Met Orchestra, soloists take flight in Strauss, Wagner at Carnegie Hall

Thu Jun 16, 2022 at 1:54 pm
Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted the Met Orchestra Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Rose Callahan

The Met Orchestra musicians have played several concerts at Carnegie Hall this season, assembled in chamber ensembles for a fine series upstairs in Weill Recital Hall. Wednesday night, the whole group came together, and then some, for the first of two nights in Stern Auditorium.

This was a chance to hear the orchestra in a way impossible in the opera house. With music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting, they did play opera music—Wagner—as part of an idiosyncratic program that also offered Strauss and Missy Mazzoli. But the sheer number of musicians could never fit into the orchestra pit, and the thrilling sounds Wednesday night were something that could only happen in a concert setting.

Opening with Strauss’s Don Juan, and filling the second half with Act I of Die Walküre, the stage was at maximum capacity, with multiple harps, extra brass, and, after intermission, soprano Christine Goerke, tenor Brandon Jovanovich, and bass-baritone Eric Owens. The outlier was the centerpiece, Missy Mazzoli’s Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres). Without a dramatic narrative, and certainly without the extroverted manner of Strauss and Wagner, it was the most beguiling part of the evening.

The playing was superb throughout, with an exceptional balance of details like articulation and instrumental blend against pure energy. The orchestra had a vibrant presence all evening, with a palpable impact in even the quietest moments, and Nézet-Séguin, full of intense concentration and vitality as always, was on top of every nuance and shade of expression. This was the best night one has heard from him all season, and to take nothing away from the playing, this was also the best opportunity to hear the orchestra as well.

The opening moments of each half were typical, with enormous bursts of sound—colorful for Strauss and gritty for Wagner—followed by precise and expressive control of dynamics. 

Don Juan was propulsive and flowing, and the performance went beyond Strauss’ surface sensations with lovely solo passages from the oboe and horn, the musicians hearing and bringing out a real sense of beauty. The contrast between the effervescent climax and the brittle, subdued finale was poignant.

The Walküre opening was even something more, as the surging and ebbing waves of fortissimo were played with such unanimity and body of string tone, and with such purpose, that they felt more like the wind blowing through a forest than anything as ordinary as music.

The Die Walküre was spectacular, the orchestra pushing every color, from the darkest earth tones to the most incandescent golds and silvers, to extremes. Each familiar motif from the entire Ring cycle was set slightly in relief and carried enormous dramatic weight and meaning. 

On top of this was the stellar singing from Goerke, Jovanovich, and Owens. The soprano and tenor, as Sieglinde and Siegmund, formed shapely phrases, anchored but not bound by the rhythms, while Owen carved out a sense of grave rectitude as Hunding, singing with a sense of repose from the rest of the ensemble. Goerke’s effortless sound, a round and clear articulation, was scintillating, and Jovanovich brought a plumbiness one does not usually hear in this role, along with plenty of musical intensity and emotional fervor. This final chord brought the crowd to its feet.

In between came Mazzoli’s gorgeous orchestral piece. Nézet-Séguin, speaking to the audience, connected it to the Met via their commission of a new opera from the composer. Already played earlier this season by the New York Philharmonic, it was extremely gratifying to witness this fine contemporary work enter the larger orchestral repertoire. Repeat performances are a necessity for this, but the music has to demand repent performances, and Sinfonia does. What’s more, what conductor and musicians did with this piece was vastly different then the Philharmonic’s performance, a testament to the quality and variety of Mazzoli’s ideas and craft.

The interpretation focussed on the gestures and transitions between the moments of shimmering harmony on which the piece catches its breath. This was interesting to begin with, but one worried that it might end up overly fussy, missing the overall shape. Yet in the end what the musicians had discovered in these details was the heart of the piece, Mazzoli’s marvelous harmonies sliding aside to reveal moments of aesthetic and emotional fascination. Beautiful to begin with, the performance brought out profound feelings and mysteries from the music one had not yet heard earlier.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin leads the Met Orchestra in music of Berlioz with mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, 8 p.m. Thursday.

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