Above: violinist James Ehnes; photo © Benjamin Ealovega from Mr. Ehnes' website
Author: Ben Weaver
Wednesday May 30th, 2018 - The MET Orchestra concerts at the end of the Met season have always been among the hottest tickets in town. The Orchestra - for many years nurtured and built into a world class ensemble by James Levine - was far more than your average opera pit band, and an opportunity to hear them play purely orchestral music was always welcome. With Levine’s illness and, more recently, ignominious departure from the house, the orchestra’s playing has perhaps slipped a bit. Fabio Luisi, Levine’s first replacement, was - on average - not an artist worthy of the Met. Time will tell if Yannick Nezet-Séguin, Levine’s second replacement, will fare better. He is certainly a more interesting musician than Luisi was.
Levine was supposed to conduct these MET Orchestra concerts, but with his permanent absence other musicians have stepped in. On May 30th, it was Gianandrea Noseda who mounted the podium at Carnegie Hall, leading performances of Mozart’s “Turkish” Violin Concerto and Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.
Noseda has conducted at The Met on a number of occasions since his debut in the house in 2002, so he and the orchestra know one another well. He is an outstanding musician overall: tall and lean, physically animated, he can whip an orchestra into a frenzy as well as anybody. And the orchestra responds to him well.
For the first part of the concert Noseda joined forces with violinist James Ehnes for Mozart’s 5th Violin Concerto. Ehnes is one of my favorite violinists performing today and his Mozart did not disappoint. With Noseda favoring fast tempi, Ehnes’s quick fire playing was a joy to hear and watch. Ehnes - playing a 1715 Stradivarius - produces a luminous sound, clear as a bell. The concerto, which Mozart himself played, begins with the orchestra playing a joyful melody, but when the violin enters it plays a melancholy tune, solo. This is something Mozart would perfect in later years in his piano concertos. (All five of Mozart’s violin concertos were written in 1775, still in the early stages of his adult career.) The dreamy Adagio sounds like an aria, Ehnes’ violin singing gorgeously. The exciting final movement, with Noseda again driving it faster than your average minuet, let Ehnes display his stunning technique and gorgeous tone. The audience reacted rapturously and Ehnes gifted two encores (as Maestro Noseda sat at the back of the stage): movements from Bach’s Sonata #3 (a huge amount of notes in a short span of time, awe-inspiringly dispatched by Ehnes with ease) and a slow movement from Sonata #2 (thoughtful, soulful music played with deeply moving simplicity.)
For the second part of the concert, Maestro Noseda unleashed Gustav Mahler’s most oft-performed symphony, the crowd favorite #5. The symphony opens with a trumpet solo: this evening the trumpet came at us with all guns blazing. This aggressive introduction set the tone for the rest of the performance. Truthfully, this was easily the worst and most unpleasant performance of Mahler’s 5th I’ve ever heard and one of the worst musical experiences I’ve ever had. If I hadn’t already heard Noseda conduct a Mahler symphony (a superb 10th, on CD) I would have thought the man has never seen a Mahler score in his life. Mahler is a composer of contrasts. The constantly shifting moods: from a tender love theme to a mocking funeral march to an angry outburst to a joyful laugh to a quiet sigh - these are the stream of consciousness musical ideas that fill Mahler’s works. One of the supreme difficulties of performing Mahler is making these shifts connect. I have heard a lot of Mahler: live and on record. A few weeks ago I attended four Mahler concerts in a single week (courtesy of touring Simon Rattle and Mariss Jansons.) Every conductor has a different approach, but none conducted a Mahler work with such single-minded determination to outgun everything that came before it. I don’t know if Maestro Noseda’s intent was to deconstruct Mahler, but somewhere along the way he decided there was only one mood for Mahler: hyper-aggression. The first movement was blustery and hard, alternating between loud and very loud, fast and faster. Without a pause, Noseda launched into the second movement, just as possessed as the first. I don’t think even Georg Solti at his most demonic did anything so relentlessly unpleasant.
By the fourth movement the brass section had begun to fall apart. The famous Adagietto was far more relaxed than anything that came before it, but it was so cold that it barely left an impression. The final Allegro was more of the same: brass continued to falter. I’m surprised they were able to make any sounds at all at this point. The build to the finale's climax came to naught; it’s impossible to reach a climax when you started with it.
The audience exploded with applause; the entire orchestra section was on its feet. That did not surprise me: loud and fast are often mistaken for good. For my part, I will pretend that this Mahler 5th didn’t happen and that Maestro Noseda had simply overdosed on a case of Red Bull.
~ Ben Weaver