One hoped and expected there would be performances of Pierre Boulez pieces in Boston this season to honor this great musician who died last winter. The Berlin Philharmonic, hardly a local group, will play one piece on its visit here in November. I don’t see anything else on the horizon. So, many thanks to Boston Musica Viva, our fine contemporary music ensemble now in its 48th year, for opening its season with Boulez’s perhaps most significant work, Le Marteau sans maître (The Hammer without a Master, 1954-57).
The paradox of Berlioz is that he is both quintessentially of the nineteenth-century and in many ways far ahead of his time. Grandiose, self-absorbed, at home in both Heaven and Hell (well, perhaps a bit more in Hell), operating on the largest temporal and spatial canvases, bringing together mammoth forces to speak in one voice; but also episodic and arbitrary in construction, harmonically idiosyncratic and technically suspect, bombastic, addicted to overwhelming sound spectaculars, in short, in questionable taste; in these ways he epitomizes Romanticism. All of these characteristics of his music have been noticed and pondered in attempts to come up with an evaluation of this unavoidable maverick, a figure whose closest counterpart in his own time might be Mussorgsky, or in ours, Charles Ives. Today, with post-modernism, mash-ups, the valuing of discontinuity and fragmentary statements, Berlioz rides high. He is seen as a predecessor to the liberation of tone color as an independent element of construction, as in the music of Debussy. In the past, when polished craftsmanship and solid structure were primary virtues, critics often looked askance at Berlioz’s bulky, generically ambiguous compositions. Today, we recognize the uniqueness of his vision.
Matinee musicale. On a sunny day off Sloane Square, it was a perfect idea to skip lunch and listen instead to an hour of French songs. The singer was Susan Graham, the acclaimed Texas-born mezzo who has made a speciality of this repertoire, like Frederica von Stade before her. Ever since the Twenties, when young expatriates travelled to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger, there’s been a preference in New York and Boston, now rather slim, for chansons over lieder. Graham has made a recording of songs by Ned Rorem, who duplicates the ephemeral delicacy and finely etched sophistication found in Ravel, Poulenc, and Debussy. The virtues of the French art song are either delectable or debatable, depending on your orientation. Paris or Vienna? I lean so far to the latter that I hesitated about going to hear Graham’s recital, but I knew her singing would be very accomplished, so I took my seat in the front row at Cadogan Hall.
Mozart is my favorite composer. I’m lucky enough to be able to sing Mozart fairly often, and when I sing Tchaikovsky, or even Rachmaninoff, Mozart is there too. Needless to say, I was delighted when the editor asked me to fill in for him at the final performance of Don Giovanni this season. On the other hand, if you approach an opera performance as a singer, you will always be aware of style, and what you have learned is appropriate for a particular composer or a particular work. For that reason, if a singer does something that doesn’t fit Mozart’s classical style, or if something doesn’t work technically, it comes between the opera and me, and the result will be unsatisfying or wrong. Fortunately the result of this performance—a very special one, because it marked Samuel Ramey’s 25th anniversary at the Met, and he was presented with a c. 1824 score of Don Giovanni and a fragment of the Met curtain after the first act—was nothing less than a fine show. On the level of spectacle and drama this performance was very strong. The entire cast acted well, and most of them sang very well, but there were a few disappointments.