The MET Orchestra’s New Principal Conductor Mesmerizes Carnegie Hall

United StatesUnited States  Mozart, Harbison/Munro, R. Strauss: Richard Goode (piano), Christine Rice (mezzo-soprano), Fabio Luisi (conductor), MET Orchestra, Carnegie Hall, New York City, 16.10.2011 (BH)

Mozart: Overture to Die Zauberflöte, K. 620 (1791)
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Major, K.503 (1786)
John Harbison/Alice Munro: Closer to My Own Life (2011, World premiere)
R. Strauss: Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op. 28 (1894-1895)

There was a whiff of déjà vu in this concert by the MET Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. Similar to an afternoon last May, the program was originally devised by James Levine, but ultimately led by Fabio Luisi, who stepped in after Levine’s health problems forced him to withdraw. And like last May, Luisi stuck to the existing menu with one change, for Richard Strauss. As much as I was anticipating Debussy’s Images (last spring) and Gershwin’s An American in Paris (this time), Luisi’s expertise and enthusiasm – coupled with orchestral playing that made one swoon – ultimately made me love his substitutions.

The dramatic introduction in Mozart’s overture to Die Zauberflöte gave no clue to the blistering speed Luisi adopted for the main theme. At first the tempo seemed impossibly fast, but the musicians seemed perfectly at home with the barreling pace, Luisi all but dancing on the podium. The first half continued with a sparkling Mozart Piano Concerto No. 25, showing off the pianistic intelligence of Richard Goode. If Goode’s genteel sound was occasionally covered up by the un-Mozartianly large orchestra, he offered superbly articulated lines, with the ensemble sounding plush and regal behind him. In the pensive Andante, when he wasn’t playing he could be seen turning his head to the left, to admire the playing of his opera-oriented colleagues; any pianist would have been tempted to do the same.

From Alice Munro’s 2006 book, The View from Castle Rock, John Harbison chose some of her texts for his new piece, Closer to My Own Life. In four sections, the scoring is luxurious, yet with some of the transparency that marked his much-earlier Mirabai Songs (1982). Alternately turbulent and serene, the music maintains much of the ambiguity that Harbison admires in Munro’s work. Christine Rice was the excellent soloist, masterfully phrasing the composer’s arcs as if she were a human extension of the horn section, and except for those moments when the sheer power of the orchestra won out, her diction sometimes made the printed text unnecessary.

Those tired of Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche might seek out Luisi for some reinvigoration. Richard Strauss’s jovial masterpiece can seem trite in the wrong hands, but as he did last spring with Don Juan, Luisi finds the vitality that eludes some with this composer. Scarcely 15 minutes long, Till is a virtuosic landscape that springs to life given the right conductor and orchestra, and here it fairly leaped off the stage.

Bruce Hodges