Sunday, May 19, 2013
The Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall
My first trip to Carnegie Hall last night surpassed every expectation. The hall is both elegant and surprisingly simple, the sound as warm and resonant as legend suggests, and the performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra under conductor Simon Rattle as good as any concert I have ever heard. It may be hard to come back and listen to music in San Francisco's Davies Hall after this.
The program was a strange one, with Webern's Opus One, Passacaglia, a beautifully played, knotty curtain raiser before three fragments from Berg's atonal opera, Wozzeck. The fragments actually premiered a year before the opera in the 1920s as sort of a preview of coming attractions, and consisted of two arias for the soprano sung by Barbara Hannigan above, followed by the massive final orchestral interlude where the antihero Wozzeck is drowning himself. I have always found this music assaultive, but here the playing was gorgeous and compelling, building organically into an overwhelming climax before Hannigan chirped "hip hop" as the surviving orphan child. Richard, my 77-year-old concert companion had heard Wozzeck played by the Chicago Symphony and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and he declared this version "sounded the best."
After intermission, Hannigan changed out of her long, formal concert gown and into the dominatrix outfit above to sing the part of a paranoid Secret Police Chief in an excerpt from Ligeti's 1970s opera Le Grand Macabre. Hannigan was beyond virtuosic, dancing spastically in her stiletto heels, at one point pushing Rattle off the podium and conducting the orchestra, all while singing fiendishly difficult music perfectly. It sounded like Zerbinetta's aria from Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos updated for the 21st century.
This was followed by Beethoven's Sixth Symphony, the one used in Disney's Fantasia where the satyrs and nymphs are bounding about in the rain. The performance was so good that the overplayed music sounded freshly written. Instead of the usual meat-and-potatoes, plodding Beethoven, we were treated to orchestral sections passing the music around to each other with a seamlessness and mysterious rightness that I have never heard in a live Beethoven performance in my life. As my companion said on the subway home, "I'd like to hear Simon Rattle conduct something every day of the week." And in Carnegie Hall, I would add, with an orchestra as skillful as the Philadelphia Orchestra.