Where was the first documented performance of a Bach cantata in this country? Where were the St. John Passion, the Christmas Oratorio, the B Minor Mass, and the Art of Fugue first performed complete here? Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
I had several motives in attending this concert. Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki is a fast rising star in the classical world, recently appointed Music Director of the Helsinki Philharmonic. I was eager to hear the rarely performed Griffes tone poem, a brilliant programming move. (We need to experience more "A" pieces from obscure composers of the past, I frequently argue.) And I was curious to see how Jeremy Denk would interact with Mälkki, since both musicians are of the brisk, sparky sort. The concert did not disappoint.
One can be thankful that it really is possible to ignore the worst excesses of the Holiday Season if one stays away from Midtown and shuns the Media, but it is discouraging to realize that many of the traditional aspects of it which give us the reassuring glow of tradition are in fact clichés, worn-out, empty rituals we attend because there's nothing better around. A few brass instruments and kettledrums in church don't really make a difference. A recent weekend in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, however, showed how lively the Season can be, if one really understands its importance, like the Moravian Protestants who make the Star of Bethlehem their central symbol, celebrate with a gusto seldom found anywhere else, from earnest in the pews to some prodigious eating and drinking.
This version of the beloved holiday classic, The Nutcracker, is less a focus on technical brilliance and more a charming family event with a host of young (and very young dancers). I went with two teenage girls, both veterans of other performances including the iconic New York City Ballet version. We agreed that the dancers worked hard and danced their little hearts out and that a huge amount of time and effort, to say nothing of a lot of rehearsals, went into the performance.
Move over Les Miz! The Flames of Paris is an opulent, highly muscular, charged ballet that's mass entertainment complete with sward-fighting, clog dancing, folk music and enough revolutionary zeal to please any audience. It also makes the French Revolution look like an event that took place between dessert and coffee – no guillotines, no blood and almost no tragedy if you don't count the two on-stage deaths that register more as plot lines than emotional grabbers.
Pergolesi’s comic operas sound remarkably modern—which is to say, like Mozart. Recognizably human characters go through recognizable experiences, singing out their feelings very directly, which the music embodies in fluidly changing tempos and moods, stretching of harmony, changes of key and orchestral color. Much is accomplished through musically creative recitative—a half-spoken way of proceeding—as well as through song proper and duets (there are only two singers in each of these operas, though also some designated silent performers, to which this production added a few dancers). It is like Mozart, but sets the procedure for opera ever since, even Verdi’s with their heroic figures, Wagner’s with their gods and goddesses, Berg or Britten with their neurotics. Characters live, feel, and think—and sing—and the music moves quickly and supply and thinks, as it were, with them.
For several years now, one of the joys of the Williamstown Theatre Festival has been the revivals of obscure, but cherishable British plays of the 1960's and 70's, David Storey's Home, for example or Simon Gray's Quartermaine's Terms, to name two examples. Bernard Pomerance's The Elephant Man is a late (1979) product of the period, even if it is by no means obscure today, thanks mostly to David Lynch's remarkable film (1980), and even if it was written by an American.
I couldn’t have been more eager to hear Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra on their return visit to Boston, part of an American tour celebrating the 25th anniversary of the “Peaceful Revolution” that began in Leipzig in October 1989 and a month later led to the fall of the Berlin wall. Chailly continues to be one of most significant and enriching conductors of our time, and it was profoundly frustrating that, in January of 2012, heart problems prevented him from making his long overdue BSO debut (conducting, among other things, Stravinsky’s Sacre du printemps). This cancellation also put him out of the running as a possible replacement for James Levine as BSO music director. There was no way the BSO would risk hiring another music director with health problems. And yet, apparently recovered, here he was in Boston.