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Review: Drama Reigns at the New York Philharmonic, and Not All of It Onstage

Die Walükre

By Christopher Johnson, Contributing Writer, February 16, 2018

Those weren’t boos you heard at Thursday night’s Philharmonic concert at Geffen Hall of Die Walküre —they were howls of rage and contempt, and cries of “What an idiot!,” and a shouting-match that might have led to fisticuffs if a graybeard in Row V Center hadn’t been pulled off another graybeard in Row U Center. (Being a graybeard myself, I throw no shade; I merely report.) It was exciting. It was also encouraging: as the nice lady to my left observed, “At least they cared.”

What prompted all this was not a performance of Act One of Die Walküre that was good enough and true enough to be thrilling and unsettling all at once, as it should be; no, it was the local premiere of John Luther Adams’s Dark Waves, a piece that combines a large orchestra with a pre-recorded electronic “aura” to “evoke a vast, rolling sea of sound,” in which “individual parts occur ‘beneath the surface of the waves,’ with every sound emerging from and receding back into the overall texture” to create a single crescendo exactly six minutes long, followed by a steady decrescendo exactly six minutes long. It’s hard to see what’s controversial about this, because it’s all been done before, not least by Adams himself, whose Pulitzer- and Grammy-winning Become Ocean (2014) is cut from pretty much the same cloth, only much longer and with more crescendos and decrescendos.

Wagner does something similar at the beginning of Die Walküre—which is probably what these two pieces were doing on the same program—except that Wagner keeps his tight ostinato going for only three minutes, and even then he complicates it melodically from the first beat, clouds it harmonically by bar 17, pierces it with wind outcries on page 2, modulates under and around it on page 3, while turning the melodic material upside-down, brings in a striking motif from Das Rheingold on page 4 that builds to a dynamic explosion on page 8, before sliding, by agonizing chromatic degrees, back into the original material. It’s one of the most dramatic three minutes in music-history, all brought to you by the note D, but then Wagner was a genius and, in his way, given to economy of means.

Jaap van Zweden conducts the New York Philharmonic

Jaap van Zweden conducts the New York Philharmonic at David Geffen Hall; photo: Chris Lee.

The performance that followed was strikingly good. The orchestra had all the juice it needed, but what was most effective was its quiet playing, especially in the questioning, increasingly tender first encounter between Siegmund and Sieglinde, where Carter Brey’s cello solos were exceptionally eloquent, even for him. (Is there a better cello-section anywhere these days?) Van Zweden didn’t hold back, either—the lightning-strike in the prelude, and Hunding’s “Heilig sei dir mein Haus!,” were overwhelming—but he also remembered that Die Walküre is a series of domestic encounters, most of them quite intimate, and traced the characters’ growth of feeling and awareness with real delicacy. The winds and brasses were particularly good on this point: for once, Hunding’s motto sounded like offstage hunting-horns, not a royal entrée, and all the underlying motifs associated with Wotan, while magnificently played, hung just at the edge of awareness, as they should while Wotan’s children poke and pry, trying to figure out who they are.

The three singers ranged from extremely good to magnificent. John Relyea’s Hunding was fascinating—not a lout, but coldly self-righteous, controlling, and entitled—and beautifully sung, all the more terrifying for being so massive, and so smooth. Heidi Melton has an enormous voice that sometimes gets a little away from her in moments of extreme excitement or passion, but she’s such a sensitive singer, with such a huge range of color, and such a fine actress, that even her lapses seem just right for the character she’s playing. Her physical work was true and touching, even while Sieglinde was technically offstage, and the final clinch with Siegmund was just right—convincing, satisfying, still a little ambivalent, and perfectly thrilling. Simon O’Neill’s laser-tight tenor didn’t always carry over the orchestra, but he brought real poetry to passages that often get blared through, and his handling of text was sometimes revelatory, especially in the sword-drawing scene, where each of the many occurrences of “Not” and “Notung” added something unique and valuable.

This was billed as a concert performance, but it was more convincingly theatricalized than any “semi-staged” performance I’ve ever seen, and actually more consistent in that regard than a lot of performances in the opera house. No stage-director was credited, so presumably the performers worked all this out among themselves, but everything was dramatically appropriate and in character, even when they took a load off or, in O’Neill’s case, reached for the Poland Spring bottle. You would never have confused the latter with a drinking-horn, but you appreciated the dramatic integrity and artistic conviction with which it was handled.

Simon O'Neill and Heidi Melton with Jaap van Zweden

(l. to r.) Simon O’Neill and Heidi Melton with Jaap van Zweden conducting the New York Philharmonic at David Geffen Hall; photo: Chris Lee.

The performance was broadcast, boos and all, on Facebook Live, and will be available on demand on the Philharmonic’s website, on YouTube, and on FacebookDark Waves can also be heard here, and there is a perusal score here.

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The New York Philharmonic in concert at David Geffen Hall on February 14-17, 2018 (reviewed February 15). Jaap van Zweden, Conductor; Heidi Melton, soprano; Simon O’Neill, tenor; John Relyea, bass.

JOHN LUTHER ADAMS Dark Waves (New York premiere)

WAGNER Die Walküre, Act I

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Cover: (l. to r.) Simon O’Neill and Heidi Melton with Jaap van Zweden conducting the New York Philharmonic at David Geffen Hall; photo: Chris Lee.


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