NY Phil: Adams and Wagner, 2/17/18
I heard the last concert of my New York Philharmonic subscription on 2/17/18. The program was *Dark Waves* by John Luther Adams and the first act of *Die Walküre* by Richard Wagner. The conductor, appropriately enough, was Jaap van Zweden, who takes over as Artistic Director of the NY Phil this coming fall. He conducted the opening concert of the current season, which Richard and I heard in September.
It was a snowy night and I took this cute selfie outside the concert hall:
I’d heard of John Luther Adams (he won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2014, that sort of thing puts a name in the brain), but had never heard any of his music. I liked this piece a lot, it mixed pre-recorded electronic music with live music played by the orchestra, but I couldn’t pick out the electronic music, it was just part of the fabric. The piece was written with broad, planar, static harmonies. It didn’t go much of anywhere, but the journey was worth hearing. Plus, it must be said, it was only twelve minutes long. That helps!
I had a fun time watching the conductor - - as a listener, the music has no discernible pulse, but van Zweden was calmly conducting 1, 2, 3, 4 throughout, so clearly the parts are written in a straightforward way, with downbeats and notes being held for three measures, that kind of thing. I especially loved it when van Zweden telegraphed an upcoming change with his body language. “OK, first violins, are you ready? I’m looking over my shoulder at you. Your next entrance is coming up soon. Like...NOW.”
Did you know I’m a freak for Wagner? That music turns my crank like no other. I’m not saying he’s my favorite composer, but something about it really hits me where I live. I’ve never used narcotics, but I like to think that listening to Wagner is like that.
There are just three singers in the first act of *Die Walküre:*
Sieglinde, a soprano, sung in this performance by Heidi Melton.
Siegmund, a tenor, her twin brother and soon-to-be-lover (ew), sung in this performance by Simon O’Neill.
Hunding, a bass, Sieglinde’s husband, sung in this performance by John Relyea.
Two notes before I get to the singers. The switch between pieces in an orchestra concert sometimes takes a while, but they wisely set up for the Wagner at the start of the show and just left the empty seats for the Adams. So when the Adams was over, all these extra brass players came out, and six freaking harpists! SIX HARPISTS. They go totally mental in the moment when Spring comes in through the door.
And one of the thrills of hearing Wagner in concert, rather than in a staged opera performance, is being able to watch the orchestra. Those string players were sawing away in the prelude, it was exciting.
I’m going to discuss the three singers in ascending order of how I liked them. I liked Heidi Melton a lot at first - - I thought she sounded more like a Mozart or Strauss soprano than a Wagner soprano, but with all of the Wagner in her bio, I expected she was giving us a false sense of security before bringing out the big guns later on. Well, about halfway through she started to lose steam. Her general sound was a little labored and the top notes were whitish and worried. This is not a good feeling for an audience member. Hopefully she was having an off night, but I’m concerned for her.
I’ve heard bass John Relyea many times at the Met, he has a strong, handsome voice. He’s always been a good, solid singer, but he’s never really made me sit up and take notice. Well, he did in this performance! I want to hear more Wagner from him, please. He gave his voice a dark, dense color, entirely appropriate for the character. And yet his Hunding had aspects I hadn’t heard in other portrayals of the role - - he had a bristling intelligence and even a devious humor. He was wonderful, the biggest surprise of the night.
Tenor Simon O’Neill was the star. I’d heard him once before, in Mahler’s *Das Lied von der Erde* in April of 2016. He impressed me in that performance and he thrilled me in this one. He has the bright, penetrating, tireless sound you need as a Wagner tenor, but also the delicacy and attention to the text that you need to really make music out of it. His cries of “Wälse! Wälse!” gave me chills, they were so impassioned, full, and glorious, but not the slightest bit strained. His final high A was flung at us like a spear. Wow!
Here's a performance of the final twenty minutes of the act, with O'Neill, soprano Elisabete Matos, and Günther Neuhold conducting the Bilbao Symphony Orchestra:
This was a concert performance, so the staging aspect of it was minimal. Melton and O’Neill looked at each other longingly here and there, that was fine. I didn’t care for the two of them drinking out of water bottles over the course of the performance. For one thing they wouldn’t be drinking water at ALL in a staged performance, why do they need it now? And this might be splitting hairs, but I’d prefer not to watch them unscrew the cap from the bottle, and then screw it back on when they finish. Why can’t they have big glasses of water? Or, if they’re afraid of spills, how about a sippy cup?
The very end of the performance was just plain hilarious. Siegmund and Sieglinde decide, “Hell, who cares if you’re my twin, I’m going to mount you right now!” Melton and O’Neill looked at each other, moved toward each other, and then attacked each other like a couple of barnyard animals. OK, they were just kissing, and I know that chickens and sheep and whatever don’t kiss when they’re mating, but I definitely smelled the hay and the manure in that kiss.