Separating the Dangerous From the Dependable

Among the higher modes of artistic endeavor, performances of classical music are perhaps most vulnerable to complaints of elitism from the barbarians who are no longer at the gate but are presiding over the banquet table. It is charged that we who enjoy such nongladiatorial sports do so for no other purpose than to be entertained by musicians fiddling, tooting, strumming or warbling their way through a complicated arrangement of notes which exists only to flatter our snobbish kinship with an older, more aristocratic-and utterly irrelevant-culture.

As much as I hate to admit it, these charges are often not wide of the mark. Concert and opera junkie that I am, no doubt I am prone to a certain jadedness. But too frequently, as I slouch in my expensively velveted seat, I find myself nagged by these thoughts: How expertly played this Beethoven is! How valiantly staged this Puccini! But so what? Where’s the adventure? Where’s the danger ?

Danger may seem an odd word to use in connection with so abstract an art, but it is essentially what distinguishes performances that matter from those that don’t. Such performances can seem deceptively effortless (think of the pianist Maurizio Pollini) or nakedly effortful (Maria Callas); they can achieve an Apollonian balance (Pierre Boulez’s version of Mahler) or a Dionysian electricity (James Levine’s Elektra ). It is when we feel that the musicians are testing the limits of their physical and mental powers, their craft and imagination, that we are most fully aroused.

At the opening concert of Carnegie Hall’s season, limits were tested but, for the most part, the exercise had little long-lasting consequence. The attraction was the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Barenboim, and the orchestra stormed out of the Midwest with cannons blazing. Invigorated by the refurbishment of their own auditorium on Lake Michigan, the Chicagoans decided to throw everything they had at New York’s most venerable concert hall, and when it was all over, the house that Andrew Carnegie built on 57th Street had met-and withstood-the greatest challenge to its foundations since it was threatened, 30 years ago, with demolition.

Apart from the old wrecker’s ball, two ghosts hovered-that of Georg Solti, under whose baton the Chicago Symphony became the world’s most glamorous producer of sonic boom, and that of Jacqueline du Pré, the radiant English cellist and fairy-tale wife of Mr. Barenboim whose long battle with multiple sclerosis and untimely death a few years ago was one of classical music’s most haunting tragedies.

In homage to the late maestro, the Chicagoans led off with the “Nimrod” variation of Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations, and made this quintessentially Edwardian condolence card a tidal wave of such immensity that Diana, Princess of Wales, might have turned over in her grave with envy. Next came an unspoken tribute to Ms. du Pré in the form of one of her showpieces, the Elgar Cello Concerto, with her most celebrated successor, Yo-Yo Ma, as soloist. Eyes closed, head tilted heavenward, ardor dripping from his bow, Mr. Ma seemed to be aspiring to the company of Mother (or was it Saint?) Teresa, encouraged by Mr. Barenboim, whose phrasing of this late wheeze of English romanticism was attenuated to the point where I wanted to kick it.

The second half brought forth Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, for which Mr. Barenboim pulled out all the stops. Never was there so much gleam in the brass, so much piss and vinegar in the pizzicato. Things reached such a pitch of grandeur, pathos, frenzy-you name it-that in the closing bars, the previously hyperkinetic Mr. Barenboim did a “Lenny,” letting his arms hang immobile in the manner of Leonard Bernstein, as if to say, “In the face of such a force of nature, what can I do?” But nature, of course, had nothing to do with it. What was really at work was nothing more than knock-’em-flat orchestral virtuosity.

Over at Avery Fisher Hall, our own less vociferous lions, the members of the New York Philharmonic, have been dishing out their usual knockwurst and cabbage with what has become the hallmark of Kurt Masur’s regime-dependability. But the old Kapellmeister is not averse to the occasional soupçon of something different, and this fall he came up with a real weirdo- Psyché , a symphonic poem of 1877-88 by César Franck for orchestra and chorus. Worthiness was the inspiration: resuscitation of a neglected major work by a relatively neglected composer, who is renowned (like the conductor) for sturdy craftsmanship rather than for flights of the imagination. A teacher at heart, who values clarity over mystery, Mr. Masur asked the playwright John Guare to add a spoken English narration to help the audience understand the piece’s underlying Greek myth of Eros and Psyche.

Worthiness was the result. As far as I could tell from the high-thespian delivery of Cherry Jones, Mr. Guare’s narration was eloquent and vivid. The New York Choral Artists, prepared by Joseph Flummerfelt, sang their meditative contributions with beauty and conviction. Mr. Masur’s grasp of a work for which he has apparently had a long fondness was sure without being incandescent. And the music? It sought to ravish but never got beyond cuddling-Berlioz trying to be Wagner, without anything approaching the melodic distinctiveness of the former or the harmonic originality of the latter. To put it in more contemporary terms, this was superior movie music in need of a movie.

I was itching for something to happen on a concert stage, and it did at a very beautiful, somewhat unsettling recital given by the American countertenor David Daniels. There was certainly nothing bizarre about the burly, bearded, open-faced young man in the gray business suit, white shirt and conservative tie who strolled out, with what might have been studied nonchalance, on the stage of Alice Tully Hall before a packed audience. But then Mr. Daniels, accompanied by the pianist Martin Katz, opened his mouth to sing, and danger filled the hall.

It was the danger of suddenly finding oneself on very unfamiliar ground. We are in something of a golden age of countertenors-those high-flying contemporary “castrati” (with everything intact). But Mr. Daniels is no mere countertenor-with the sort of flutey, androgynous sound one has been accustomed to hearing ever since Alfred Deller, the English countertenor par excellence, brought the breed back to popularity in the 1950’s. From the ecstatic opening song by Beethoven to the group of bel canto 18th-century amorous songs by Antonio Caldara, Antonio Lotti, Marco Antonio Cesti and Christoph Willibald Gluck, Mr. Daniels was clearly out to bewitch us with all the vocal blandishments that are present in any great mezzo-soprano’s arsenal. Then, switching moods in a pair of Handel arias, he became a tragic hero, first of noble bitterness, then of military scorn, with stirring, masculine intensity.

After the intermission he switched again. During the two Brahms songs of Op. 91, he was joined on stage by Rebecca Young, a violist in a low-cut Harlowesque satin gown. I closed my eyes, and what I heard could have been the late contralto Kathleen Ferrier, whose creamy fusion of womanly sadness and sweetness is the most profound on disk. Mr. Daniels’ excursion into the 20th century was even more provocative in its easy swings from spiritual rapture to sentimental nostalgia, sultriness and erotic frankness. He concluded the program with a knockout reading of “Che farò senza Euridice?” from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, the great aria of despair that effectively brought the first golden age of the male alto to a close in 1762.

It was a breathtaking display in more ways than one. As I have written of Mr. Daniels on the opera stage (he takes the title role in Handel’s Xerxes at the New York City Opera in November), perhaps not since the 18th century has there been a countertenor to combine such dazzling agility with so much dramatic heft. But his potency has other dimensions, as well. Mr. Daniels, who announced his encores in the speaking voice of a tenor-and who, when he wasn’t singing, might have been your cousin Fred, the eager young insurance salesman-is not just quietly assaulting our conventional notions about gender. He is, like all serious artists, expanding our sense of human possibilities. In effect, he is saying: Look, if a mezzo-soprano can mutate into a soprano, as so many have done, why can’t a tenor mutate into a mezzo-soprano? Moreover, the fact that I sound like one of the best female singers around these days, shouldn’t be taken as anything so remarkable. After all, this happens to be the singing voice I was given. Why not make the most of it?

Separating the Dangerous From the Dependable