VOX Rocks; Visiting Haitink Pristine But Not Fun

Last week in this newspaper, Rex Reed wrote, “The music scene has been more interesting lately than the movies, and

Last week in this newspaper, Rex Reed wrote, “The music scene has been more interesting lately than the movies, and that’s a fact.” I’ll drink to that—and did, at Minetta Tavern, just after attending the first session (on May 10) of “VOX 2008: Showcasing American Composers,” held at N.Y.U.’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts.

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Four days later, the venerable Minetta Tavern went out of business. VOX, however, is stronger than ever in its ninth year. What began as a kind of operatic quilting bee, with New York City Opera acting as an umbrella for a collection of small, intrepid New York ensembles, has become a streamlined two-day festival firmly under the company’s control, drawing a substantial audience and a cloud of friendly buzz.

George Manahan, the company’s music director, led two of the Saturday session’s five pieces with his typically unflappable command. Throughout the day, the City Opera Orchestra and a collection of young singers performed with an abundance of professionalism and aplomb.

The selection of excerpts from new works was wonderfully varied, though the quality varied, too. Cary Ratcliff’s Eleni, with a libretto by Robert Koch based on Nicholas Gage’s book about his family’s brutal experiences during the Greek Civil War, boasted City Opera diva Emily Pulley in its title role. But it was hobbled by inept word setting and a risibly overblown Hollywood-style score.

Another star soprano, Lauren Flanigan, was similarly wasted in Veronika Krausas’ trivial and disorganized The Mortal Thoughts of Lady Macbeth. Steve Potter’s The Officers was a noble try at experimental opera, a critique of the creepily homogenized language used in advertising, airport signage and political discourse—but the intellectual invention could not hide the lack of musical nourishment.

Yet the day opened well and ended even better. Our Giraffe, by the composer Sorrel Hays and the librettist Charles Flowers, was a deft and humorous study of a little-known historical episode: the gift of a giraffe from Ottoman Egypt to King Charles X of France in 1826. As the French—being French—argue decorously over the political, commercial and sexual ramifications of the giraffe’s arrival, Ms. Hays gives them music of a simplicity and charm happily reminiscent of Virgil Thomson.

John King’s Dice Thrown, a fantasia on a grand and intoxicating late poem by Mallarmé, was more like a revelation. Mr. King is an esteemed downtown veteran who has composed two scores for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company; like Mr. Cunningham’s partner, John Cage, he composes using chance operations, creating music that eschews any resemblance to traditional tonality or syntax.

And yet, in a performance by the stunningly accurate soprano Melissa Fogarty, the piece became a dazzling coloratura solo of compelling dramatic urgency. The soprano and the orchestral players (conducted ably by Marc Lowenstein) have considerable freedom in interpreting the “materials” of Mr. King’s fragmentary score: Each performance makes for a unique, unrepeatable composition.

Nothing’s easier than to write bad music this way—and as the second of two 15-minute versions began its run, I was not hopeful.

But about five minutes in, wonderful things started happening. The English horn player intoned his phrases with an ear-catching lyrical arc; the strings responded in kind, and Ms. Fogarty starting creating a character, not just a “part.” A musical country you could call Mallarmé Land cohered into being: We could picture its mountains, its cities, its fretting housewives, its squabbling politicians.

Perhaps it’s the listener, ultimately, who breathes life into Mr. King’s piece, or pieces. But it’s the composer’s invention that makes that possible, and Mr. King’s is of a rare kind.

TO THE DISTINGUISHED Dutch conductor Bernard Haitink I owe one of the most powerful musical experiences of my life: his Carnegie Hall performance of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande in 2003, a magnificent collaborative effort that featured not only the Boston Symphony Orchestra but also such singers as Lorriane Hunt Lieberson and Simon Keenlyside. And to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra I owe my first experience of Shostakovich’s titanic Fourth Symphony, from their thrilling recording of the work under André Previn.

But when Mr. Haitink, the Chicago Symphony’s principal conductor, and the Fourth Symphony came together at Carnegie Hall last Friday night (in the second program of a two-concert CSO residency), the performance, while admirable and secure, was far less than I’d hoped for.

It was announced early this month that Riccardo Muti, having twice spurned the New York Philharmonic, will take up the music directorship of the CSO in 2010. Mr. Muti will inherit from Mr. Haitink an ensemble that, in its carefully blended sound and seamless unity of purpose, can perform at the exalted level of the Cleveland Orchestra and the Vienna Philharmonic.

Mr. Haitink’s great gift as a conductor is to make musicians know, in his firm but collegial style, that only their best efforts will do; his weakness is that he sometimes does so little with what he elicits.

From his rendering of Haydn’s Symphony No. 101 (“The Clock”), which began the program, you would have detected the composer’s genius as a master craftsman, but not the magical mixture of wit, poetry, humor and melancholy that makes his music live.

Go to the recordings. In the hands of a Pierre Monteux, a Haydn symphony is an opera buffa; under Leonard Bernstein, it’s a jazz improvisation; under Antal Dorati, it’s Romantic poetry read with the detachment of a gentleman scholar. The gold-plated competence offered by a man like Bernard Haitink is a great thing—indeed, the world can’t get along without it. But it lacks the touch of the divine.


Russell Platt is a composer and a music editor at The New Yorker. He can be reached at rplatt@observer.com.

VOX Rocks; Visiting Haitink Pristine But Not Fun