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Perfect Philharmony

The Israel and New York Philharmonics have a whale of a time playing together; a minor-miracle performance of La Forza del Destino; notes from the Soviet musical underground.

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Big-Band Sound: Zubin Mehta leads his Israel Philharmonic-- and his former orchestra the New York Philharmonic-- in a roof-raising concert.  

Since elephants can be trained to dance, and quite expertly at that, there’s no reason why two large orchestras cannot join forces, become even larger, and play the bejesus out of two blockbuster Romantic symphonies. And that is precisely what the combined Israel and New York Philharmonics did when they took on the Tchaikovsky Fourth and Mahler First not long ago in Avery Fisher Hall. Of course, these two orchestras already have a history together, even if it has been twenty years since they last collaborated. Their respective music directors, Israel’s Zubin Mehta and New York’s Lorin Maazel, have long enjoyed close associations with each other’s orchestras, and that, too, encouraged a spirit of cooperation. Small wonder that the energy level of their playing went through the roof.

The concert also demonstrated, if it was ever in doubt, just how much the personality of an individual conductor can influence the musical outcome. Mehta imbued the Tchaikovsky symphony with the same sort of raw vigor and voluptuous sonority that he cultivated during his thirteen seasons as the New York Philharmonic’s music director, along with the coarseness and vulgarity that seem to be an inescapable by-product of his musical character. Maazel, on the other hand, is a less impulsive musician, whose studied interpretations, if often rather reptilian, can convey a certain frisson simply through their sheer gall. His Mahler First may not communicate much warmth or spirituality, but at least the long journey is never dull.

Fifty years ago, when the supply of verdi singers seemed inexhaustible, casting La Forza del Destino posed few problems, and the opera was a Met staple. Today, we seldom hear that grand, sprawling epic, and the Met has apparently given up trying to find a suitable cast. For that reason alone, the Collegiate Chorale and its conductor, Robert Bass, achieved a small miracle recently by presenting a concert performance in Carnegie Hall that seemed to please even the old dribblers, those tiresome sorts who continually bore the young fans with endless tales about the good old days when Zinka Milanov, Richard Tucker, and Leonard Warren ruled supreme in Verdi.

The Chorale’s main attraction was Salvatore Licitra, making his first local appearance since stepping in and cleaning up at the Met last spring when Luciano Pavarotti failed to show up for his swan song. Here, Licitra was taking on Don Alvaro in Forza, recalling another famous Pavarotti nonevent a few years back, when a Met revival had to be canceled after the great man decided he couldn’t learn the role. True, it’s one of Verdi’s most demanding tenor parts, but the notes obviously hold no terrors for Licitra. He may lack the tonal allure and vocal charisma of his predecessors, but his tenor is sturdy, pliable, all of a piece, and with enough beef to give the climaxes their full due. We don’t hear that often nowadays, nor a native Italian who inflects the words of a Verdi opera so beautifully and naturally.

Among this opera’s chief glories are the three big tenor-baritone duets, and they sounded sensational here thanks to the performance’s biggest surprise, Mark Rucker as Don Carlo. This exceptional but as yet uncelebrated baritone rejoices in a lean, spinning, perfectly focused tone of unfailing natural beauty and vibrancy, while his grasp of Verdi style and phrasing is all but complete. I trust that the many powerful Met officials who attended this Forza greeted him backstage afterward with a fistful of blank contracts.

Although many seemed to appreciate her diva attitudinizing as Leonora, Maria Guleghina was the fly in the ointment, smearing phrases, flatting top notes, awkwardly shifting registers, and losing tonal support in quieter passages—precisely the sort of crude Verdi singing that gives the provinces a bad name. I fear Maestro Bass was also not in his element, conducting in a rush and with little feeling for the idiom. No matter. There were more than enough compensations: Marianne Cornetti’s zesty Preziosilla, Simon Estes’s gallant rescue work as a substitute Padre Guardiano, and Paul Plishka’s jolly Melitone, not to mention the opportunity to hear a wonderful opera that has been away too long.

A musical underground can scarcely exist in a country that takes little notice of what its serious musicians are up to, so there has never been one in the United States. In Soviet Russia, it was a different story, and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center has just spent ten days exploring the topic: concerts, lectures, and poetry readings organized by the series’ director, pianist Vladimir Feltsman. The opening concert in Alice Tully Hall could only give an idea of how rich the subject is and how much we still have to learn about it. For American audiences in the last half of the twentieth century, nearly all Soviet music was written off as cheap poster art solely meant to glorify the regime.

Most of the music on the program was written during the forties, when Stalin’s grip on the country’s culture was relentless. Shostakovich found chamber music to be the safest outlet for his private thoughts, and the Violin-Piano-Cello Trio of 1944 finds him in a black mood—the sense of bleak tragedy that hovers over this music is nearly unbearable. Galina Ustvolskaya was just 30 when she wrote her Violin-Clarinet-Piano Trio in 1949, a tortuous, ascetic statement, apparently not much different from the music she writes today, at age 83, in her own solitary underground retreat in St. Petersburg. The music of Moisei Weinberg, represented by his 1945 Cello Sonata, is still largely awaiting discovery, but Alfred Schnittke’s Piano Trio, one of the last scores he wrote before his death in 1998 and full of twisty surprises, is by now practically a repertory piece. All that, of course, just gives us a small sampling of an extraordinary body of music written in extraordinary times.

The Israel and New York Philharmonics
at Avery Fisher Hall.

La Forza del Destino
The Collegiate Chorale at Carnegie Hall.

Masterpieces of the Russian Underground
Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.


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