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Seen and Heard International Concert Review


Weber, Carter, Mahler, Anne Sofie von Otter, Mezzo-Soprano, Ben Heppner, Tenor, The MET Orchestra, James Levine, Music Director and Conductor, Carnegie Hall, New York City, 23rd January, 2005 (BH)

There are few simpler tests of the virtuosity of an ensemble than a fast, demanding passage played in unison, and one such hurdle came about midway through yesterday’s knockout performance of Elliott Carter’s elegant Variations for Orchestra. In “Variation VII,” the string section suddenly catapults itself into the forefront of the sonic picture with an extremely difficult series of unison gestures galloping up and down around the stave, immaculately done by James Levine and the Met’s superb players. The segment had me watching in awe. And in the work’s final five minutes, a sort of postlude to the actual variations, the brass section exploded like a fire spilling out onto the living room floor, while the strings faded out like stray embers, before the entire piece dwindled down to a rather amusing low note on the contrabassoon. For those who might typically avoid Carter, the Variations are not as difficult to grasp as some of his later brainteasers, and terribly exciting in sheer sonic terms, especially when performed with the Met Orchestra’s torrential luxury. The audience response was huge – who could have predicted this? (To those interested in hearing this now fifty-year-old score, Levine has recorded it with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, in a stimulating program that includes Babbitt, Cage and Schuller.) As the ovations began, Levine came to the edge of the stage, and shielding his eyes from the glare of the lights, peered out in the audience to search for the composer, who by this time was making his way down the aisle. The 96-year-old Carter reached up to place his cane on the front edge of the stage before grasping the conductor’s hand, and then turned to the audience to acknowledge a standing ovation and some hearteningly loud and prolonged cheering.

Considering the season’s first blizzard had dumped about two feet of snow on the city not six hours before, the crowd was commendably large, and I’d wager that the draw was probably the world-class soloists recruited for the Mahler in the program’s second half. No doubt some patrons were disappointed that Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson was ill, but with Anne Sofie von Otter as the replacement, I’d be surprised if more than a handful were complaining for long. All six sections had their moments, but Von Otter’s long, dreamy “Der Abschied” (“The Farewell”) that closed the afternoon had me floating about four inches off the ground as I made my way downstairs.

Considering his many recent triumphs, both in recital and in the Met’s Otello, Heppner seemed a bit slow to get going; as the first song began he could scarcely be heard, and I didn’t perceive the orchestra as particularly loud. But the projection question proved temporary, and when he reached “Von der Jugend” (“Of Youth”), the Heppner making recent news had returned. His final “Der Trunkene im Frühling” (“The Springtime Drunkard”) made the strongest impression. During the lengthy curtain calls, Levine thoughtfully singled out members of the woodwinds and brass for their extraordinary solo work, but one could easily have asked dozens of musicians to take bows.

The effervescent Weber (Oberon) might be one of classical music’s most beloved concert openers, and here Levine found exactly the right tone. From the lyrical beginning with beautifully controlled dynamics, to the pacing of the fast-and-familiar theme that enters like a bouncy party guest, this was as spirited a beginning to the afternoon as anyone could wish for, with impressively accurate ensemble work. For this listener tempted to dismiss the opener and zero in right on the Carter and the Mahler, this performance was easily the “small surprise” of the afternoon. (Note to Weber-ites, Levine is including an overture on each of these three concerts; two weeks ago was Euryanthe, and next week is Der Freischütz.)

Friends on the way out were equally as exhilarated, and there is no doubt that these Carnegie concerts by this conductor-ensemble combo have the potential to leave an enormously pleasurable afterglow. There are few things as all-out enjoyable as hearing a great orchestra dive into a thoroughly well conceived program, and to make things even better, the audience for the most part was exemplary, even during the Carter. On such a miserable day, weather-wise, the occasional cough seemed not to bother me or anyone else in the least.

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)