When the Going Was Good
“But, of course, he’s no Pavarotti.” That was Thomas Wachtell in 1984, head of a bygone organization called Music Center Opera, discussing Plácido Domingo and defending the company’s decision — which I had deplored — to cancel the annual visits by the New York City Opera and pooh-poohing the recent guest shot by London’s Royal Opera in which Domingo had sung the lead in Turandot. “That’s a minor role,” said Mr. Wachtell, who also found occasion on the same KUSC interview to inform the listening world that “Alan Rich has the integrity of a cockroach.”
The Pavarotti of Tom Wachtell’s imagining was a symbol, already both more and less than the magnificently gifted and (yes!) artistically responsible musician whose New York debut (Rodolfo in La Bohème, with Mirella Freni, November ’68) I heard with delight as critic for the fledgling New York magazine. There was intelligence in the way Pavarotti knew how to shape, and to shade, the curve of an Italian lyric line, and there are recordings to bear this out.
The Nemorino he creates in the 1973 L’Elisir d’Amore (London/Decca) is more than the rural booby of most productions. The “furtive tear” he describes is partly his own, and he sings for every lover whose crucial words have failed him. Add to that the confrontational fury in the banquet scene in his Lucia di Lammermoor of the year before (same label) and you have a supremely capable, musicianly tenor, with a voice of melting purity and a fine sense of how to direct that voice in the cause of high drama. Add to that Pavarotti’s remarkable sensitivity toward words — rare in opera singers of any stripe, almost nonexistent among Italian tenors — and you have the complete artist Pavarotti once was and could have remained. I love his singing of the word “primavera” in the so-called “Cherry Duet” in Mascagni’s L’Amico Fritz, a slight, pastoral opera that he and Freni render irresistible on a two-disc 1969 EMI set; it simply pulls “springtime” right into the room.
Yes, Giorgio (1982) began the downward slope. The film was not only a disaster; it was a typical exploitational disaster: a celebrity pasted into a cornball script. Herbert Breslin was the producer, not quite the most disliked of all front men in New York’s classical-music world — let’s leave it at that. Breslin then went on to produce Pavarotti himself, not so much as a valued member of an opera company with a distinguished repertory and a growing intelligence toward the care and feeding of that superb but inevitably fragile voice and artistic conscience, but as a moneymaker willing to submit to the needs of the musical chop shop that builds the “Three Tenors” repertory and similar kibble.
Perhaps Pavarotti would have slanted his career toward the cheap side by himself; he wasn’t given the chance. His last opera appearances constitute a study in pathetic overreach. His last time here, a concert at Staples Center with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, was full of bravery and full of music that, even through the strident amplification system, now and then sounded like Pavarotti. That’s all you could ask for — that, and the memories.
Alex Ross’ The Rest Is Noise will be published next month; the Aaron Copland chapter was sneak-previewed in a recent New Yorker. Let me reiterate: This will be the best book on what music is about — really about — that you or I will ever own. This last week of classical concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, with Leonard Slatkin rounding out his three-year stint as principal guest conductor, was also full of Copland and other serious matters; strange, how closing weeks every year seem to offer the season’s most substantial programming.
Copland’s Third Symphony, the final work, was begun in 1944. It starts tough: quite a lot of grinding dissonance and heavy scoring, almost as if to compensate for the lighter scoring and the sweet harmonies of Appalachian Spring of the year before. The Ross chapter makes a lot of Copland’s closeness to the Soviet composers, and it’s possible to hear in his first movement some of the harmonic restlessness in the Shostakovich Fifth, which was new and much discussed at the time. (Ross goes on to discuss a composers’ meeting — or, let’s say, collision — when a delegation of Soviets, including Shostakovich, came to New York.) As with its Soviet maybe-counterpart, the Copland symphony culminates in a flag-waving finale, which incorporates his previous Fanfare for the Common Man. I think I prefer Appalachian Spring.
That work of high enchantment, in fact, began the program two days before — not in the feather-light original version for 13 instruments, alas, which would probably have blown away in the Bowl’s breezes — but in the somewhat too resonant full orchestration; oh, well. Edgar Meyer was on hand, with the first of his bright and bouncy double-bass concertos, which he plays with huge displays of having the world’s best time. Both his concertos show off their composer’s diverse musical backgrounds: lovely, cantabile slow movements right out of 19th-century romanticism, great larrupin’ finales right up there with Mister Copland and some fairly awesome finger-snappin’. There was a whole encore of that too; its name was “Pickle.”
Gunther Schuller’s Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee continued the Tuesday program, delightful, small coloristic pieces with the inspiring visuals shown on the video screens; Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue ended it, in a tentative, stumbling performance by Michel Camilo. Thursday’s crowning glory was the return of the too-long-away cellist Lynn Harrell, drawing audible poetry from the wondrous Dvorák Concerto, music the color of the oncoming twilight, with Eric Overholt’s horn solos the shape of the surrounding hills. That’s what you take home from the Hollywood Bowl, as from no place else on Earth.