Good Times, Bum Times: Last Year in Boston

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Benjamin Zander conducts the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra

Benjamin Zander conducts the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra

Good times and bum times, I’ve seen them all,
And my dear, I’m still here.
Plush velvet sometimes, sometimes just pretzels and beer…
I got through all of last year,
And I’m here.

Stephen Sondheim’s lyric from Follies seems especially suitable for this past year in Boston, and for the classical music world in general. There was a lot of terrible news: the folding of the New York City Opera, the cancellation of Minnesota Orchestra concerts and the ensuing resignation of Osmo Vanskä, the music director who put it on the map (even George Mitchell couldn’t make peace between labor and management). The worst thing to happen to Boston, especially for the arts, was the sudden shutdown of its most important weekly newspaper, The Boston Phoenix (I’m biased, of course, having written for the Phoenix for some 35 years). With only a day’s notice, some wonderful writers were suddenly out on the street, and the go-to place for listings and reviews became the sound of silence.

The good news was that for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, its two-year search for a music director finally came to an end. The now 35-year-old Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons was named as the successor to James Levine, the BSO’s first and only American music director and one of its greatest. And yet because of a head injury and concussion, Nelsons had to cancel his most important concert with the BSO, the Verdi Requiem at Tanglewood, in which his wife, Kristine Opolais, sang the soprano part. He’s led some very good concerts with the BSO, and injected the orchestra with his enthusiasm and energy, but he has yet to prove himself in the same league as Levine. His programming, with its emphasis on such familiar composers as Brahms, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, and Richard Strauss, isn’t very exciting or challenging.

The most thrilling BSO concert of the year, British composer Thomas Adès leading a recent work of his own (Polaris) and a hair-raising performance of Ives’s astonishing Orchestra Set No. 2 (a BSO first), was also one of the most sparsely attended. In the meantime, one of the best pieces of news in the classical world was the return of Levine to the Metropolitan Opera. We can hear his comeback recital at Carnegie Hall with the Met Orchestra on a superlative live CD. He received ecstatic reviews for conducting a second Carnegie concert and, at the Met, Cosí fan tutte (which will be transmitted next spring in the Met in HD series to movie theaters around the world), and his conducting of Verdi’s Falstaff, already telecast, was among the great virtues of that lively production, though he allowed director Robert Carsen and the otherwise lovable (and huge) Ambrogio Maestri in the title role to run roughshod over some of the opera’s most magical and poignant moments.

In Boston, the best news was the arrival of several new opera companies. The most important is Opera Odyssey, a kind of replacement for the late lamented Opera Boston, with that company’s Gil Rose at the helm as musical and artistic director. Their first program was an enthralling and entertaining concert performance of Richard Wagner’s seldom-heard early epic opera, Rienzi. (Odyssey’s spring season of chamber operas has yet to be announced.) On a smaller scale, the fledgling Commonwealth Lyric Theater gave us an exhilarating and idiomatic production of Rachmaninoff’s first opera, Aleko: The Gypsies, and another brand new group, Opera Brittenica, devoted exclusively to the works of Benjamin Britten, opened with an imaginative, sexy, moving, and musically satisfyingly production of The Rape of Lucretia, at the Cambridge YMCA. (I can’t wait for their production of The Burning Fiery Furnace, under the direction of Donald Teeters, at All Saints Parish in Brookline next May.)

Our leading opera company, the Boston Lyric Opera, gave us the two worst opera productions of the year, and two of the worst in its own checkered history: a grotesque Flying Dutchman in which the director concocted a story that never connected to Wagner’s music and a deadly Magic Flute, also with a silly new plot that even interrupted Mozart’s great overture with a scene of spoken exposition. Why can’t this company, which has so much going for it, including a relatively new administration and a willing audience, get its act together?

But the Boston Early Music Festival offered one of its best productions, a rare outing of Handel’s first opera, Almira. And there were two significant revivals: at last, the first Boston performance of John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby (a Met 1999 commission), in a superb concert version produced by Emmanuel Music and led by Emmanuel’s director Ryan Turner (and repeated at Tanglewood); and Andy Vore’s riveting one-act opera based on Sartre’s No Exit, produced at the Boston Conservatory’s Zack Box by the enterprising Guerilla Opera, which gave the premiere five years before.

On the keyboard front, two of our favorite pianists, Russell Sherman and Dubravka Tomsic, sadly had to cancel. But the British pianist Paul Lewis gave a powerful recital for the Celebrity Series of Schubert’s last three sonatas. And Marc-André Hamelin, in the first of three Celebrity Series concerts this season, dazzled with his technical dexterity in the virtually unplayable (and for me tedious) half-hour-plus Medtner Sonata, No. 2 (Night Wind), and found startling new things to say in a complex and highly personal rendition of Schubert’s very last Sonata (the B-flat), in which the first movement had the vocal freedom of a Schubert song, and the second movement paralleled the swaying rhythms of Hamelin’s own delicately sinister Barcarolle, with which he began the program. These idiosyncratic movements rather overwhelmed the final two movements, which were more conventional and merely (merely!) beautifully played.

Pianist HaeSun Paik

Pianist HaeSun Paik

Some of the best pianism of the year was part of a marvelous chamber concert at Jordan Hall sponsored by the Korean Cultural Foundation. It marked the happy return to Boston of HaeSun Paik, one of the most brilliantly gifted pianists to emerge from the studio of Russell Sherman and his wife, Wha Kyung Byun. She played Liszt’s show-offy but seductive Venezia e Napoli, three “Italian” movements inspired by themes by Italian composers: “Gondoliera” (another barcarolle), “Canzone” (based on Rossini’s Otello), and “Tarantella.” Paik’s combination of warmth and power were astounding. The evening began with the Borromeo Quartet’s first violinist Nicholas Kitchen (an honorary Korean for this program) and cellist Yeesun Kim (whose 1576 Peregrino Zanemo cello is one of the world’s oldest and most tonally ravishing) in Martinu’s Duo, No. 1, its plaintive Preludium followed by a whirlwind Rondo. Korean harpist June Han played her mother Young-Ja Lee’s touching portrait of an artist, Aquarelles pour solo harp. And the evening ended with Paik joining Kitchen, Kim, and BSO Acting Assistant Concertmaster Julianne Lee in a magnificent performance of Brahms’s great G-minor Quartet (Schoenberg called it Brahms’s Fifth Symphony and orchestrated it), with its sumptuous and searching melodies, incisive march, and exuberant all-stops-pulled-out Gypsy Rondo finale. All the players seemed to be listening to one another, which made listening to them a vital necessity.

This was a very good year for conductor Benjamin Zander. His Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra once again made a strong impression with a program at Symphony Hall that included the scintillating Christopher O’Reilly (another former student of Russell Sherman) in the jazzy and lyrical Ravel G-major Piano Concerto and Zander leading the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony in a performance that, as he explained to the audience, went back to Shostakovich’s original intentions in the last movement, a slower tempo that delivered not the usual forced gaiety but a grimly powerful statement of heroism in the face of adversity. Zander took the orchestra to Carnegie Hall, and even the New York Times was impressed with the level of playing and serious musicianship. Zander’s Boston Philharmonic offered another soloist, Moldovan violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, in her American debut, playing the Bartok Second Violin Concerto. It was the single most breathtaking concerto performance of the year. Barefoot and with intense concentration, she seemed to identify with every note of the music, interacting with the orchestra, and playing with both extraordinary lyrical openness and thrilling power and nerve. She’s already a star in Europe, working with the major orchestras. We were lucky to have her here and her collaboration with Zander was a lucky one for her.

Courtney Lewis, former Zander fellow and former assistant conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra, is the musical director of the admirable Discovery Ensemble, one of whose concerts earlier this year was a model of what a classical concert should be: a balance of old and new, coherence and variety, with impressively impeccable playing. Lewis began with a sparkling Barber of Seville Overture, followed by John Adams’s Chamber Symphony, then Stravinsky’s too-seldom heard 1942 Danses Concertantes, and gave the concluding place of honor to a Haydn Symphony (No. 92, the Oxford), with its wonderful proto-Rossinian brio.

David Hoose and the Cantata Singers ended the year with one of its most radiant concerts, Monteverdi’s profoundly spiritual and profoundly gorgeous Vespers of 1610, reverberating through Cambridge’s St. Paul’s Church. The year’s most ravishingly expressive classical solo singing came from soprano Dominique Labelle in a performance of Boccherini’s Stabat Mater with the Sarasa Ensemble.

And to bring us back to Stephen Sondheim, or at least to the American musical, two of the most memorable musical evenings of the year, both sponsored by the Celebrity Series of Boston, were concerts by two of the brightest Broadway Babies. Christine Ebersole blew into Sanders Theatre for a 90-minute musical autobiography that ranged from “Big Wind from Winnetka” past “Mink Schmink” to a couple of touching ballads from her hit show Grey Gardens, and ending with “Young at Heart” (a sing-along). And the perennially young Barbara Cook, at 85, comfortably shared the stage with John Pizzarelli, and filled Symphony Hall with her plaintive crystalline voice. Her rendition of “Time After Time,” the Sammy Cahn/Jule Styne hit song written for Frank Sinatra in 1947, was sublime and heartbreaking. “I only know what I know / The passing years will show / You’ve kept my love so young, so new / And time after time / You’ll hear me say that I’m / So lucky to be loving you.”

Happy 2014!

About the author

Lloyd Schwartz

Lloyd Schwartz, Senior Editor of Classical Music at New York Arts, is Frederick S. Troy Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Boston and a regular commentator on music and the arts for NPR’s Fresh Air. For 35 years, he was Classical Music Editor of the Boston Phoenix. He is the author of four poetry collections (most recently Little Kisses, U of Chicago Press) and the editor of three volumes by and about poet Elizabeth Bishop, including the Library of America’s Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters. His poems, articles, and reviews have appeared in The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Opera News, Vanity Fair, New Republic, Paris Review, Ploughshares, The Pushcart Prize, Best American Poetry, and The Best of the Best American Poetry. He’s a three-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for his writing about music, and the recipient of a grant from the Amphion Foundation for his writing on contemporary music. In 1994, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.

Readers Comments (3)

  1. Bettina A. Norton December 28, 2013 @ 10:27

    As all too usual, we missed some of these concerts that Schwartz so enjoyed, making me consider surreptitiously implanting some sort of device in his magnificent head that will alert me to concerts he plans to attend. This will replace my ruing my non-attendance. But as (happily) usual, he so hits the nail on the head with his commentary on concerts we did attend that I always feel a rush of gratitude for more fuller understanding. Happy New Year to him, indeed, and may we continue to benefit from reading him.

  2. Dr. Schwartz omitted one great success, Thomson’s “Four Saints in Three Acts”,
    performed by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) led by the estimable
    Gil Rose (see also Wagner, above.) This must have been an unintended omission.
    Robert Kirzinger, who wrote the learned and lucid notes for the program, called it a “hoot.”

  3. Martin Cohn is right. And indeed I wrote very warmly about that BMOP concert performance in my recent New York Arts piece “Literally operatic: Two Boys at the Met plus opera in Boston.” Four Saints certainly deserves to be included among the best musical events of the year.

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