Posts for:  March 2010

The Price of a Star

Natalie Dessay

Natalie Dessay

Back in September, my husband called with the breaking news that Dr. V. B. was selling her Metropolitan Opera tickets and we had to let her know by tomorrow what we wanted. “I’ll get right on it,” I said, knowing the tickets would be snapped up if we dawdled. We were lucky enough to make Dr. V.B.’s call list last year. She has prime seats to a Saturday matinee subscription to the Met. It doesn’t matter that she lives in Philly: she will hold onto these prized tickets and perhaps one day bequeath them to her heirs. In the meantime, she attends the shows she wants and finds eager buyers for the rest.

Tom and I chose the March 27, 2010 production, even though we’d never heard of the opera nor its composer. (Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas. Was it a modern opera?) We were confident of a fantastic musical experience, however, because we trusted the power of the leading soprano, Natalie Dessay.

We’d lucked into seeing/hearing Dessay and her equally compelling co-star, Juan Diego Flores, last year, in Bellini’s La Sonnambula, a considerably more famous opera, of interest especially to me because Bellini was a great influence on Chopin. Hands down, it was one of the most unbelievable and memorable performances we had ever seen. How was it humanly possible for two people to sing, move, and act with the fireworks, precision, and emotional intensity of these two stars? Dessay especially had us on the edge of our seats – we wept for this lovely sleepwalker. Her enormous grief was our grief, her great joy our joy.

So when we heard a few weeks ago that Dessay had cancelled due to an unspecified injury, we almost thought about canceling ourselves. But we decided to give the stand-in Ophélie, who’d given an impressive profile on NPR, a fair shake, and hiked up to New York for the production.


There was nothing wrong with the production. The singing was professional and pleasing in tone, the acting (except for Jennifer Larmore’s fiery Gertrude) correct but restrained. Not taken away by the action on stage, we had a chance to appreciate the orchestra’s perfect intonation, the virtuosity of the wind solos, the sweet sound of the string section, under conductor Louis Langrée. I enjoyed sitting next to my husband for three hours, even when he dozed a bit.

Oh, but what we missed.

Walking toward the exit after the last curtain call, we chatted with a young woman and her attractive grandmother. The grandmother told us, “I’m a Dessay groupie. We fly everywhere to see her. We heard her in Santa Fe, we’ve been to Europe to hear her. The granddaughter said, “She’s neursasthenic. There’s something that gets into your own nervous system and soul when she sings.”

That’s what we, as audience members are hoping for at the Met. Natalie Dessay, who risks all, perhaps even her own health, has set the bar. Without singers who “get into your nervous system and soul,” people like Dr. V.B. won’t be holding onto her subscription like gold, people like my husband and me won’t be turning ourselves inside out to get there when offered the chance. The hawkers on the plaza at Lincoln Center shouting, “Only $25 for today’s show,” will, lamentably, do a brisker business.

I think a true star is worth any price.

Charm o’ the Irish

Irish Pianist John O'Conor

Irish Pianist John O'Conor

On St. Patrick’s Day, I like to wear green and toast the Irish. Who can resist a culture that has produced writers like James Joyce, Frank O’Connor, William Trevor and Edna O’Brien, as well as such musical icons as the Chieftains, and Danny Boy? Let me now add to that list the pianist John O’Conor, whom I heard the day after St. Paddy’s, at the Philosophical Society near Independence Hall, in another stellar concert presented by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society.

Let me first say that Mr. O’Conor defied my visual expectations. The recording that I associate most with him, of John Field’s Nocturnes, demonstrates the utmost in delicacy and grace. Thus I expected a rather wispy person to float from the wings up to the piano. But no. Mr. O’Conor is a substantially built man with a jolly smile who looks like he could captain a rugby team or break up a brawl in South Philly.

The sound that he produces at the keyboard can be, not surprisingly, gargantuan. But what made this performance unique was the way it breathed with life. His interpretations of Haydn, of, yes, John Field, Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 110 and the monumental late C minor Schubert Sonata were intensely personal, while clearly delineating the harmonic surprises and the melodic flourishes of each piece. Occasionally his rubati at the ends of phrases, especially in the Haydn and Beethoven, were a bit too prolonged for cohesion, and sometimes I wished for a more subtle gradation of his fortissimos, but these were minor points in an otherwise exhilarating performance.

A few guys in the audience wore full Irish regalia that evening: kilts, knee socks, and fur sporrans at their waists. Several women could not hold back their enthusiasm, and bobbed back and forth in time to the music. Mr. O’Conor rewarded the audience with two encores, both Nocturnes: the famous Chopin E-Flat, and a rarely-heard jewel of a piece, the Scriabin Nocturne in D-Flat for left hand. The Steinway onstage was lush and warm throughout the program, but especially in this last piece.

They say Koreans are the Irish of Asia. If that means I’m a wee bit like John O’Conor, I’ll raise a glass to that.

A sporran

A sporran

Brahms and Healing

Justine Lamb-Budge and Kimberly Fisher

Justine Lamb-Budge and Kimberly Fisher

For young musicians, being accepted to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia is like winning a golden ticket; it’s a world-renowned school of music, and all study tuition-free. Two years ago I was thrilled to learn that one of my daughter Alysa’s nicest friends, Justine Lamb-Budge, had been accepted there at the ripe old age of seventeen.

When she was just fifteen, Justine gave a recital that would have felled many a professional performer -– I believe on that single program I heard her perform two full-length sonatas, some virtuoso showpieces, as well as a Mozart Concerto and a romantic one, all of which she played flawlessly from memory. Her teacher, Kimberly Fisher, had been working with her for countless hours a week in a manner reminiscent of the great teachers of the 19th century, who live and breathe their art every minute of the day.

Justine and Kim were rewarded for their hard work when Justine was accepted to the Curtis Institute, a major coup for any student and teacher. That same week, Justine’s older sister, just eighteen, tragically died.

After Zoe’s memorial service, I lost touch with Justine and her family. They had to move several times, and I wasn’t able to reach them. I heard through the grapevine that Justine was doing well, though, and was glad to receive a note sent out a few weeks ago by her mother Deborah, inviting friends to hear Justine perform the Brahms Violin Concerto on a student recital two weeks ago.

The Curtis Institute appears low-tech –- it is housed in a dark old Victorian mansion near Rittenhouse Square, and the concert space is quaint and charming. But there is nothing quaint about what pours from the stage. That night four student violinists were featured on the program; I heard a remarkable Bach Sonata played by Yiying Julia Li, the unusual Ysaye E Major Sonata played by Ji-Won Song, and a lovely Ravel Sonata performed by Maia Cabeza.

The entire second half of the program was carried by Justine. It was a joy for me to hear her in this historic space, surrounded by friends and loved ones and fans. She brought to her maiden performance of Brahms’ only Violin Concerto the sweetness and richness of tone she has always had, as well as the strength of will that it takes not only to play this piece but to persevere, despite the most daunting of circumstances.

I hope this will be but one triumph in a long and meaningful career.