Cultural weekend number 2: Beethoven and Tan Dun

For the second weekend in a row I had two fulfilling cultural experiences. Friday night, January 12th, I took my friend Robert to hear the Cleveland Orchestra perform Beethoven’s 9th symphony. Now, performances of Beethoven’s 9th are not all that rare; but the orchestra pulled out all the stops for a top-drawer performance, which was recorded live for eventual CD release. (Why don’t they put it on the iTunes store and be done with it, like New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the Philadelphia Orchestra?) It is my understanding that they don’t yet have a record label signed to release it.

The soloists were outstanding, especially the German bass René Pape, who is arguable the best bass in the world. (Two weeks ago he sang Sarastro at the Met in The Magic Flute.) The soprano was the up-and-coming Canadian Measha Brueggergosman, the tenor was also a Met veteran, Frank Lopardo, and the mezzo was American Kelly O’Connor (who, along with Dawn Upshaw is one of Osvaldo Golijov’s muses). Franz Welser-Möst conducted. In this blog I often complain about the excess of standing ovations at Severance Hall, but in this case it was deserved. The whole thing was thrilling. The first half of the concert was devoted to the orchestra’s first performance of Leonard Bernstein’s “Jeremiah” Symphony from 1944. Bernstein’s Jewish heritage was reflected, as was a generally dark spirit of wartime America. Mezzo Kelly O’Connor sang the vocal solo that is the last movement, with text from the biblical Lamentations of Jeremiah. The orchestra takes the program to Miami next week for their Florida residency.

On Saturday afternoon I went to another of the Metropolitan Opera HD video broadcasts up at the Regal Cinemas at Severance Center in Cleveland Heights. This week’s opera could not have been more different from last week’s Bellini. This was the world premiere broadcast of the Chinese composer Tan Dun’s The First Emperor, commissioned by the Met a decade ago and first performed the end of December 2006. It has not gotten very good reviews in the press, so I was both anticipatory and skeptical. But seeing and hearing the performance, I was blown away by the colossal achievement that Tan has made in combining the Western operatic tradition with the Chinese musical tradition. The First Emperor is a work of power and beauty. It is true that the opera could stand some trimming (the pace of parts of it seemed glacial) and the concept of Placido Domingo, the great Spanish tenor, playing Chinese and singing in heavily Spanish-accented English was bizarre, but the orchestral and vocal colors, including a star of the Peking Opera, and American operatic stars Michelle DeYoung, Paul Groves, and Elizabeth Futral, were unparalleled in American operatic history. Tan’s orchestral writing was the most imaginative. Some of the vocal writing moved into generic long-lined romantically-inspired lyricism. But the thing was well considered, and very clearly a hit with the audience. The production and costumes were gorgeous. The Met spared no expense for this production, and it showed. I was able to capture at home from the Met’s internet stream the audio portion of the broadcast, and I have subsequently listened to the whole thing again today, and my opinion only rises about its worth. (For you copyright hawks out there: no, I recorded it for my own personal use, and, no, I am not going to put it out for others to have.)

The director of the video (top-notch characteristics were described after last week’s performance) was Brian Large, who has made a long career of directing opera for televised performance. It captured the essence of this complex new work. I believe that PBS will eventually broadcast The First Emperor. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Hooray to the Met for commissioning it and giving a worthy production.

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