Out of the Pit and Into the Spotlight — the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra Kicks Off Its End-of-Season Series at Carnegie Hall
By Brian Taylor, Contributing Writer, May 10, 2018
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra is one of the world’s finest orchestras, and their highly anticipated appearances at Carnegie Hall are a highlight of the season. Unleashed from the pit of the opera house and taking center stage, it is a revelation to hear this masterful ensemble perform orchestral repertoire in Carnegie Hall’s ingratiating acoustics.
This year, as the MET Orchestra anticipates a new era of leadership beginning next season under the baton of incoming maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin, they will be tested in a series of three substantial concerts under a succession of three of today’s most exciting conductors. Of course, in their role at the MET, this ensemble might play under a greater variety of conductors than most American symphony players. But the non-operatic orchestral repertoire is a step out from their vast, regular repertoire. So, the pairing of new conductors and new music, beginning with Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, is an exciting opportunity to experience the superb MET Orchestra at their most vital.
Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla is a star on the rise. This 31 year old Lithuanian assumed the reigns as Music Director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 2016, making her one of the world’s most highly placed female conductors. Named one of “the 28 people who are shaping, shaking, and stirring Europe” in 2017 by Politico, she recently served as associate conductor with Gustavo Dudamel’s Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Fresh from an ambitious Debussy festival with her prestigious orchestra in Birmingham, Gražinytė-Tyla arrives in New York for a hotly anticipated turn on the MET Orchestra’s podium for an uncommonly rich program with just enough acid and just enough levity.
Richard Bratby (in The Spectator) raved about her Birmingham performance of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, calling it “unsettling.” Debussy’s exquisite symphonic poem, based on Stéphane Mallarmé’s symbolist, erotic poem of the same name, was a game changer in music history. As the MET prepares to perform Debussy’s only opera next season, the rarely performed Pelléas et Mélisande, this is an opportunity to hear the orchestra dip their toes again into the impressionist composer’s delicate, sensuous orchestra writing.
From the slippery opening flute solo — Pierre Boulez said that “the flute of the faun brought new breath to the art of music” — to the shimmering antique cymbals, the score is a ravishing beauty that must be shaped with keen attention to texture and detail. Gražinytė-Tyla clearly has a unique perspective on the music of Debussy, and this Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune should prove a very telling collaboration.
The most unusual piece on the program, the innovative Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death is a work redolent of operatic tragedy. Gražinytė-Tyla will be joined by Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili who thrilled at the MET this past season as Azucena in Il Trovatore, described by The New York Times as “running away with the show.”
Rachvelishvili’s rich voice and stirring stage presence should make this a sonically and emotionally rewarding reading of Dmitri Shostakovich’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s song cycle. Shostakovich knew how to create magic with the orchestra includes saxophone in this score that refines and elevates the coarser ideas in Mussorgsky’s original piano version. Gražinytė-Tyla has a lot of opera on her resume, as well, and this is a chance for her to take the wheel at the Cadillac of orchestras that know how to accompany singers.
Mussorgsky’s dark look at mortality is the polar opposite of Debussy’s sensuous dream. Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, composed during a period of emotional crisis and beginning the composer’s most fertile creative period, ranges both extremes. A showpiece for both orchestra and visionary conductor, Tchaikovsky’s monumental rumination on “Fate,” opens with a fanfare of epic proportions that should have the MET brass shaking the rafters.
Tchaikovsky’s Fourth, progressing from grave disillusionment to hope to triumph, promises moments for each of the orchestra’s sections to shine. The lyrical second movement contains one of the symphonic literature’s most indelible, luxuriously orchestrated melodies and many opportunities to hear the MET Orchestra’s solo woodwinds. The third movement, a light-as-air scherzo, off-sets each section, first the pizzicato strings, then the jocular woodwinds, and the sharp rhythmic brass. It will be fun to hear the MET’s various sections toss this off this treacherous romp.
The finale of Tchaikovsky’s symphony is as dramatic as any of the operas the MET Orchestra regularly performs. Listen for the surprise return of that fateful opening fanfare, and the theatrical tension as Tchaikovsky plots a triumphant, gratifying end.
One of the world’s greatest orchestras, the MET Orchestra. One of the MET’s hottest singers, Anita Rachvelishvili. One of the world’s most promising young conductors, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla. A perfect balance of familiar and fresh, dark and light. This is a concert not to be missed.
Cover: Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra at Carnegie Hall; photo: Chris Lee.