Sunday, January 23, 2011

O Schönheit: Mozart and Mahler with the Met Orchestra

In contrast with my usual last-minute habits, I bought a ticket for this afternoon's concert over a month in advance, eager to have a chance to see the Metropolitan Opera orchestra fully in the spotlight.  I was not disappointed.  The first and second halves were a study in contrasts: Mozart's Posthorn Serenade (officially Serenade in D minor, K. 320) was a graceful celebration of an ordered world.  Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, in a blisteringly intense performance, extolled the courage to live fully in the face of the temptation to live blindly, in a world teetering wildly on the brink of chaos.

I hadn't heard James Levine conduct since the Rheingold gala, and I was looking forward to hearing again the special magic that he can work with "his" orchestra.  Physically, he seemed much diminished (he walked with a cane, which the concertmaster held for him when he climbed to a swivel chair on the podium) but he burned with musical energy.  The friend I went with said that the Mozart compensated her for years of mediocre orchestral performances. The strings were radiant and rich, the woodwinds virtuosic.  One of the French horns experienced some sort of glitch, but that external factor was only a brief distraction.  Each movement was given distinct character, with unhurried pauses separating them.  As a whole, the piece had an appropriately dignified but festive (feierlich) mood, with verve in the variations of tempi and dynamics.  After this delightful and reassuring piece from the Age of Reason, my friend and I spent the interval stretching our cramped legs (really, those seats!) and trying to mentally prepare for Mahler.

The Lied was fortunate in its soloists.  Michelle DeYoung not only sang with warmth and power, but gets high marks from the Wardrobe Committee for a teal blue dress in a rich fabric and simple cut that suited her coloring and figure admirably. (It's worth looking at her online schedule not just to see if you can catch her in a city near you, but to chuckle at the whimsical headers given to each event on the calendar.)  She maintained admirable lyricism, and had a lovely rounded tone for that last "ewig... ewig... ewig..." Simon O'Neill sang with bright tone and, in "Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde" an almost savage attack, although he also found a more meditative tone for "Der Trunkene im Frühling."  The German diction of both was generally good.  (The Mahler Archives site has the Chinese texts alongside German, French, and English translations.)  For me, however, it was the orchestra which really made this electrifying.

From the first notes, I was sitting straight in my seat, in a state of glorious suspense.  The uncanny wildness of the piece was profoundly unsettling (and exciting.)  As in the Mozart, there was plenty of breathing space in the pauses, but I didn't feel that the mood was broken.  There were moments of sweetness and exquisite beauty, but I felt that the tension of the piece was kept resolutely unresolved until the very end.  [Update: I forgot to discuss the tempi!  Oops.  Fortunately Zerbinetta noticed; see the comments section.]  In ensemble and individual efforts the orchestra astonished me.  When did they find time to rehearse this enough to put together a performance of this quality?  The orchestral interlude was breathtaking; I was afraid Levine might snap his baton in his enthusiasm of gong-cuing, but it was glorious.   And then... it did resolve (the idea, I mean; not the chord.)  And the audience maintained a breathless silence until Levine dropped his baton, and then erupted.


  1. I loath these concerts because they inevitably conflict with the conference championships and rapidly and sadly approaching end of the football season (

    Unfortunately they are always very tempting and in the event surprisingly indispensable given that one hears the orchestra so often elsewhere (not to mention the absurdly high prices). Levine is particularly effective in Mahler. For these reason I'm sad that I missed it yesterday but your review at least gives a lively description of the proceedings. In any case I'm glad you enjoyed it.

  2. Ah, alas. I am, fortunately or unfortunately, without such conflicting loyalties. I hope this past Sunday afternoon was satisfying for you! Do you refer to absurdly high prices for the concerts, or for the opera? As a student ticket buyer (and Notables member at Carnegie) I am insulated to some extent from these unpleasant realities. Such is my ignorance, I didn't know that Levine had a particular reputation in Mahler... but based on yesterday's showing, it would seem to be deserved.

  3. Nah, my afternoon sucked. My significant other forced me to go to Central Park (&#%(# - it was freezing out there) and when when I got back home - she dumped me and spent the rest of the afternoon with a law school classmate - the football was sub mediocre at best (in practice that's usually the case - the concerts - at least the Met ones - rarely disappoint but the football often does).

    Levine was, I think, quite celebrated for his Mahler in the 70s and 80s and my experience with it, late 90s and forward, has been invariably stunning. He's done a couple of song cycles, two notably memorable 9ths and one exceptional 6th*.

    As for the prices I do mean the concerts, with the individual tickets being more expensive than any but the Vienna and Berlin and quite a bit more so than such celebrated and superb ensembles as the BRSO and Concertgebouw. This is surprising since these orchestras visit only once every few years whereas the Met can be heard, literally, hundreds of times at the opera and multiple times in concert each year. Still, if people are willing to pay - and the concerts invariably sell very well - there's no reason not to charge the higher fees. So much the better if they help to defray the costs for student tickets.

    *This concert (January 2002) also featured Renee Fleming with Berg's 7 Early Songs, in quite possibly the most comprehensively thrilling performance I've ever heard (or seen her - she was quite remarkably beautiful in a burgundy gown) in.

  4. Oh, alas again. Thanks for the info on Levine, and for the 2002 concert anecdote. Mahler 6 paired with Berg--in superlative performance, no less--must have been quite something. The ticket pricing news is surprising indeed! For myself and on behalf of student-ticket-holding friends, though, I thank you.

  5. How were the tempos in the Mahler? Were they really slow, I mean? Levine can be so slow sometimes. I feel guilty for sometimes becoming impatient because it can be wonderful. But sometimes it is just slow.

    I wonder if the orchestra is relieved to get out of the pit and get a moment to show off.

  6. The "Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde" was slower than any recording I can recall, but I thought it worked. Overall the reading was detail-rich and with fierce impulsion, and with tempo nicely varied between movements. So, while there was noticeable luxuriating in e.g. "Von der Jugend," other sections, including "Abschied," didn't feel slow at all. Sorry if that's vague.

    I hope the orchestra enjoyed their moment of independent glory! The hall was very nearly packed out.

  7. Another answer to the tempo question is provided by the NYTimes, which did get impatient: About Simon O'Neill: his sound was audibly pushed out over the orchestra, but I didn't think it sounded thin.

  8. I see, that sounds excellent. Good slow is good. I say this as a survivor of the gloriously lugubrious Eschenbach Mahler cycle in Philadelphia. :) We're getting Das Lied in Wien in a few months with Philippe Jordan and Hampson in the mezzo part.

    I heard O'Neill as Florestan a few years ago, loud but I thought his tone was oddly nasal.


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