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Seen and Heard International Concert Review

The Met Orchestra, José van Dam, Bass-Baritone, James Levine, Music Director and Conductor, Carnegie Hall, New York City, January 30, 2005 (BH)


Weber: Overture to Der Freischütz (1820)
Webern: Symphony, Op. 21 (1927-28)
Mozart: Mentre ti lascio, K. 513 (1787)
Mendelssohn: Es ist Genug, from Elijah (1846)
Mahler: from Rückert Lieder (1901-02)
  Blicke mir nicht in dei Lieder
  Liebst du um Schönheit
  Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen
Wuorinen: Grand Bamboula, for string orchestra (1971)
Dvorák: Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Op. 88 (1889)



If I were in the Met Orchestra this month I’d be exhausted, especially after this final sprawling afternoon, a veritable mini-seminar in Western music. The tickets to these concerts are pricey (top price $155 – ed), but you have to hand it to James Levine and the ensemble: they give you your money’s worth, and at the end of this two-and-a-half-hour lovefest, once again one could only marvel at the technique and musical intelligence on display.


Following the exuberance of last week’s Oberon, the tempestuous drama of Der Freischütz reminded me that I’ve generally overlooked this composer, although in all fairness, the blizzard of music competing for one’s time makes it impossible to pay attention to everything. Where the Oberon was all playfulness and sunlight, this had storm clouds assembling from virtually the beginning, although storms are rarely as beautifully controlled and balanced as this one, not to mention the grace that Levine & Co. summon up with such regularity.


In what for some might have been an abrupt transition, Levine followed with a silken, graceful reading of Webern’s Symphony, which lasts all of ten minutes. The first movement is about seven minutes; the last about three. Levine has a special affinity and love for this composer (Berg and Schoenberg, too), and gave it a quiet sheen, with some pristine playing.

In this season’s continuing string of ailing singers and substitutions, Thomas Quasthoff was replaced by José van Dam, who made an immediate, sonorous impact in Mozart’s Mentre ti lascio, a stately lament based on La Disfatta di Dario (The Overthrow of Darius), a 1777 opera by Paisiello, from about the same time as Don Giovanni. Also pleasing was van Dam’s sorrowful excerpt from Elijah, with an equally mournful cello solo. The final Mahler set was quite moving, especially the final Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, with Levine gently encouraging the musicians to materialize alongside van Dam, never overwhelming him. Again, this is one reason singers love this conductor. Van Dam is into the sunset of his career, but can still sing beautifully and touchingly (and in tune!), and despite some soft projection and occasional strain in some top notes, his emotion trumped all.


The barreling program continued after intermission with Charles Wuorinen’s bracing Grand Bamboula. Before it began, everywhere around me, I heard people whispering, “Grand Bam-BOO-la? What is it? BAM-boola? What’s a bamboula?” I guess no one got to David Hamilton’s notes, where he explained that the word originally referred to a Creole dance, given airtime by Louis Gottschalk in a work titled Bamboula, Danse des Nègres, apparently a hit in Paris in the mid-19th century. Wuorinen’s take on the term is short (180 measures in six minutes) and made me imagine Shostakovich, had he extended his harmonic language a bit. But Wuorinen pushes a string orchestra even further, with brittle, acidic textures, often fast and highly entertaining. Patrons who left at intermission (I noticed a few) missed a small, elegant treat.


The Dvorak Eighth is a joy, and played with such strong assurance as here, ended this three-concert month on a majestic and uplifting note. Levine found some Mahlerian sorrow in the slow movement, and the graceful Allegretto grazioso ended with a surprisingly speedy coda – faster than any other version I’ve heard. The final movement began with a beaming trumpet fanfare that seemed to expand the room to twice its normal size, with smile-inducing playing from the whole ensemble following in its wake. If occasionally the group sounded a bit weary, well, no wonder! It was, however, that lovely sweaty weariness one witnesses after seeing great athletes at work.


Bruce Hodges







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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)