There is never a shortage of reasons to head off to New York, but last weekend's musical activities there proved particularly enticing.
I always like to see the hometown team play Carnegie Hall whenever I can, so the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's "The City"/Mahler 5 program there provided one big attraction. But there also happened to be an opportunity to hear more Mahler — the Ninth Symphony — performed by the New York Philharmonic at David Geffen Hall with the eminent Bernard Haitink on the podium.
In between those concerts, there was room to take in one of the hot ticket items of the Metropolitan Opera's spring season, Donizetti's "Roberto Devereux," starring the extraordinary Sondra Radvanovsky as Queen Elizabeth.
To begin with, the sound alone was, as usual, worth the trip. Every fan of the BSO should get a chance to hear it play in Carnegie at least once. Never mind the purists who say the acoustics aren't what they used to be after various renovations. The hall continues to deliver a rare kind of sonic immersion when an orchestra takes the stage.
The BSO's tone had more richness and, especially, a darker bass foundation. Woodwinds and brass emerged with greater warmth and presence. Subtleties, not just barrages, of percussion registered more cleanly.
All of those qualities helped to increase the impact of Kevin Puts' score for "The City," with its kinetic beat and seemingly haunted lyricism, matched to James Bartolomeo's vivid video of Baltimore life and issues.
BSO music director Marin Alsop led a confident and taut account of the absorbing piece, which struck me on second hearing as having the weight to stand on its own without film. But that visual element is such a key component to the experience that I would hate to see the two ever separated.
Bartolomeo's work conjures up the lofty and the simple, the quirky and the genuine of Baltimore, enough to balance the unavoidable central portion of the piece devoted to the stain and strain of last year's unrest. (The syncing of music and film seemed a little off on Saturday, especially in the last few seconds, but that may have just been me — I'm frequently a little off.)
As was the case last week at Strathmore, the audience response was decidedly enthusiastic — with several people on their feet. Composer and videographer were recalled for hearty ovations.
I'd rank the performance of Mahler's Fifth Symphony on Saturday night among the finest achievements from Alsop and the BSO. Never mind the brief trumpet slip at the start. The totality is what counts, and the totality was awfully impressive.
Alsop's firm grip on the score's structure and her sensitivity to subtleties of rhythm and dynamics yielded considerable rewards. And there was an extra spark in the orchestra's response, an intensity that paid particular dividends in the wild ride of the second movement, the poetic oasis of the fourth, and the giddy, life-affirming outburst of the finale.
Life-leaving is the common view of Mahler's Ninth, his last completed symphony, a piece imbued with a sense of farewell and diffusion. But Haitink's approach to this sublime work Friday night with the Philharmonic did not put all the emphasis on fading mortality. There was something ultimately affirmative here, too, a feeling of calm acceptance.
At 87, the Dutch conductor is as incisive and inspiring as ever. His tempos were beautifully judged, allowing plenty of breadth without sacrificing line. The inner movements emerged with compelling character, each folksy or ironic turn given extra bite. The slow, introspective bookends of the symphony were shaped with particular eloquence.
The Philharmonic clearly savored working with Haitink again and gave him everything he asked for in terms of expressive force; the depth of feeling from the players in the hymn-like theme in the finale was just one remarkable example. All in all, it was a thoroughly persuasive, riveting performance.
The same could be said for Saturday afternoon's matinee at the Met.
The company has presented Donizetti's so-called Tudor queen trilogy in a single season as a vehicle for Radvanovsky. By all accounts, she triumphed in "Anna Bolena" and "Maria Stuarda." By my account, she did so again in "Roberto Devereux." (I didn't get to see the other two, but look forward to catching up with them on DVD.)
For its first staging of "Roberto Devereux" in its 133-year history, the Met surrounded Radvanovsky with a first-rate cast, conductor and production values.
David McVicar's sturdy direction assures momentum and focus; his darkly handsome set design conjures up Elizabeth's palace and other locales with ease and includes, along the sides and in balconies, room for courtiers to observe and react to the unfolding drama.
That drama isn't firmly rooted in history; librettist Salvadore Cammarano took his share of liberties. But it makes for good theater, as the aging queen frets and broods over Devereux, the Earl of Essex, a longtime favorite now accused of treason. Elizabeth's primary concern, though, is that his heart seems to have been claimed by a rival.
It's grand (soap) opera all the way, thanks to Donizetti's imaginative score, which keeps the action moving tautly as it dispenses considerable melodic interest. At its best, this is an opera that can stand alongside the composer's most famous works, as well as the likes of Bellini's "Norma."
Tackling the trilogy in a single season is uncommon; Beverly Sills famously did so 40-some years ago. It takes nerve and artistry to do this sort of thing. Radvanovsky has both.
The soprano's voice, if not always beautiful in the conventional sense, has a distinctive combination of steel and tenderness. She can sculpt a bel canto line with great taste, not just technical clarity. And she can act, really act.
Her Elizabeth was every inch the proud, but physically and emotionally drained, ruler. And her incisive vocalism included high pianissimo notes that floated compellingly through the attentive house. The thunderous reception from the matinee crowd during the soprano's solo bow included a shower of confetti from admirers in the highest balcony.
If I had been up there, I'd have saved some to toss when Matthew Polenzani took his bow. The tenor's performance in the title role stood out in every way.
His was some of the classiest bel canto singing I've heard live anywhere. When he spun out soft, seamless phrases, I found myself thinking of past giants now known only from recordings (Tito Schipa came to mind especially). You just don't hear this kind of vocal elegance every day. Polenzani did more than produce a radiant tone; his musicality was matched by vivid acting.
Mariusz Kwiecien also served the drama well as the Duke of Nottingham. The baritone's low register tended to lose steam, but his singing had a kinetic power. (McVicar added intriguing undercurrents to the relationship between Nottingham and Devereux.)
As Nottingham's wife, Elina Garanca quickly won over the house; her plush tone and compelling way of phrasing gave the character extra weight. You kept hoping Donizetti had given the character more music. The Met's much-loved orchestra and chorus delivered the goods all afternoon.
Maurizio Benini's fluent, finely nuanced conducting guaranteed electricity from the opening pages on to the emotional close, when Elizabeth, recoiling from the realization that Devereux's head has fallen, loses all interest in the crown. But there was no doubt as the final curtain fell that Radvanovsky's reign is still on a roll.