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Howard Kissel

Howard Kissel

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From Carnegie Hall to the Frick: A Week of Cultural Discoveries

Posted: 01/30/11 05:50 PM ET

The past week has truly been one of discoveries, bookended by great performances led by James Levine.

It has also been a week of The Bug that seems to have infested New York, a flu without conventional nausea but which makes it impossible to sleep. Also there is a pain in the joints as if I were old and arthritic. Well, I guess I am old but not yet arthritic. Nevertheless this wearisome illness has not kept me away from the things I love.

The first set of Levine revelations came last Sunday (the 23rd) at a concert in which he conducted the Met Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. These concerts have become an integral part of the New York season -- I am old enough to remember, pre-Jimmy, that no one would have attended an orchestral concert featuring the Met orchestra. It was, pre-Jimmy, a workmanlike ensemble, only capable of greatness when a conductor like Karl Bohm or Georg Solti was in the pit. But it was hardly the virtuoso instrument it has become under Levine's careful tutelage.

The program last Sunday had two pieces -- Mozart's Posthorn Serenade and Mahler's Song of the Earth. I suspect most of the people were there to hear Jimmy do the Mahler, an endlessly fascinating piece that alternates between the explosive and the meditational, between the sumptuous and the jagged-edged. Needless to say, the orchestra delivered all the richness of the score. I had heard mezzo-soprano Michelle de Young a few years ago in a concert performance of the second act of "Tristan." She made a deep impression with the beauty and clarity of her voice and the depth of her interpretation.

I had not heard the tenor, however, Simon O'Neill. I can only say he is spectacular. I can't wait to hear him do Wagner.

But the real revelation of the afternoon was the Posthorn Serenade. One thinks of Mozart's serenades as background pieces, to amuse partygoers. I know I have recordings of this piece, notable for its use of an everyday street instrument, the posthorn, but I confess I have never listened to them carefully. I was unprepared for the power of several of the movements, particularly the Andantino. If it were the slow movement of a symphony it would be justly famous for its power and intensity. I wonder if the guests two centuries ago interrupted their small talk to pay attention. Probably not. That's why it's great to hear it in concert.

Jimmy came on stage using a cane, but once he seated himself in a large black wooden chair he showed no sign of any diminution of power despite his bundle of medical woes. Both pieces were stunning.

I've already written about some of the other events of last week -- the Jerry Bock Memorial, the dedication of Al Hirschfeld's barber chair as part of the Performing Arts Library (though I don't know how I could have forgotten to mention Jane Powell, who looks as radiant as ever.), the concert version of Kurt Weill's "Knickerbocker Holiday."

On Wednesday I attended a lecture at the Frick Collection by its Peter Jay Sharp Curator Colin Bailey on one of the treasures of New York, the Fragonard Room. Bailey, a terse, witty speaker, focused on the architecture of the room itself, beginning with its commission by Mme de Pompadour, whose architect, Louveciennes, he called "the Renzo Piano" of the 18th century. Unaccountably she rejected Fragonard's murals in favor of some by a contemporary which can only strike us as hackwork -- I had never seen a picture of them before.

Most of the talk was devoted to the machinations of the art dealer Joseph Duveen and the decorators who were supervising the construction of Mr. Frick's mansion at 1 West 70th Street. The talk was a preview of a book on the subject that will be published in the fall.

You will forgive me if I find myself remembering a monetary detail -- the wily Duveen sold the murals themselves to Frick for what he paid J.P. Morgan's estate for them, a little over $1 million. It was a calculated gamble -- he was wagering he could sell Frick for more in the coming year. He wagered correctly. The following year he sold Frick $9.6 million in other art. (Ninety years ago that was a lot of money.)

The next night I found myself 10 blocks uptown at 80th and Fifth, which is where the American Irish Historical Society is located. Perhaps the one lasting benefit of the brief Irish financial renaissance was that there was money to do do a major renovation of this townhouse, and the results are impressive. I have known the building for decades. My neighbor Rhoda Nathan is the president of the Shaw Society and has often asked me to speak there.

Thursday we did a short program about Shaw's love letters to a woman named Alice Lockett, a nurse who studied singing with Shaw's mother. The letters were read by two splendid young actors, David Rhodes and Robert Reynolds. (The latter bore a striking resemblance to the young Shaw. Both men used light brogues, which added to the vivacity and spirit of the letters.)

Amazingly, Miss Lockett, who later married a doctor, kept these letters. I say amazingly because at the time of their flirtation he was by no means George Bernard Shaw. He was an unsuccessful novelist, a quirky eccentric who lived with his mother. She could not have known what lay in store. But she saved them until the late '50s when she died and they were auctioned off. It was diverting to hear them read and see glints of the hotheaded sharp-tongued public figure we already know.

Friday night at the Metropolitan, Levine led a magisterial performance of Verdi's "Simon Boccanegra," with Dmitri Hvorostowsky in the title role. The cast also included Ferruccio Furlanetto, Ramon Vargas and Barbara Frittoli. The soprano took a while to warm up but as the evening progressed her voice became warmer and more beautiful. The men were in spectacular voice from beginning to end.

Levine was not strong enough to make it from the pit to the stage for the curtain calls, but there was no evidence of lack of strength in his incisive, revelatory conducting. This opera has become more and more of a mainstay in the last few years. It shows Verdi at his most profound. Friday night was a performance to treasure. I took my Italian teacher, Sergio Stefani, who justifiably called it "fabuloso."