Carter, Nestled Between Verdi and Rossini

United StatesUnited States  Verdi, Carter, Rossini (arr. Sciarrino), Mozart, Beethoven: Joyce DiDonato (mezzo soprano), Met Orchestra, James Levine (conductor), Carnegie Hall, 13.10.2013 (BH)

Verdi: Overture to I vespri Siciliani (1855)
Carter: Variations for Orchestra (1953-1955)
Rossini: Giovanna d’Arco (1832, orch. Salvatore Sciarrino, 1989)
Mozart: “Deh, per questo istante solo” and “Ecco il punto…Non più di fiori” from La clemenza di Tito
Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92 (1811-1812)

 When James Levine returned to Carnegie Hall last May with the Met Orchestra, I confess I was just a little skeptical—that his appearance might be a one-off, given his health issues—but I’m happy to report that his vitality then seemed to be matched or even exceeded on this latest afternoon. Though still using an impressively high-tech wheelchair, once he is installed on the podium he seems energized—an impression only confirmed as the program progressed.

In Verdi’s Overture to I vespri Siciliani, Levine drew a full-bodied, stately reading—stormy and powerful—framed by the ensemble’s percussion section. And if few conductors would dare to follow Verdi with Elliott Carter, Levine is the man for the job. Levine has done Carter’s magnificent Variations for Orchestra twice previously, in 2005 and 2008, and his interpretation—not to mention the orchestra’s familiarity with the score—has only matured. Bursting with elegance and inner detail, Carter’s sinuous lines shatter and dissolve, or conversely, globules reassemble into molten slabs. Riveting contrasts were everywhere: throaty unisons followed by singes of brass heat—a masterful study of tension and release. I wish the composer—who died almost one year ago—had made it long enough to be in the audience.

Rossini’s Giovanna d’Arco (in an orchestral arrangement by Salvatore Sciarrino) makes a dashing vehicle for the right singer, and at the moment there are few more suited than Joyce DiDonato. Combining vocal technique, charm and flat-out good looks in equal measure, she made this difficult cantata appear, well, not so. A favorite moment came near the beginning, when she gave an expert demonstration of what a melisma should sound like, on the word “mormorar” (“murmur”)—as with some of her later trills, a model of evenness and control.

Two arias from Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito only confirmed that she can hold her own with any artists working today. “Deh, per questo istante solo” boasted both purity and power, with ringing, true intonation, and “Ecco il punto…Non più di fiori” showed her phrasing, her dramatic finesse and her range. Her lower register is a little scary when it appears.

As a programmer, Levine is nothing if not generous, and he closed the afternoon with a brisk, sharply pointed reading of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. Using a non-HIP-sized ensemble (many of whom had played in The Nose and Eugene Onegin the previous day), he seemed completely focused. Wind solos and broad strokes defined the first movement, and in the second, the entire group showed wonderful fluidity, with particular praise for the cellos. A few moments of dicey intonation in the third movement (so the group is human, after all) were all but swept aside by other virtues, before the propulsive finale ended the almost-three-hour program. I’ve said it before: these Carnegie Hall concerts are treasures.

Bruce Hodges