Conductor: James Levine
Stravinsky: Octet for Wind Instruments
Ives: Scherzo: Over the Pavements
Carter: The American Sublime
Evan Hughes: Bass-Baritone
Cage: Atlas Eclipticalis
Wuorinen: It Happens Like This
Steven Brennfleck: Tenor
Sharon Harms: Soprano
Laura Mercado-Wright: Mezzo-Soprano
Douglas Williams: Bass-Baritone
After an exceedingly long and much lamented absence from the music scene, Maestro Levine seems to be fervently determined to catch up for lost time. Not only has he been firmly back conducting a wide range of performances at his home away from home that is the Metropolitan Opera, but he has also been heading smaller, projects dear to him here and there.
And that is just what he was doing last Sunday afternoon in Zankel Hall, where he was conducting the fabulous MET Chamber Orchestra in a demanding but exciting program consisting of idiosyncratic works by 20th and 21st century composers before a packed audience eagerly waiting to be challenged. It is so good to have him back!
The only foreigner in the group, Russian pioneer Igor Stravinsky provided what turned out to be to some extent the most traditional piece of them all. That being said, his neo-classical "Octet for Wind Instruments", as far from his flamboyant Russian roots as could be, was still brashly inventive in its slightly acerbic light-heartedness. And the eight musicians on the stage readily gave it the highly precise, cleverly witty performance it calls for.
Charles Ives' short but definitely notable "Scherzo: Over the Pavements" had us all take in a busy city corner early morning, trying to make sense of all the hustle-bustle incessantly going on... or not. A scenario familiar to all New Yorkers, for sure, but in a fresh, entertaining musical form that encouraged the audience to listen to city noises in a new, less combative way.
Elliot Carter's "The American Sublime" was dedicated to James Levine, who has to be one of Carter's longest and staunchest supporters, so it was only fair that it was premiered last Sunday on his watch. While Wallace Stevens' poetry and Carter's composition were decidedly low-key, excellent bass-baritone Evan Hughes elevated the whole affair to awe-inspiring heights with his remarkably articulate, poised and committed singing.
John Cage's make-it-your-own "Atlas Eclipticalis" proved to be as engaging an experience as to be expected from one of the most prominent avant-garde American composers. Directly inspired by star charts that were reproduced onto blank music paper, effectively turning stars into notes, this fascinating experiment kind of set the musicians free in terms of rhythm and tempo for a highly adaptable end result. On Sunday the unusual but enchanting voyage lasted only six heavenly minutes, which felt both concise and timeless.
Last, but definitely not least, Charles Wuorinen's assertively irreverent cantata "It Happens Like This" featured James Tate's deliciously absurdist prose poems ‒ one being about a candy store with inflexible rules and bizarre customers, another about a man attending a fancy dinner party to find out that he is to be the human sacrifice ‒ being put to delightfully whimsical and unapologetically destabilizing music.
The four superbly spot-on singers, whether reciting or singing, clearly had a ball describing the various surrealistic scenes while the small orchestra provided a discreet but most efficient instrumental background. Although the piece had been commissioned by James Levine, he confessed that he had been too busy lately to prepare for it adequately, and consequently ceded the baton to the composer himself, who did a fine job negotiating the fun but complex work. The last scene was the surprise visit by "The Wild Turkey", which ended a rather intellectually charged concert with an endearing human touch.