Well, after 50 years and more in New York, I have heard the fat lady sing, and I know what that means. There have been some issues as the decades have zipped by, I must say; and I have dealt with the problems seriatim—riots, street crime, altercations, the murder of an elderly benefactor, and other misfortunes, as are the common lot.
There were other problems, such as the inflation of prices, as well as an odd sort of equity between corporate sports and the Metropolitan Opera. The facts are not so easy to come by—sometimes the old or new Met is a good deal compared with the Yankees; but basically, it’s pricey, and not just the fee for a seat. You have to add the refreshments, and the booze at an event is worse than the popcorn at a multiplex concession stand, which is saying quite a bit, actually. The challenge of financing blue-chip musical access and vintage champagne at the same time is a bristling one, but it can be addressed and even surmounted, as I have proved and will eventually relate. So don’t rush me, because I am overwhelmed by fond memories.
Scrolling back through so many musical recollections and shameful insults to the taste buds of inferior sham pains (Korbel, how I despise you, and Freixenet, you as well!), my teeming cerebellum is filled with analog images, not digitalized pixels. My first operatic experience was not only Rigoletto from the Met on tour, but that with Anna Moffo and Cornell MacNeill! I was spoiled from the get-go, for there was somehow the assumption that sopranos usually looked like La Moffo and sang as beautifully, and that a world-class American Verdi baritone was only to be expected. There was no thought of champagne that night or even of prosecco or Asti Spumante—it would have been illegal anyway, at my age. But I wasn’t too young to have entertained impertinent thoughts about Anna, and quite justifiably so—Cornell, not so much. Maybe it was just the whole hunchback thing.
Now skipping over my next operatic experience at the Old Met in NYC before Lincoln Center, I can rush on to a wretched champagne experience not at the New Met but next door at the City Opera, where I beheld Patricia Brooks and beheard José Carreras in La Traviata. At the time, José was the new kid on the block, and after the second act, imbibing miserable glasses of faux champagne, two friends and I affirmed the certainty that José would be at the Met soon (we were proved right), and the uncertainty that Patricia might like being transported across state lines for immoral purposes. (We never found out.) But as the years went by, Patricia Brooks and José Carreras went through vicissitudes and even tragedies that were operatic in a chastening sense. There seemed to be the implication that charismatic gifts are subject to punishment, but that was not the only lesson. Another was that operas are the best musical experiences for several reasons, and one is that there are more champagne opportunities than there are in instrumental concerts, which rarely have one, and usually none. But at Tanglewood, you can arrange whatever.
I am reminded of a favorite item of operatic lore—a legend, yes, but I think it is true, though I cannot verify that. The story goes that once Montserrat Caballé, whose voice was both instantly recognizable and a sumptuous experience to be savored, gave a song recital at the Macon City Auditorium. After the usual success, a gushing matron appeared in the green room to congratulate the artist. The lady asked, “Madame Caballé—tell me, where do you sing next?”
“I go to Miami for The Pearl Fishers,” declared the Diva.
“No, honey,” replied the lady. “That’s in Tarpon Springs.”
Such an artist is her own legend, and I have heard and seen some legends, Caballé included. Fifty-six years ago, I heard Mischa Elman play the Mendelssohn violin concerto, and I must point out that he was a phenomenon before World War I. The same can be said of Benno Moiseiwitsch, though he played a different concerto—Beethoven’s “Emperor”—on a different instrument, when I had the good fortune to listen. There were a lot of pianists for me to enjoy. Guiomar Novaes was one, an admirable lady of the old school—a superior pianist. Also from the old days and also masterly were Vladimir Horowitz and Claudio Arrau, and I remember their recitals in their particulars—no champagne either time.
Earl Wild was a pianist I particularly enjoyed and followed because of his engagement with “the Romantic Revival.” Mr. Wild was an amusing man and a great player of pieces like the eighth of Liszt’s Transcendental Études, the “Wilde Jagd” and various obscurities—the entire repertory as well. I heard Jeanne-Marie Darré play both Liszt concerti, and Hans Richter-Haaser the Brahms second concerto, and Van Cliburn the Rachmaninov Third. I heard Alfred Mouledous when he was young, and Ivan Davis as well—on that occasion, he struggled, but not always. Charles Rosen I heard twice—he was quite impressive on both occasions, and on both played the Davidsbündlertänze of Schumann. A good piano recital can be very satisfying—it is a lot from one person. Probably the most outrageous thing I ever heard on the piano in public was the Concerto for Solo Piano by Alkan, performed by Marc-André Hamelin. I could hardly believe it, even without champagne.
Of violinists who had a commanding quality, I remember Ruggiero Ricci, who had a revivalist bent like Wild and an aggressive attitude. I remember the disturbed and brilliantly gifted Michael Rabin, who died young. Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg played Mendelssohn with a big sound, like Elman himself. Maxim Vengerov was so annoying that I left the hall at the intermission, for the only time in my life, giving my ticket stub to a lady who, though unknown, deserved better.
Singers, of course, are mostly heard in the opera house. But I remember also Carlo Bergonzi in recital, singing a big program and acting some songs out—a superior artist. On another occasion, I heard Bergonzi in a concert version of Il Corsaro; and at another concert presentation, I heard the superb Renato Bruson in I due Foscari. I heard George London and Risë Stevens a long time ago—they were very much at home on the stage as recitalists. More recently, there were other names, such as Nicolai Gedda and Mirella Freni in L’elisir d’amore in the Old Met, and Renata Scotto in I vespri siciliani in the new one. I liked Samuel Ramey as Attila very much, as who did not? More recently, I was more than impressed by the now retired Natalie Dessay and by Marcello Giordano.
I could hardly have followed the music in New York without Leonard Bernstein, and when he was in the vein, he was almost as good as he thought he was—but always better on television. William Steinberg and Erich Leinsdorf were impeccable professionals who got results in Pittsburgh and Boston, though I saw them elsewhere. One of the best orchestral expositions I ever heard was at Tanglewood, conducted by Josef Krips—a perfect program of Haydn, Richard Strauss, and Schubert, and I was sober at the time.
Carlo Maria Giulini was quite the man in his maturity, respected and even revered; and his Beethoven Ninth and Bruckner Ninth I will not forget. A person of very different character, though, was in charge of the most uncanny orchestral presentation I ever heard. Herbert von Karajan, or what was left of him, had to be carried onstage like, or even as, a twisted mannequin. The Vienna Philharmonic literally doubled in brass and played from memory the Bruckner Eighth Symphony. The monumentality of that sound was perhaps muffled not much later, when I heard that the estate of the maestro was worth $500 million. Now those are some values—but were they musical ones?
So after many years of experience in various concert halls and operatic venues, I can say that the cheap seats of yesteryear were all right, particularly in Carnegie Hall. I do remember attending a recital by Ivo Pogorelich from posh box seats, and the sound was not so much better, if it was better at all. I could see more Ivo, which was nice.
But disregarding such matters, I have also learned as the years have flown by on wings of song that there is a way to obtain those pricey tickets and access to serious champers as well. First, you have to understand that though there is a certain sort of female who is definitely the concertizing and opera-going type, yet she has particular requirements if her husband has shuffled off this buffalo coil. She wants to attend the musical offering dressed properly, with a diamond ring here and a strand of pearls there, and escorted by a male who is also properly turned out. She does not want to look like a desperate and lonely woman who has lost her man. She is in need of escort service, and she has the moolah to spare.
At this point of converging interests, an unmistakable opportunity beckons. I need hardly say more, except to caution my attentive readers about one inviolable precept. Never but never suggest to such a lady, “Another touch of the bubbly?” without having first peered into those somewhat dimmed eyes and firmly declared, “You were never lovelier!” When this formula is invoked, splendid results follow—Veuve Clicquot at least, better Taittinger, maybe even Krug, you name it. You will have the Weib and the Gesang, but not without the Wein—and at the crucial temperature.
That is what I call a complete concertgoing experience, and it is worth all the trouble it takes, I assure you. With some practice, you might even be able to combine a matinee performance with an evening at the opera, as cavalier to two distinct and different dames on the lookout for proper escort service and the effervescent refreshments that are always correct. Even at Lincoln Center, some traditional practices and forms known in Vienna and Paris so many years ago still survive because they serve understandable human needs. The need for musical engagement is only one of them.