NY Phil *Knoxville,* 9/19/19
I heard a concert by the New York Philharmonic on 9/19/19, conducted by Jaap van Zweden. They played Glass, Barber, and Prokofiev.
The first piece was a NY Phil commission, *King Lear Overture* by Philip Glass. Glass wrote the incidental music for the recent Broadway production of *King Lear* (starring Glenda Jackson), I assume it was (to some degree) an adaptation of that music. The piece was a long ten minutes. I like Glass a lot but am often not impressed with his concert music. This piece would be perfectly used in the opening credits of a movie, in which you search through the supporting cast for someone you know from *Mrs. Maisel.* It swirled and pulsated in that way that Glass has been doing for fifty years. The flutes circled around like a small yellow bird that's had a stroke and keeps flying in a circle, the same circle over and over. It was almost saved by the snare drums.
I was at this concert to hear Kelli O'Hara sing Samuel Barber's *Knoxville: Summer of 1915.* I've loved this piece for thirty years and had never heard a live professional performance of it. It's one of the most sublimely beautiful pieces of music I've ever heard. I first got to know it through the Dawn Upshaw recording:
O'Hara is a Tony-winning Broadway actor, I've seen her six or seven times, most memorably as Nellie in the recent revival of *South Pacific.* Judging from the original cast recording, Mary Martin sang "I'm In Love With a Wonderful Guy" as a great song from a Rodgers and Hammerstein show - - O'Hara sang it like it was a turning point in the emotional life of her character. I'd never seen anything like it, she sang it with such intelligence and sincere feeling.
I'd heard that she studied voice at Juilliard, and that her calling card aria was the Queen of the Night's second act aria from *Magic Flute,* so I knew that she had classical chops. I've heard her twice at the Met - - her debut role was a supporting role in *The Merry Widow,* which is really more like a musical, and she was very good in that. Next she was Depsina in Mozart's *Così Fan Tutte,* and oh, I HATED that show. The production was so awful, I walked out at intermission. The singing was good, but O'Hara didn't really prove herself, her singing was rather colorless.
So I was skeptical about her singing the Barber, and for the first few lines I felt like her voice wasn't juicy enough. But then either she eased into it or I did, and I realized that she was singing it on her own terms, and she sounded pretty damn good. Her breath was secure, her pitch was spot on, her high notes were lovely, and her low notes were not strong but also not pushed. Sometimes a little pop-inflected grace note slipped in, like on the word "casually" - - but again, I accepted that this was her interpretation, it was valid and true to her vocal personality, and it did no harm to the work itself.
One line has always hit me hard - - start the Upshaw recording at 5:40, it's the start of that section. The line that destroys me is, "My father has drained, he has coiled the hose." Something about the way Barber sets it, it's unbearably tender. I started weeping at that moment in the NY Phil performance and was more or less weeping continuously through the end of the piece, with a snowballing effect in the last few minutes. It was a loud, wailing sob that wanted to find its way out of my body, but I was able to shove it down my throat. No one noticed. I was a silent movie, but more *Passion of Joan of Arc* than *Broken Blossoms.*
They did selections from Prokofiev's *Romeo and Juliet* suites on the second half, but I left at intermission. I wanted to remember the Barber, I didn't want anything marring my memory of it.