No, that wasn’t a crowd lined up for a rock concert in front of Alice Tully Hall one freezing Sunday afternoon not long ago. Juan Diego Flórez, a 31-year-old tenor from Peru and about as hot as an opera singer can get these days, was giving his first New York recital, and everybody had to be there. Judging by the anguished pleas and bills of large denominations being waved in the air, the hall could have been sold out several times over. No doubt there will be similar scenes in front of the Metropolitan Opera this Friday night, when Flórez begins a run as Lindoro in the Met revival of Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri.
Flórez is a star on the global opera circuit, but, luckily for the Met and his New York fans, he has roots in the United States—he studied voice at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and has family down the coast in North Carolina. That and the vociferous adoration he receives whenever he steps onstage hereabouts are likely to keep the tenor a frequent visitor. The real worry about Flórez is that a young singer who combines a voice of such heady appeal and technical dazzle with the dark good looks and stage savvy of a pop idol will quickly tire of Rossini, Mozart, Donizetti, and Bellini and be lured into more profitable crossover ventures. Let’s pray that never happens—at the moment, Flórez seems happy at what he is doing.
And he does it very well. There has been no shortage of agile tenors recently to handle the florid bel canto repertory, but none I’ve encountered offers this kind of total package. Flórez’s accurate articulation of coloratura and the sheer fizz of his passagework, without loss of tonal quality or definition, take the breath away. The basic vocal quality has that tangy edge so typical of Latin voices, a tone that brightens considerably as he rises up to high C’s and D’s thrilling in their security and ringing finality. There is also an honesty and freshness about his musicianship that is immediately engaging, needing only a touch more color and expressive variety to give it finish. Most of his program was taken up with arias from the opera roles he sings so impressively, although the music that seemed to involve him most intensely was a selection of gorgeously phrased, folk-flavored Peruvian songs. Vincenzo Scalera gave a remarkably elegant account of accompaniments never meant to be heard on the piano, providing this big vocal talent with precisely the support he needed to shine.
It’s unusual for Juilliard’s weeklong Focus! Festival to devote itself exclusively to the music of one man, but this year’s marathon, titled All About Ives, commemorated the 50th anniversary of the composer’s death by examining nearly every facet of America’s George Washington of music, as Leonard Bernstein liked to call Charles Ives. As usual, the festival’s director, Joel Sachs, had assembled six fascinating programs designed to illuminate the subject from various angles, as well as to give Juilliard students lots of valuable musical challenges they might otherwise never encounter.
To my great regret, I could only make one concert in this valuable series, but it offered two key works: the String Quartet No. 1 and Piano Sonata No. 1, as well as the Largo for Violin, Clarinet, and Piano and five songs. The 45-minute, five-movement sonata, which occupied Ives on and off between 1909 and 1922, is especially imposing—monumental, even—although this score has always been overshadowed by its more famous companion, the Concord Sonata. As with most Ives scores, the pencil manuscript was left in a mess until it could be finally deciphered and assembled in 1948 by the composer Lou Harrison. The work, conceived as one huge arc, is in the composer’s familiar palimpsest style, with bits of older Ives pieces and popular musical Americana woven into, imposed upon, or peeking through the complex textures. Possibly even houseguests made an occasional contribution when they dropped by to visit (Ives, as Sachs points out, fiercely believed in the value of spontaneous creative acts, no matter where they came from). The performance by Ofra Yitzhaki was downright sensational, not only for its structural clarity but also for its firm grasp of the deep communal fervency that motivates this extraordinary musical adventure.
It was something of a surprise to find Simon Rattle back in Carnegie Hall so soon after his first visit there a few months ago as the Berlin Philharmonic’s new artistic director. This time the British conductor was in front of the Philadelphia Orchestra, apparently his favorite American ensemble nowadays. Two tried-and-true favorites by composers who were considered antipodes a century ago framed this very Germanic program—the Prelude to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and the Brahms Second Symphony—and as he often does, Rattle seemed to be making a subtle point: There is more common ground here than we once thought. In any case, both performances glowed warmly and shared a similar, richly textured instrumental sound, while the musical progress of each work could not have been shaped more cannily or with more sinuous flexibility.
The program’s centerpiece was the New York premiere of Hans Werner Henze’s Tenth Symphony, a work that clearly arose out of the Brahms-Wagner tradition even though this prolific 77-year-old composer found his distinctly personal voice many years ago. With this grandly scaled score, Henze has also shaken off the jinx that has dogged many German and Austrian composers from Beethoven and Schubert to Bruckner and Mahler, decreeing that nine symphonies are all you get to write in one lifetime. Perhaps that explains the Tenth’s appealing atmosphere of fantasy, dreams, and inner contemplation, so different from Henze’s harrowing Ninth, a stark confrontation with Germany’s wartime past. Each of the four movements—“A Storm,” “A Hymn,” “A Dance,” and “A Dream”is a bejeweled tone poem in itself. It may be that with this symphony Henze has at last solved the paradox he says has haunted him throughout his life: a search for “wild, free beauty” and Mozartian perfection of form. I’m not sure he’ll ever get much closer to that ideal than in this symphony.