Tweaking Their Legacies: Composers Reinvent Themselves


Searching for evidence of an avant-garde in classical music in New York this spring, one finds instead the different excitement of composers reviewing their legacies of musical language, vocabulary, and style and reshaping them into new experiences. Ideas of retrenching into easy-listening romanticism are definitely old hat.

Between March and June, the most prominent local event will probably be the first performances of Peter Lieberson’s big cantata The World in Flower, scheduled for late May by the New York Philharmonic, which commissioned the work. Now 59 years old, Lieberson was early on deemed a Stravinskyan neoclassicist, but widely different influences have fertilized his music over the last three decades. Studies with MiltonBabbitt and Charles Wuorinen must have encouraged some 12-tone work; his father, Goddard, having been a pioneering CBS executive who, among other achievements, established high standards for recording Broadway shows with their original casts, must have lead Peter to create purer melodies. And deep studies of Buddhism certainly expanded the spiritual horizons of his later music. What could be called spiritual lyricism was sustained right into last year’s Neruda Songs, written for and inspired by his second wife, the great mezzo Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.

The World in Flower is the third panel of a triptych dealing with rulers whose growth from violent aggression to spiritual enlightenment was fatally misunderstood by their people. The first panel was the narrated saga King Gesar, and the next was his first full-scale opera, Ashoka’s Dream. The new piece will be conducted by Lorin Maazel and sung by Mrs. Lieberson, baritone Gerald Finley (John Adams’s first J. Robert Oppenheimer in Doctor Atomic), and the excellent New York Choral Artists.

The World in Flower, May 24 through 27, Avery Fisher Hall, Columbus Avenue and 64th Street, 212-875-5656

Listings by Leighton Kerner

Thomas Quasthoff

March 15–18

Carnegie Hall, 57th & Seventh Ave, 212-247-7800

This great bass-baritone makes you ignore his birth defects with the first phrase he sings so musically and truthfully. As part of a week-long workshop for students, he gives master classes March 15 and 16 in Carnegie’s small Weill Recital Hall. On March 17 at Weill, several of his pupils share in their own recital. And on March 18 in Carnegie’s main hall, he sings his own concert centered on Schubert’s heartrending Die Sch M.

Jordi Savall

March 15 and 16

Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Ave & 82nd, 212-570-3949

Today’s most acclaimed violist da gamba starts with a master class March 15, talks about his life and the music he devotes it to the next evening, and plays a concert’s worth of Renaissance and baroque Spanish that night with his Hesperion XXI ensemble.

‘Wall-to-Wall Stravinsky’

March 18

Symphony Space, Bway & 95th, 212-864-5400

Symphony Space’s annual free-admission, 12-hour (11 a.m. to 11 p.m.) marathons zero in this year on the 20th-century colossus. Dozens of singers, instrumentalists, actors, and dancers, mostly from New York, perform pieces ranging from his teenage years (around 1900) to the late 1960s. No tickets are needed, but line up early and try not to stay all day. Others want to get in.

Met Chamber Ensemble

March 19 and April 23

Zankel Hall at Carnegie, 57th & Seventh Ave, 212-247-7800

On March 19, virtuosos from the Metropolitan Opera’s unexcelled orchestra play chamber music by Elliott Carter, Berg, Webern, and Beethoven, plus Felix Greissle’s chamber ensemble reduction of Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, op. 16. On April 23 soprano Jennifer Welch-Babidge sings once again the Carter’s Elizabeth Bishop cycle, A Mirror on Which to Dwell, and the players do Brahms and Dutilleux. James Levine conducts when necessary.

Charles Rosen

March 19 and April 23

92nd Street Y, 1395 Lexington Ave, 212-415-5500

The versatile pianist and unchallengeable scholar combines lectures and recitals concerned with Mozart’s influence on Beethoven (March 19) and Chopin, Schubert, and Liszt (April 23). Landmark masterpieces will abound.

‘Don Pasquale’

March 31 and April 3, 7, 11, 15, 21, 25, and 28

Metropolitan Opera House, Columbus Ave & 64th, 212-362-6000

A brand-new staging by the often theatrically resourceful Otto Schenk brings Donizetti’s warm, witty, tuneful opera back to the Met after a 26-year absence. James Levine conducts in a rare return to comic bel canto, which he does perfectly, and the cast features the much improved Simone Alaimo, the glamorous Anna Netrebko and the virtuosic Juan Diego Flórez.

‘St. Matthew Passion’

April 8–9, 11–12, and 14–15

BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton St, Bklyn; BAM Rose Cinemas, 30 Lafayette Ave, Bklyn, 718-636-4100

Jonathan Miller’s no-frills, English-language, casual-dress, fiercely emotional staging of Bach’s supreme oratorio, arguably the greatest opera ever written, returns to Brooklyn for the third time. Baroque expert Paul Goodwin conducts, and the strong cast is headed by the extraordinary tenor Rufus M as the Evangelist. Miller talks about it on April 11 at BAM Rose Cinemas.

Shostakovich Centennial

April 9–May 14

Avery Fisher Hall, Columbus Ave & 64th; Alice Tully Hall, Bway & 65th, 212-721-6500

Among earlier and later events (next season) the 100th birthday of the great, late composer is saluted in New York by the following: On April 9 at Fisher Hall, Valery Gergiev conducts the Rotterdam Philharmonic in the rarely heard Symphony no. 3 (with two choruses) and the wild Symphony no. 4 and, on April 10, Symphonies no. 5 and 15. From April 19 through 22 Mstislav Rostropovich conducts the New York Philharmonic at Fisher Hall in his friend’s Violin Concerto no. 1 (soloist: the superb Maxim Vengerov) and the powerful Symphony no. 10. The often amazing Emerson String Quartet plays all 15 quartets in chronological order, with tragedies accumulating, over the course of five concerts on April 27 and 30, May 4, 11, and 14 in Tully Hall.


April 17, 20, 24, and 29 and May 3 and 6

Metropolitan Opera House, Columbus Ave & 64th, 212-362-6000

Robert Wilson’s monumental yet graceful and luminescent production of Wagner’s romantic fable returns with James Levine conducting, in magnificent style, a superb cast and his world-beating orchestra and chorus.

‘Miss Lonelyhearts’

April 26, 28, and 30, Sharp Theater,

Juilliard School, 155 W 65th, 212-769-7406

Lowell Liebermann’s opera, commissioned to celebrate Juilliard’s centennial, has a conservative but often vocally virtuosic, appropriately pop-flavored score and a well-made libretto by the currently very productive J.D. McClatchy based on Nathanael West’s grim novel about a newspaper columnist’s tragedy. There is a fair amount of sex and violence, so don’t bring the kids.