It’s that glorious time of the year again. Summer in New York, long walks in Central Park or on the spectacular trail along the Hudson River, outdoor dining, the skyline cutting bright blue skies, and yes, the downside, the tsunami of tourists eagerly inundating the city. Luckily, visitors tend to stick to the midtown area around their Mecca, Broadway and Times Square. Rarely do they venture further uptown and very few, when it comes to Lincoln Center, actually go beyond a glimpse at the great structure, blissfully ignoring the highlight of August in New York, the Mostly Mozart Festival.
This year, my last as a NY resident, I went about choosing my performances very carefully. Unfortunately, neither time nor pocket allow for total immersion. One must be reasonable even if the first impulse is to dive in blindly and let yourself be sucked in by the musical eddy. So, after much thought, I made my choices: Paul Lewis, of course, probably my favorite pianist nowadays; Rossini’s Stabat Mater, because it’s a masterpiece and not often performed, as its cousin, the Petite Messe Solennelle; and an all Brahms concert, consisting of the Second Symphony and the Double Concerto with Vadim Repin and Truls Mork, I can’t wait! Also, on second thought, and I was lucky to get the very last ticket, the Emerson Quartet playing the three Razumovskys. It seems like a well balanced perspective – Mozart, Rossini, Brahms and Beethoven – and I will some day argue in favor of the virtues of mainstream programming. I am, alas, thus missing out on a concert version of Nozze which got rave reviews, Joshua Bell and an all Händel program with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, but I still have time to change my mind as, incomprehensibly to me, you can always get a ticket, even at very short notice.
I can go to Lincoln Center a thousand times, the excitement will always be the same. The only venue I have yet to go to is the David H. Koch Theatre, as ballet is really not up my alley. But be it the Met, Avery Fisher or Alice Tully, the titillating sense of expectation is always strongly there! The Met is the grandest, where glamour meets music. Avery Fisher is the grand classique and Alice Tully the intimate setting. In all three halls, you get the best, the not so good, and, rarely, the complete disaster. I have reviewed many concerts and performances in all three. And here I go again!
There is, in New York, a consummate sense of “photo opportunity”. Art shows and concerts are a favorite backdrop for the glitterati. So it was with little surprise, albeit some irritation, that I witnessed our queue at the ticket control being suddenly held back to let some celebrity and her retinue through. I have absolutely no idea who it was, but the very elegant lady (with no purse, I wonder why female VIPs never or rarely carry one) rated a Secret Service escort (easily identifiable by the little plastic coils coming out of their ears). Later on, in the hall, I noticed more posh people milling around, greeting each other affably, which reinforced my often expressed feeling that some people go to concerts and exhibitions only to be seen and not to hear or see. All right, you will consider me artistically elitist and politically incorrect, but I have never professed to be otherwise. In truth, apart for the slight wait at the gate, these people did not bother me at all.
Now, after much digression, to the heart of the matter. The reason for this long introduction is that I’m trying to figure out how to write without being bombastic. Impossible, I guess.
Let me first say, at the risk of being unpleasant, that there is a world of difference between this year’s MM festival and the last. I have often heard people say, facetiously or out of musical ignorance, that the conductor does nothing but walk onto the stage, get up on the podium, take a bow and start waving his arms around, and then bow again and reap the laurels. This is, of course, utter nonsense, but it is quite difficult to explain to a non-musician what exactly it is the conductor does, and, above all, how he does it. Yesterday we had a perfect demonstration of the conductor’s role and importance, and no long explanation was necessary, provided you had attended another MM performance before. Watching and listening to Jérémie Rhorer was living proof that the conductor is, indeed, the heart and soul of the orchestra. How else can one explain the enormous difference in sound and musical quality that the MM Festival Orchestra demonstrated this time, in comparison to what I heard last year. This is not the Berlin Philharmonic, I think I’ve already mentioned that somewhere. It is not even, to my knowledge, an orchestra at all, in the sense that it is a once a year gathering of very good musicians assembled specifically for the festival. Thus, it has no “sound”of its own. What happened at the concert I’m now talking about was Jérémie Rhorer, a young French conductor I’m ashamed to say I’d never heard or heard about. Now I have, and what a jolt!
The shock came right at the beginning. The Overture to Nozze was unlike any other version I have ever heard, even at the Staatsoper Berlin or at the Opéra Bastille. It was quicksilver, it was velvet, it was water, it was mist, it was thunder – all in a few minutes of music I would have liked to listen to over and over again.
This was as fitting an introduction as one can imagine to the magic of the C major concerto as rendered by this incredible tandem, Paul Lewis having joined Jérémie Rhorer on the stage. I have sung Lewis’s praises over and over again, and will not stop today. He is definitely my favorite pianist and I do wish I could find fault with something, so as not to sound so overblown. But I just can’t. I’m in awe of everything he does, I find every note played as it should be and I am filled with undescribable musical joy whenever I can hear him play. I’ve heard him live in Beethoven (May 18th, 2008 – Diplomatic Excursion to Pomerania), Schubert (October 18, 2012 – Paul Lewis- When Intellect Serves Emotion) and now Mozart, and I’m as enthusiastic as I was before. Lewis’s scintillating technique never overwhelms, it always serves the score. The evenness of his touch reminds one of Clara Haskil’s. His dynamics are sensitive and intelligent, never exaggerated, never overstated. His phrasing seems to flow naturally, as if there was no other way to tell the story. I know there are a hundred ways, and that is the beauty of great music, that it lends itself to infinite re-creation. But Lewis’s interpretations are coherent and persuasive and even if you disagree (which I certainly do not!), I think you find yourself re-examining your own deepest convictions. Mozart’s great concerto (yes, it is the Marseillaise concerto), in the deceptively simple key of C major, as is his 21st, is in turn majestic, sweet and playful, and Paul Lewis is particularly eloquent in bringing out all its moods. Rhorer and the MM Festival Orchestra served him well, but I could almost say that he deserved even better. Imagine him with Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, for example, or the Freiburger Barockorchester under René Jacobs!
After the intermission, the program went on to a mostly mozartian Beethoven, also in C major, his 1st symphony., which starts mischievously with moveable cadences. There is something in the evolution of Beethoven’s works that reminds one of a painter’s trajectory – take Miró or Picasso, for example. When you see a retrospective of their paintings, you usually go from figurative to abstract, but the their trademark is already unmistakeably present from the very earliest pieces. Such is the feeling one has listening to the evolution in Beethoven’s symphonies or, even more maybe, in the string quartets. Witness the distance between the op. 18 quartets and op. 131, and yet, the “griffe” is already there in the earlier works.
Rhorer and the festival orchestra again did a wonderful job. I found the woodwinds particularly appealing, especially the oboe. They definitely deserved the burst of applause at the end, and I must say I was totally dismayed by the audience’s behavior – almost half didn’t bother to express their admiration or thanks, rushing to the exits as soon as the last note died down. So rude that I wish they wouldn’t open the doors before the musicians were properly rewarded. It can’t even be a race for the dernier metro, as the concerts start and end at a very reasonable hour. Of course, at the age of 343, I tend to be a stickler as far as manners and decorum are concerned. So take these final remarks as a grumpy old lady’s prattle as she says so long.