Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major, Mahler’s Ruckert-Lieder, Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, and American opera arias

The MET Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on Sunday, January 15.

The clarinet is often described as the instrument closest, in timbre and range, to the human voice. I never gave the idea much thought before this concert, but the juxtaposition put forth by the Metropolitan Opera’s exquisite orchestra turned out to be lovely. Alternating between supporting a clarinet soloist and accompanying soprano Renée Fleming highlighted the voice-like qualities of the wind instrument, the agility and virtuosity of Fleming’s voice, and the fine musicianship of both. The program itself was a bit quirky, starting with Mozart and ending with several hyper-romantic arias from twentieth-century American operas, but it pulled together beautifully behind its talented soloists.

Different clarinetists soloed on the two concertos—Stephen Williamson played the Mozart and Anthony McGill the Copland—and each found the heart of his piece. Sean pointed out that it would have been fun to hear the same person perform both works—they’re so different that excelling at both would demonstrate extraordinary versatility—but that’s more a proposal of an alternate universe than a true quibble. Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto is a favorite of both of ours, and Williamson made it sing with great warmth and smoothly spooling lines. His expressivity on the radiant Adagio was so perfect that I felt tears in my eyes.

Copland’s concerto, composed for Benny Goodman, has a completely different quality, less elegant and more jazzy (not surprising given who it was intended for), and McGill brought that to spirited life. The dreamy opening section probably could stagnate with a lesser soloist (or a less farsighted conductor than Fabio Luisi), but McGill found the coherence in the haze. Later, when the music turned to spiky syncopations, he pulled of the neat trick of making each note sound freshly improvised. The cadenza, in particular, sounded like a charmed explorer setting foot on virgin soil.

As for Fleming’s half of the program, she’s always a fun soloist, not least because she bears herself like a queen, gliding out onto stage in an exuberant jewel-toned gown and glittering diamonds and nodding with extravagant graciousness at the applause. (Seriously, she’s fabulous. I love her.) The gloriously depressive Mahler wasn’t the obvious choice for her—I, at least, associate Fleming with joy and effervescence, not Mahler’s proto-goth darkness (I’m being flip)—but Fleming is more versatile and Mahler far less monotonous that they are often caricatured, and she acquitted the lieder with eloquence.

The real treat, though, was hearing the seldom-performed arias by Samuel Barber and Bernard Herrmann of Psycho fame, plus the encore from André Previn’s Streetcar Named Desire. I know Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra is a notorious bomb, but the aria “Give me some music” is vivid and deliciously agitated, with shimmering (if sometimes overwhelming) orchestration and an electrically hushed conclusion. I was a bit less enamored of the histrionics of “Do not utter a word” from Barber’s Vanessa, but the richly romantic “I have dreamt” from Herrmann’s Wuthering Heights is impossible not to love. And “I can smell the sea air” from Streetcar (for which Fleming created the role of Blanche in the 1990s) ends on one of those whispery soft high notes that Fleming floats with magical effortlessness, like a dandelion wisp caught on the wind. If the audience hadn’t been so eager to shout its bravos, I could have sat for an eternity in the perfect stillness of that al niente note.

3 Replies to “Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major, Mahler’s Ruckert-Lieder, Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, and American opera arias”

  1. As always, a lovely account of your experience at a concert – the perfect blend of musical description and personal feelings. However, for the less musically knowledgeable among us, can you define “al niente”?

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  2. “Al niente” is an Italian phrase that means “to nothing” and indicates a controlled diminuendo into silence. As a pianist, you wouldn’t see it much since a note on the piano decays on its own.

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  3. Thanks for the clear and informative explanation. I also appreciate the reference to the piano since that excuses my ignorance of the term. Very thoughtful of you. 🙂

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