Wyner wrote in his note, “who loves sleazy modulations, seemed to be in mind as I stitched and darned; so I dedicated the piece to him”); Sauce 180 (1995), an “unctuous little song” written for an end-of-semester pasta party for Harvard’s celebrated Music 180 chamber-music course; and the bigger, open-hearted Mano a Mano (1994), with its breezy syncopations and sudden shifts in tempo and dynamics—the perfect closer to Levin’s first set.
What followed these three un-solemn gems was the most fully-developed and sustained work on the program, John Harbison’s large-scaled, all-too-rarely-performed four-movement Piano Sonata No. 2 (2001). Here long-range, almost chorale-like developments fade out into mysterious, disembodied, ethereal realms of pure spirit. The third-movement Ricercare is virtually (not literally) improvisational in its jazzy syncopations, leading to a final movement of endlessly surprising variations. Harbison writes that he thinks of this piece “as a not-always open letter to its first performer.” Levin’s performance was transcendent.
Türk’s Träume (Dreams), getting its world premiere, is a short, quasi-improvisatory piece (composers particularly admire Levin’s capacity to improvise) commemorating Levin’s visit to Rumania and his kindness to Türk’s late wife. “The title,” Türk has written in a letter to Levin that serves as a program note, “is borrowed from one of her notebooks, in which she tried to record her dreams.” The piece moves from quiet reflection (was that an echo of Brahms’s “Lullaby”?) to a wild outburst of grief, to something like bells quietly tolling (“the contents of Gerda’s last dream”).
The final piece was the longest, Bernard Rands’s Twelve Preludes for Solo Piano (2006/07). The title of each of these mainly short pieces begins with a letter of the alphabet that ultimately forms an acrostic for Robert D. Levin: Ricercare, Ostinato, Bordone, etc., ending in a mysteriously rocking Notturno “in memoriam Don Martino,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning Boston composer who died in 2005. Rands wanted each section to have an independent life while also being “integrated into a formal whole.” I especially admired the Prelude called Durezza (hardness, stubbornness), a series of eerily echoing single notes; Emiola, with its breathlessly racing triplets (I think) alternating with sudden fortissimo explosions; and that final hushed nocturne.
A thoroughly deserved standing ovation followed.
If I had to choose the greatest orchestral performances I’ve ever heard, one of them would unquestionably be the extraordinary Mahler Second Symphony (Resurrection) that Claudio Abbado led with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1979 (with Jessye Norman, Barbara Hendricks, and the NEC Chorus). It was an overwhelming, profoundly moving, communal experience. Not just another concert. Abbado didn’t perform in Boston often (or often enough): some half dozen times with the BSO, a few more than that with visiting orchestras for the Celebrity Series. At his last concert here, he led the Berlin Philharmonic in two Beethoven symphonies, barely a month after 9/11, and it was another healing experience. Because of his early affiliation with the BSO as an award-winning conducting fellow at Tanglewood (he was awarded the Koussevitzky Prize in 1958), he was occasionally mentioned as a possible BSO music director. So it was especially saddening to read of the maestro’s death, at his home in Bologna, at the age of 80.