January may be a dead time for the movie business, but in New York, at least, classical music snaps back with a vengeance. Last week brought an exceptional head rush, as fond returns and new beginnings crowded the calendar.
At the center of it was Lorin Maazel, who, despite his advanced age—and the critical drubbing he regularly endures—remains the most resilient conductor on the American scene. On Jan. 7, after an absence of 45 years, he returned to the Metropolitan Opera to lead a triumphant revival of Die Walküre.
Three days later, his full-time employer, the New York Philharmonic, announced what promised to be an especially engaging final season for Mr. Maazel, who has been the orchestra’s music director since 2002 and is due to retire in June of 2009. One of the last tasks of Mr. Maazel’s tenure will be to conduct Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, the so-called “Symphony of a Thousand”—the kind of late-Romantic bombast that he revels in.
Last week’s triumph was of a quieter kind—a performance of impressive subtlety and understanding. New York Wagnerites have become used to the James Levine style, an endlessly flowing sound, almost wanton in its luxury, that radiates from deep within the orchestra and can occasionally overwhelm the singers. But Mr. Maazel, whose knowledge of this music matches Mr. Levine’s, immediately put his own stamp on the piece, crafting a sound that was drier and more restrained, gaining in clarity what it lost in color.
With the singers Adrianne Pieczonka, Clifton Forbis and Mikhail Petrenko all excellent and free from strain, Act I became like chamber theater, though of an exceptionally muscular kind. The whole thing made such sense that even the longtime production’s cartoonish sets and costumes lost their tackiness. And in the few moments when Mr. Maazel really let the orchestra go—as in Hunding’s angry condemnation of his dangerous house guest, Siegmund—the effect was all the more powerful for its rarity.
Mr. Maazel’s deliberative approach took some of the excitement out of Acts II and III, but he provided a clear sonic platform on which James Morris (at 61, a remarkably strong Wotan), Lisa Gasteen (Brünnhilde) and Stephanie Blythe (Fricka) could work their magic. The big nonsurprise surprise was Ms. Blythe, in her first Wagner performance at the Met, once again walking away with the show: the Fricka-Wotan Act II confrontation was actually funny. This woman can do no wrong.
ALSO AT THE Met is a new production of Hansel and Gretel, which has been running since Christmas Eve. Instead of Maazelian wisdom and a traditional staging, we have a sleek new production (by Richard Jones, originally for the Welsh National Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago) and a young (and sleek) conductor, Vladimir Jurowski.
I wish Alan Gilbert all the best as Lorin Maazel’s replacement, but watching Mr. Jurowski put the Met Orchestra through its paces, I couldn’t help but wonder if the New York Phil’s administrators considered hiring this young thoroughbred, who at 36 is the newly appointed principal conductor of the London Philharmonic. Some of the Levine-style luxury came back to the Met ensemble, along with a shimmering palette of woodwind sound—and an inexorable, Tchaikovskian languor—that seemed of Mr. Jurowski’s own conjuring.
If you can have an adult production of Humperdinck’s perennial family favorite, Mr. Jones’ is almost it. Gertrude—Hansel and Gretel’s despairing mother—plays with overdosing on pills; the Sandman (sung with gentleness and poise by a newcomer, the American mezzo Sasha Cooke) is an ugly old crone in a brown raincoat; and John Macfarlane’s curtain drops (a white plate with a smear of blood, a lurid red mouth with a swirl of white teeth about to crunch) aim for the putrescence of a Francis Bacon.
As the starving scamps, the athletic Alice Coote and the lissome Christine Schäfer sang with plenty of personality but consistently mangled their words. Only the great veteran English tenor Philip Langridge, sporting an outrageous fat suit as the Witch, managed to do justice to the King’s English, even when his mouth was full of chocolate and flour.
I SHLEPPED ALL the way to Merkin Concert Hall, and all I got was this fancy new lobby. Surely I wasn’t the only member of the city’s classical cognoscenti who muttered those words after being summoned for the cute little gala on Jan. 8 celebrating the hall’s reopening: The auditorium itself, apart from the reupholstered seats, seemed little changed. (In fact, improvements have been made to the mechanical systems, the restrooms and backstage areas.)
The architect, Robert A. M. Stern, New York’s current master of luxe, has given the Kaufman Center a great prow of a marquee jutting on to West 67th Street, and has replaced the cluttered and charmless lobby with something bigger and more glamorous. At least his changes did no harm: The hall’s sound, in a concert ably led by Aaron Jay Kernis—which featured a chamber orchestra and the soprano Esther Heideman performing music by Mr. Kernis and by Aaron Copland—seemed even brighter and more crisp than a year ago.
Time was when Merkin Concert Hall was a place where cutting-edge classical groups performed and ambitious young musicians came to make the scene. The auditorium still hosts a fair number of concerts, but with the ascendancy of Miller Theatre and the arrival of Zankel Hall, it would seem that Merkin’s days as a programming powerhouse are unlikely to return. Yet given the Kaufman Center’s broad cultural mission, that may be no great loss: Places for young people are coveted in the center’s music schools, and as the gala concert closed with a performance by Face the Music, its eager new-music group, we heard that they have plenty of talent of their own.
Russell Platt is a composer and a music editor at The New Yorker. He can be reached at email@example.com.