I heard a holiday concert by the Met Orchestra Musicians on 12/14/20 (it was live the day before). The Met Orchestra established themselves as a separate entity from The Metropolitan Opera this past spring. They’ll still be playing at the Met when the Met reopens, but until then, they’re doing their own thing, and they may continue doing their own thing after the opera house opens back up. This point was driven home in the opening credits of the concert, which said, in part: “This is a Met Orchestra production, not affiliated with The Metropolitan Opera. Proceeds from this concert benefit over 150 musicians in need, members of the Met Orchestra, associates, music librarians, and affiliated music staff. The musicians are vital to every single Met performance. The show cannot go on without us.”
Here's a YouTube trailer for the concert:
The concert was hosted by mezzo soprano Isabel Leonard, who I’ve heard many times at The Met. She thanked the audience for attending the concert and supporting the Met Orchestra and introduced the first set of performers. But first we had this message come up on the screen: “All performers involved in this broadcast tested negative for COVID-19. Testing generously provided by Mount Sinai. The safety of our artists and production team is paramount.”
The concert opened with a brass quintet from the Met playing outdoors in a woodsy setting (with a fire) upstate. They played six holiday classics, arranged by Jack Gale: “Deck the Halls,” “The First Nowell,” “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “What Child Is This,” and “Angels We Have Heard On High.” The arrangements were inventive without being wacky, with gorgeous, idiomatic writing for the instruments.
One thing that didn’t quite make sense to me. The five guys were wearing masks. How can you play a brass instrument while wearing a fabric mask covering your mouth? Isn’t the whole point that your lips make direct contact with the mouthpiece? I had to look up the spelling on the word “embouchure,” but that’s what I’m talking about. I think what we heard on the video was the five guys playing and the video was the five guys air-playing. This is just my theory.
The program listed the players, so I’ll include their names here, why not:
David Krauss and Raymond Riccomini, trumpets Erik Ralske, horn Demian Austin, trombone Christopher John Hall, tuba
The next selection was an arrangement (by horn player Eric Ralske) of the arioso from the Bach Harpsichord Concerto No. 5, played by four players from the Met Orchestra: Ralske, Anne Scharer, Javier Gandara, and Barbara Jöstlein Currie. The arrangement was lovely. Nothing like a horn quartet, I always say! Those four horn players were joined by a horn quartet from the Berlin Philharmonic (Stefan Dohr, Sarah Willis, Stefan de Leval Jezierski, and Andrej Žust), playing an arrangement (by Joshua Davis) of the “Evening Prayer” and finale from *Hänsel und Gretel.* This was truly an embarrassment of riches: not a horn quartet, but TWO horn quartets, playing the most German music imaginable, which I think I’ll call “hoch Deutsch.” Sublime! I think it’s worth noting that the Berlin players were not wearing masks.
The concert happened on the fourth night of Hanukkah so the upstate brass quintet played three Hanukkah songs, arranged by Ralph H. Hays: “Hanukkah Oh Hanukkah,” “Rock of Ages,” and “Dreidel Song.” I was a little surprised to see “Rock of Ages” included as a Hanukkah song, but it was a “Rock of Ages” I didn’t know, it wasn’t “Rock of ages, cleft for me / Let me hide myself in thee.”
Leonard sang two songs, “Toyland” from *Babes in Toyland* by Victor Herbert and “Auld Lang Syne” (arranged by Dov Scheindlin). She was joined by Amy Kauffman (violin), Kari Doctor (cello), and Bradley Moore (piano). I was not happy with Leonard’s singing in the Herbert, she seemed to be doing a Peggy Lee impersonation. The kittenish mannerisms, delicate swooping, and shallow vowels are inherent to Miss Lee’s style (and I adore Miss Lee above all others), but they don’t make sense with a legit, operatic voice like Leonard’s. She should have sung it straight with maybe a teensy suggestion of the pop style.
The concert concluded with a trip back upstate for five more carols by the brass quintet, once again arranged by Jack Gale: “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear,” “Hark The Herald Angels Sing,” “We Wish You A Merry Christmas,” and “Joy to the World.” These carols certainly put me in a holiday mood. Maybe the quintet should consider recording a Christmas CD?
I was a little surprised to see that the timing on the concert was an hour and 40 minutes long, unusually long for an online concert. I was even more surprised to see the final set of music wrapping up at around 55 minutes. What could they be doing with the remaining 45 minutes? They had a live conversation with the brass quintet. They talked about their history of performing outside of the Met, from St. John the Divine to Budapest to Iowa.
They were visited via video via London by Sir Simon Rattle, who sent his love and support, on behalf of his orchestra. Leonard had said in her introductory comments that the Met orchestra is one of the greatest opera orchestras in the world, but Sir Simon corrected her: the Met is the GREATEST opera orchestra in the world.
I'll close with a hilarious mash-up of holiday songs and opera quotes, a performance by brass players from (and at) the Met, in 2018: