Magazine | December 21, 2009, Issue

Music: Three on Parade

Musical personalities continually parade through New York, and we will look in on three of them: three personalities who recently paraded through. The first of them is a trip and a half: Aprile Millo, the American soprano. She is an old-fashioned diva, or at least she plays at being one. She is like a cartoonist’s version of an opera soprano: grand, imperious, plump. She seems perpetually on the verge of crisis, just a moment away from breaking down, if she is not actually doing so. She is one of the great cancelers in the history of music. And emotional neediness is apparent.

There is this fact, too: Millo is a splendid soprano, when she has control of herself, especially in Verdi. And she boasts a sound all her own: large, darkish, and sometimes thrilling.

She is not one to give a recital, being a real opera creature. But she gave one, sort of, at the Rose Theater, which is in the Home of Jazz at Lincoln Center, which is not quite at Lincoln Center, but never mind. This was her New York recital debut, although she is a veteran: aged 51. I say it was “sort of” a recital, because, before she ever sang, she denied to the audience that she was engaged in a recital. She said she preferred to think of it as a “party,” to which we were all invited, and the theater was her “living room.”

It was a variety show, in a way. It had dancing. It had special guests, including Lynn Harrell, the cellist (whose late father, Mack, was a distinguished baritone). At one point, Millo introduced an audience member: Licia Albanese, who is really a veteran soprano, aged 96. In between her songs and arias, Millo cracked wise, and often hilariously, à la Bette Midler. For example, she used sheet music for some lieder. And, putting on her glasses, she said, “Critics always chide me for using music, but, trust me, my German is even worse without it.” Throughout the evening, there were emotional pronouncements, as Millo would “dedicate” a song to a particular person, usually departed.

She has almost a cult following, people who scream and stand for her on her entrance. Is it all right to say that the Friends of Dorothy are also the Friends of Aprile? I mean zero judgment — certainly not a negative one — in this remark: It is simple reporting.

So, how did she sing? She was very nervous — as she admitted to the audience — especially at the beginning. But she warmed up and calmed down. Her voice is weaker and more tremulous than it was. But it is still an extraordinary voice, and she knows what to do with it. She has an innate musicality, which allows her to put over a song — although this musicality deserted her in those lieder, particularly in Brahms’s “Von ewiger Liebe,” which was disjointed.

Frankly, it is hard to judge Aprile Millo in conventional terms. She is a performer apart, with significant talent and that outsize, outlandish personality. A keen observer of the scene, attending the “party,” said something that struck me as right: “It’s a shame that Aprile feels she has to play the diva. She is one, naturally.”

Pierre-Laurent Aimard is a much different cat. He is a French pianist, born in 1957, known as a brain. He is a critic’s darling, mainly because he has devoted much of his career to championing contemporary music. And, to critics, championing contemporary music is next to godliness. Aimard was a founding member of Pierre Boulez’s Ensemble Intercontemporain. That is an extremely proud credential. In some ways, Aimard is the embodiment of PC in music.

Nonetheless, he has genuine gifts. He showed some of them at a recital in Alice Tully Hall, recently refurbished, and definitely at Lincoln Center. He emerged in that solid-black Mao shirt that has become standard apparel for concert artists. No tails or tuxes, please, we’re all proles now. And he opened his program with a rarely played sonata of Mozart: that in D major, K. 284.

On balance, Aimard is a good Mozartean. He plays cleanly and phrases thoughtfully. Some passagework was ungainly, however, and Aimard tends to overdo punchiness. Also, he suffers some tightness of arms, which gets in the way of lyricism. Furthermore, there is something strangely — sometimes arrestingly — clinical about his playing: as though he were examining the music under a microscope.

After Mozart came a work by a friend of Aimard’s, George Benjamin, an Englishman born in 1960. This was Piano Figures, a set of ten small pieces, or micro-pieces, with such names as “Spell,” “Knots,” and “Mosaic.” They are dissonantly melodic, and they are little impressions. Though they did not leave much of an impression on me, they are intelligently crafted. Aimard interpreted them well, too, although it should be possible to accent without jabbing as much as this pianist was.

I might sound, too, a recurring complaint of mine: that performers too seldom memorize contemporary pieces, and might do those pieces the favor of memorizing them (as we do Mozart, for example). Aimard had sheet music and a page turner (also in black Mao shirt).

To begin the second half of the program, we had Klavierstück IX by the late Karlheinz Stockhausen, that “iconoclast,” to use one of the nicest words applied to him. Before playing the piece, Aimard gave a little speech about it. Should music really need special pleading of this sort? In any case, Aimard played the piece — sort of an experiment in sound effects — with total dedication and conviction, which is the only way to play this music (and practically any music, really).

Just the other week, I was reviewing a recording of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. And I was saying that we hardly ever hear this masterpiece in recital — likewise Beethoven’s “Eroica” Variations and C-minor Variations. As though to fulfill a wish, Aimard closed his program with the “Eroica” Variations. And he did them justice, if sometimes rough justice. In all candor, you need a speck more technique than Aimard has to bring this work off with real panache. But the pianist’s heart was in the right place, and his fingers mainly were too.

Then he offered a little encore — a Webern piece for children, at the end of which someone’s cellphone bleeped (text?). Aimard scowled into the audience, and — relaxed as I usually am about these mishaps — I couldn’t blame him.

Third of our personalities is Alisa Weilerstein, an American cellist. She is only 27 — but she has been formidable for years. She began well, being the daughter of two respected musicians and teachers: Donald Weilerstein, a violinist, and Vivian Hornik Weilerstein, a pianist. Parents and daughter form the Weilerstein Trio (natch). Alisa has given several memorable performances in New York. In the 2006–07 season, she played the Elgar Cello Concerto with the New York Philharmonic, under Zubin Mehta. Some of us are still shaking our heads about that: the power, the soulfulness, the mastery.

And just recently, she gave three performances at Columbia University, her alma mater. (She graduated with a B.A. in Russian history.) These performances took place in the Philosophy Hall, and they took place on three consecutive noon hours. At each session, Weilerstein played one Bach cello suite. Bach wrote six of these, and Weilerstein played the first three. The suites form the heart, or the foundation, of the cello repertory. Indeed, it is worth playing the cello for these suites alone. All the noteworthy cellists since Casals have played them, and all have regarded the suites with reverence. Rostropovich played them all his life, but he waited until his sixties to record them.

I heard Weilerstein on her first noon hour, when she played the Suite No. 1 in G. She makes an excellent sound, either bright or dark, glowing or growling, depending on the musical need. You could argue with some of her interpretive choices (as you could argue with some of most anybody’s): Weilerstein went in for some pauses or hesitations that I found questionable, but they were still defensible choices. Her ornamentation tended to be just right: not too showy, not too shy. And she understood the suite as a whole, unifying its six movements.

Mainly, she played with a great and obvious love of music — of this music and music in general. I have mentioned the reverence with which cellists regard these suites. It is important to treat them reverently but without fear — without too much awe. They are to be enjoyed, tucked into, plumbed. This, Weilerstein did with the Suite No. 1.

Let it be known that her technique was not immaculate on this occasion — far from it. I have never heard her so technically shaky. She emitted many squeaks, including one horrendous, sustained one in the Sarabande. But it did not especially matter: because Weilerstein’s basic musicality carried the day. I was reminded that Horowitz used to miss notes in Clementi, which either astonished or reassured twelve-year-olds in the hall. And it pays to be reminded that life — real, in-the-flesh musical life — is not a studio recording.

A quick footnote about Weilerstein: She is a face-maker, when she plays, and usually this type of musician is no good. Weilerstein is an exception, and a big one.

In music, as in other fields, greatness can out early. When the violinist Hilary Hahn was in her teens — she just turned 30 — many of us said, “She is first-rate now. Not precocious, not impressive, not promising — first-rate, period.” In the past year or so, Yuja Wang, a Chinese pianist, has come on the scene. She is 22 and already commanding. And then there are two cellists, both born in 1982 — Han-Na Chang, a Korean American, and Weilerstein. They are glorious 27-year-olds, but they were also glorious years ago. When you got it, why wait?

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