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MET Orchestra Plays Carnegie Hall

Soprano Angel Blue and mezzo-soprano Deborah Nansteel performing with the Met Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on June 22, 2023. Photo: Evan Zimmerman / Met Opera

At Carnegie Hall on the night of Thursday, June 15th, I had the enormous pleasure of attending a magnificent concert presented by the extraordinary MET Orchestra—along with the fabulous MET Chorus, led by Donald Palumbo—under the brilliant direction of Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

The conductor spoke briefly before the music began to dedicate the performance to the ensembles’ members or staff that lost their lives as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The event opened superbly with an unforgettable account of the beautiful and haunting Oraison—heardhere in its New York premiere—by the contemporary Cuban-Canadian composer, Luis Ernesto Peña Laguna. The program note by Claudio Ricignuolo reports:

In 2021, the Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal commissioned Peña to write a choral work in tribute to the victims of COVID-19 and intended to be programmed with BrahmsEin deutsches Requiem. In composing Oraison, Peña was inspired by the poem “Danse humaine,” written for the occasion by French author Jean-A. Massard (b. 2000). As the composer explains:

There’s a word that’s very present in my composition, and that word is gestes (“gestures”). It’s a word that resonates with me when I think about the pandemic and how Canada and specifically Quebec managed it. The composition ends just like it begins … a way of representing each wave, how the pandemic is cyclic and still not over. The use of several languages (Latin, French, English, and Spanish) speaks to the fact that COVID has affected the entire planet.

The pinnacle of the evening, however, was achieved with a stunning realization of the awesome German Requiem of Johannes Brahms—which was hilariously misdescribed by the arch-Wagnerite music critic and playwright George Bernard Shaw who said it “could only have come from the establishment of a first-class undertaker”—featuring two outstanding soloists: soprano Lisette Oropesa, a luminary of the Metropolitan Opera—she was replacing Nadine Sierra who had to withdraw due to illness—and baritone Quinn Kelsey. The artists were rewarded with a tremendous reception.

Nézet-Séguin and the ensemble returned to this venue exactly one week later for another terrific concert which began thrillingly with an energetic performance of Leonard Bernstein’s ingenious Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, which were selected and orchestrated by Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal. Also impressive was the world premiere of contemporary composer Matthew Aucoin’s powerfulHeath(King LearSketches), which uncannily recalled the mainstream of twentieth-century music. Here I reproduce in toto his eloquent program note on the work:

The heath, in Shakespeare’s King Lear, is the bare, windswept place, devoid of civilization and human comforts, where Lear, the Fool, and others end up after Lear’s eldest two daughters—to whom he has unwisely bequeathed his kingdom—have systematically stripped him of the last shreds of his authority. It is on the heath that Lear loses touch with reality, or at least with the world of unchecked privilege that he has inhabited for his whole life, and enters a state somewhere between madness and prophecy, a kind of lucid nightmare.

But the heath is more than a mere geological site; it is the psychological bedrock of the entire play.King Lear expresses a bottomlessly bleak vision of human nature, one in which laws, customs, and hierarchies—what we call “norms” in the contemporary world—are a flimsy safeguard against devouring animal appetites. When Lear lets his guard down for an instant and makes a major decision for sentimental reasons rather than according to the dictates of realpolitik, the wolves that surround him instantly show their fangs.

So, even though my orchestral piece does not directly enact the play’s heath scenes, Heath felt like the only possible title. This play’s inner landscape is a rocky, barren place, one in which every human luxury is ultimately burned away to reveal the hard stone underneath: “the thing itself,” as Lear puts it.

Heath is divided into four sections, played continuously with no break. The first and longest, “The Divided Kingdom,” embodies the atmosphere of the play’s first scenes: the uneasy sense of rituals failing to serve their purpose, of political life unraveling into chaos. The second section, “The Fool,” is full of darting, quicksilver music inspired by the Fool’s mockery of Lear. The brief third section, “I have no way ...”, is inspired by the blinded Gloucester’s slow, sad progress across the landscape. And the final movement, “With a Dead March,” embodies the accumulated tragedies of the play’s final scenes.

The first half of the event closed exhilaratingly with a fully compelling version of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s marvelous Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture. Interestingly, the composer later envisioned writing an opera adapted from the William Shakespeare play about which he said to his brother, Modest:

This shall be my definitive work. It’s odd how until now I hadn’t seen how I was truly destined to set this drama to music. Nothing could be better suited to my musical character. No kings, no marches, and none of the encumbrances of grand opera—just love, love, love.

After an intermission, the evening concluded memorably with a wonderful performance of Act IV of Giuseppe Verdi’s penultimate opera, Otello. An excellent slate of singers was led by the enchanting soprano Angel Blue—another luminary of the Metropolitan Opera—as Desdemona along with tenor Russell Thomas in the title role; the secondary cast included mezzo-soprano Deborah Nansteel as Emilia, tenor Errin Duane Brooks as Cassio, baritone Michael Chioldi as Iago, and the bassi Richard Bernstein and Adam Lau as Lodovico and Montano respectively. Especially enthusiastic applause for the artists elicited a splendid encore: Florence Price’s Adoration featuring the concertmaster, David Chan, as soloist.

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