The TG and I saw two very enjoyable concerts recently: one with one of our favorite artists (soprano ANNA NETREBKO), and the other featuring two musicians, one I had vaguely heard of (pianist STEPHEN HOUGH) and the other, a total unknown to me (conductor JAMES GAFFIGAN).
Though both nights were filled with music that was written a long time ago, the vitality of these artists proved that music-making is very much alive and can excite even the most jaded listener.
Anna Netrebko, the world's reigning prima donna, hadn't sung in Los Angeles in more than ten years, so I jumped on the chance to see her, even if it was only in a recital of opera chestnuts, and not a full opera. In truth, Anna is too big a star to sing at a second-tier company like Los Angeles Opera anymore, so this was our best shot to see her. We've seen the great Russian soprano in four different operas, going back to the 1990s -- Lucia di Lammermoor, Manon, and Romeo et Juliette in Los Angeles and L'Elisir D'Amore in Vienna – and have been happy to witness her rise to super-stardom.
The concert was at a venue that's fairly new to us: the Broad Stage on the campus of Santa Monica College, a cute, little 499-seat theater, with great sound and, obviously, great viewing all around. With this comparatively tiny space (the Metropolitan Opera seats 3,800) and easy program (a dozen "greatest hits" and not three hours of concentrated, grueling acting plus rehearsal time), it was an evening of easylifting for Anna.
But she was in wonderful voice and breezed through the program gloriously. I was especially happy to see that Anna has added to her abundant natural talents – luscious voice, beautiful appearance, riveting stage presence – greater care in the details of her singing. The early criticism of Anna was that she was a sloppy singer, relying on her innate gifts and glamour. But it's apparent from what I heard in Santa Monica and what I've heard on her live broadcasts from the Metropolitan that Anna's become a much more meticulous, intelligent singer. Always a natural, committed actress, she's been growing as an artist, taking on deeper and more difficult parts, with greater craft.
And even though it was just a program of chesnuts – "Un Bel Di" from Madame Butterfly, "Song to the Moon" from Russalka, etc. – Anna sang each aria with emotion and committment. She was never a singer who just stood onstage to "park and bark" (one of my favorite opera expressions). And I love those chestnuts! Anna showed that she would make a great Butterfly, should she ever take on that challenging role.
The fly in the ointment at this concert was a rather large one -- Anna's new husband, tenor YUSIF EYVAZOV – who sang more than half the concert. Born in Algeria to Azerbaijani parents, Eyvazov was a genial presence with a decent voice. Six years younger than Anna, he is also lightyears behind her in talent and star power. They sang a few duets, and Anna tried to reign in her massive, beautiful voice. Once she held a concluding note about ten seconds longer than he could, and she was embarrassed. But she could have sung him right through the floorboards. (To be fair, he hit all the notes and got better as the night went on. And it's not easy to be the unknown husband of the most famous opera singer in the world.)
At the age of 45, Anna is not as svelte as she used to be, but she's still stunningly attractive and the biggest opera star in the world. (Check out my links.) It was a pleasure to see her again, and I'm guessing it won't be our last time.
"Sempre Libera" – from the legendary Willy Decker-directed "LA TRAVIATA"
"Song to the Moon" from Dvorak's "RUSSALKA"
"O Mio Babbino Caro" – from Puccini's "GIANNI SCHISCHII
The Flower Duet from "LAKME" – with Elina Garanca
"Casta Diva" from "NORMA"
"Musetta's Waltz" from "LA BOHEME" – young Anna
"Regnava del silencio" from "LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR" – young Anna
I had vaguely heard of the British pianist STEPHEN HOUGH before, but I had no idea just who this man is. Stephen Hough is simply one of the most talented people on the planet. He is a brilliant pianist, composer, essayist, poet, painter, and teacher. The first classical performing artist to win a MacArthur "genius" fellowship, Hough is amazingly accomplished in a variety of challenging fields. In 2009, he was named as one of 20 living polymaths (along with Noam Chomsky, Umberto Eco, etc.) by The Economist and Intelligent Life magazines.
But first of all, his piano playing. I've been lucky enough to see quite a few great piano players – from Martha Argerich, Alfred Brendel, Vladimir Ashkenazy, and Helene Grimaud to Oscar Peterson, Count Basie, and Keith Jarrett to Ray Charles and Leon Russell – and Hough's playing was as beautiful and eloquent as any I've ever heard. I listened to the piece that he played for us – Lizst's Piano Concerto No. 1 – both before and after the concert, in different renditions by some legendary pianists: Sviatoslav Richter, Arthur Rubenstein, and Wilhelm Kempff. And Hough's playing was unquestionably on their level. Perhaps even more expressive in the Adagio. Listening to him play with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Walt Disney Concert Hall, I was genuinely enraptured. He is a great pianist.
Now that he's on my radar, I'm going to listen to everything I can that he's recorded. I'm just dipping into his Brahms piano concertos with Sir Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra on Deezer, and they are gorgeous.
Stephen Hough playing Rameau – from "Live at Lincoln Center" – like Glenn Gould playing Bach -- really
Stephen Hough – Chopin Piano Concerto No.1 – Edo de Waart conducting the Sydney Symphony Orchestra
Stephen Hough – Rachmaninov – Variations on a Theme by Paganini
Stephen Hough – on the practice of practicing – lots of wisdom for non-musicians
Stephen Hough – on Chopin and Debussy
Speaking of Brahms, the other main offering on the program with Stephen Hough playing the Liszt concerto was Brahms' Symphony No. 3, conducted by JAMES GAFFIGAN.
At the beginning of the evening, I had no idea who this young conductor was (other than the fact that he had the same name as this comic who is sometimes on Howard Stern.) But I do now: I hereby predict that this young conductor James Gaffigan will be the Musical Director of the New York Philharmonic within fifteen years.
Born in New York City in 1979, Gaffigan is an absolute natural – on the podium and in person. (Nerds that we are, the TG and I attend the pre-concert lectures where you can actually learn stuff.) Gaffigan talked about his approach to conducting and making music even though he himself does not make a sound. He talked about baton technique and "dancing" and leading musicians who were many times more experienced than he. He was charming and insightful.
But more importantly, he drew an excellent performance of the Brahms symphony from the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Gaffigan is currently the Chief Conductor of the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra and Principal Guest Conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic. For three years, he was Associate Conductor of the San Francisco Symphony. Equally at home in the opera house, he's conducted at the Vienna State Opera. He's gradually working his way up, eventually to conduct all the great orchestras in all the great concert halls in the world. He led a spacious, dramatic, thoughtful reading of the Brahms.
With his lower-middle-class/public-school/Queens-and-Staten Island background and his articulate, personable manner, Gaffigan will be embraced by the New York musical public. He will follow in the line of Gustav Mahler, Bruno Walter, and Leonard Bernstein, and someday lead the New York Philharmonic. You heard it here first.
James Gaffigan conducting the Orchestre National de France in Mahler's Symphony No. 2, "Resurrection"
James Gaffigan discusses conducting Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5
James Gaffigan discusses conducting Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony
James Gaffigan discusses conducting Gershwin's Piano Concerto