When you're sitting in a concert hall and someone nearby starts snoring, what do you do? More to the point, what can you do?
I'm only asking because my enjoyment of Emanuel Ax's excellent all-ballades recital at Carnegie Hall this afternoon was twice impeded by the sound of an elderly gentleman dozing off in the row behind me. (Sounds, actually, since the snores of the first half were markedly different than the wheezes of the second.)
I wished for interventionist ushers. I wanted some sort of call button like the ones you use to summon the stewardess on an airplane. I wondered why the guy in the seat next to the hapless offender didn't gently nudge his shoulder -- or maybe he did, I don't know. But I was afraid to reach back and tap this man's leg, for fear of a start that might be audible on stage.
Then again, Ax's concentration was so complete that he managed to play through at least three cell phones and all manner of eruptive coughing, so maybe he could have handled this, as well. In contrast -- and I can't verify this -- later, in another hall, I overheard one critic tell another that Garrick Ohlsson manfully halted his concurrent afternoon recital at Avery Fisher Hall a time or two because of cell phone intrusions.
My primary reason for attending Ax's recital was to hear two pieces new to New York, Chen Yi's Ji-Dong-Nuo and Kaija Saariaho's Ballade. One colleague referred to the two pieces, which he'd heard Ax play elsewhere, as "cute" and "incompetent," respectively. Since the latter is not a word I'd ever heard used to describe anything by Saariaho, I was even more determined to hear these pieces for myself.
He wasn't wrong about Chen Yi's piece, in which pleasant little whisps of Chinese folk tune and fluttering bird song traipse merrily up and down the keyboard. As for the Saariaho, I liked the piece, admiring the way little hints of melody optimistically attempted to escape from penumbral clusters and sweeping glissandi. Both pieces were tiny (4-5 minutes), and neither struck me as a "ballade" per se -- certainly not in this context. Chen Yi's piece was more a "Prelude," an impressionistic miniature a la Ravel or Debussy. Saariaho's piece might have been titled "Etude" or "Nocturne," or maybe whatever's French for "Help me push my car out of the mud." Just goes to remind us of the potential perils of sticking square pegs into round holes.
About the remainder of the program, I have little to say. Ax is basically unassailable in Chopin, and his performances of that composer's four Ballades were masterly and ingratiating. Likewise, Ax brought equal authority to the four disparate pieces Brahms patched together as his youthful Four Ballades, Op. 10. The first came on like a folk song subsequently elaborated; the last two were free-floating displays of virtuosity, and the second did a nice job of making the other three seem as if they might belong together. The remaining work on the program proper, not counting an encore I couldn't identify, was Liszt's Ballade No. 2, a flashy, almost garish barnburner that allowed Ax to demonstrate his most athletic moves.
As a critic, I wondered how one could find much of anything else to say about a performance so exactingly constructed and executed. I look forward to reading Allan Kozinn's review when it appears.
A bit later and a few blocks north, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center offered the local premiere of Four Settings by Melinda Wagner, prefaced by a Duruflé rarity and followed by Mozart's imperishable Clarinet Quintet (with David Shifrin on the horn). Duruflé left very few works, and his Prélude, Récitatif et Variations was the first chamber piece I'd encountered. The opening movement fairly called out for some kind of program, or at least an illicit subtext, as tentative viola (Paul Neubauer) and winsome flute (Ransom Wilson) seemed to pitch woo on a luxurious waterbed of a piano part, winningly played by Anna Polonsky. The pianist took the lead in the middle movement, which provided connective tissue leading into the finale, richly spun variations on a theme that might have been a medieval folk song. In the end, the piece was slight, sweet and nicely crafted.
Soprano Christine Brandes was supported by violin, viola, cello, bass, flute, clarinet and piano in the Wagner work; Karla Lemon conducted. In the opening movement, a setting of French poet Robert Desnos's "Last Poem," string and wind figures arose like curlicues of smoke, the vaporous contrail of the singer's outpouring. At other times, spasmodic gestures seemed to reveal more emotional content than the sung lines actually offered. The second setting, of Denise Leverov's "The Wings," was marked by exceptionally able string writing, full of Webernesque glosses and Bartókian thwacks, as well as a hushed, spooky ostinato stretch for piano. Brandes swooped and coasted on the eddying currents the players provided. Wagner compelled the soprano to sing extremely high notes quietly during the third section, Emily Dickinson's "Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers." Brandes handled the challenge securely enough. In a setting as quizzical as the poet's verse itself, violinist Harumi Rhodes stood out in solo passages of remarkable sweetness. The final piece, Dickinson's "Wild Nights," pushed Brandes to the edge of shrillness, as she flung her voice impetuously among feverishly dancing instrumentalists.
In the end, I wanted to have cared more for Wagner's songs than I actually did, but it was through no fault of her instrumental writing, which was consistently ingenious. Rather, my appreciation was perhaps dulled by some sense that the vocal lines didn't always echo or amplify my perception of what this or that verse suggested. For me, that illustrates one of the most treacherous intersections possible between composer and listener ("critic" being a smallish subset of the latter): How can any two individuals reach consensus about anything as pointedly personal as poetry?
That ambivalence left me just a bit uptight; the Mozart quintet, sweetly sung by Shifrin, the Kavafians, Neubauer and Fred Sherry, was precisely the massage my furrowed critical muscles required.
Tomorrow, An American Tragedy. Thereafter, a return to reading fellow bloggers, after a long weekend's abstinence in order to avoid spoilers.
Kate Bush - Aerial (Columbia)
Fish - Bouillabaisse: The Best of Fish (Snapper)
Dimmu Borgir - Stormblåst (Nuclear Blast 2005 rerecording and Cacaphonous 1996 original)
Kayo Dot - Dowsing Anemone with Copper Tongue (Robotic Empire)
John Harbison - Variations; Four Songs of Solitude; Twilight Music - Spectrum Concerts Berlin (Naxos)
Issac Albéniz - Iberia - Marc-André Hamelin (Hyperion)