We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Monday, August 5, 2019


Isabel Leonard, Maestro Sir Antonio Pappano, and the National Youth Orchestra at Carnegie Hall
(photo by Chris Lee for Carnegie Hall)

Were it not for our long term admiration for mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, we might never have gotten acquainted with the National Youth Orchestra, an astonishing collection of musical prodigies. We rarely have time to review orchestral music but when we saw that Ms. Leonard was performing Hector Berlioz' song cycle Les nuits d'été, we knew right away that we could not miss it.

As far as song cycles go, it is one of the first to be presented with orchestra, although Berlioz first scored it for voice and piano in 1841. By 1856 he had completed the orchestration of all six songs and went on record as having preferred the orchestral version. Indeed he brought his considerable skills as an orchestrator to bear upon this cycle which manages to nevertheless sound delicate.

His work seems to have inspired other composers (Mahler and Strauss to name a couple) to tackle the instrumental song cycle. His texts were chosen from the works of Théophile Gautier and revolve around the theme of love lost and love found. Of course!  Both composer and poet were French! They do not tell a sequential story and thus the cycle distinguishes itself from those cycles by Schubert for voice and piano

If other artists could have done more justice to this work than Ms. Leonard, we cannot think of them. Her voice soared to the upper reaches of Carnegie Hall's Stern Auditorium, especially at the passionate moments at the end of each verse of "Le spectre de la rose", a work we know primarily through the ballet. Even more important than the quality of Ms. Leonard's instrument, we value the expressiveness that drew us into the emotional content of the work.

"Villanelle" is a lively expression of young love and the appreciation of nature. "Le spectre de la rose" was given a leisurely sensual performance, enhanced by the string section and a yearning melody in the flute. "Sur les lagunes" is a mournful dirge, the heartbreak of which was evinced by Ms. Leonard's vocal coloration, picked up by the muted brass. The longing of "Absence" was brought to musical life by Ms. Leonard's tonal quality producing overtones that seemed to hang in the air. The grieving "Au cimitière" was followed by the sunny "L'île inconnue" that was almost ecstatic and brought the cycle to a sanguine close. It was quite the performance!

We were so involved with Ms. Leonard's interpretation that we paid scant attention to the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America, so skillfully conducted by Maestro Sir Antonio Pappano. Fortunately the second half of the program put them in the spotlight with a stirring performance of Richard Strauss' 1915 Eine Alpensinfonie, op.64. This masterwork falls into the category of a symphonic tone poem, a programmatic work which Strauss wrote to give a musical voice to his very own youthful mountain climbing experience.

We have never hiked in the Alps but we have skied through meadows and wound up on the wrong side of the mountain in some farmer's pasture; and so we were challenged to visualize through Strauss' colorful writing what the Alps might be like in the Spring. 

The work begins with a peaceful but spooky description of night with all its mysteries, awe, and murkiness. Sunrise happens with a clash of symbols. Let it be noted that the stage was filled with what appeared to be over a hundred young musicians uniformly clad in black tops and red pants, making quite a visual impression that was matched by their stunning performance. There were no less than five musicians in the percussion section. There was what seemed to be a wind machine and a thunder device that created a storm surpassing even that in Verdi's Otello and the one in his Rigoletto!

But that storm was preceded by depictions of all kinds of events and landscapes--forest, waterfall, meadow, thicket,and glacier, all leading to the climax of achieving the summit. Strauss needed a humongous orchestra to tell this story the way he wanted it told. That may be why we have waited so long to hear the work performed live.
The work ended as night approached and we enjoyed the piping of the piccolo followed by a slow decrescendo to match the climbers slow descent to the bottom.

All we can say about the superb National Youth Orchestra is that we forgot they were youngsters; they can be held to the same high standards as any orchestra-- but perhaps they play with more zest. We always stay up Friday night to hear the 6AM broadcast of From the Top; we have concluded that musical talent knows no age!

(c) meche kroop

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