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Happy Friday! Call this the Week of the Critic’s Pick, our positive distinction for reviews that reviewers want to flag for you: the reader, the listener, the concertgoer. We’ve had many in recent days:
Also receiving a Critic’s Pick this week was the premiere of Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande” at the Metropolitan Opera — where it is back for an agonizingly brief run, through Jan. 31.
In the pit for “Pelléas” is Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Met’s new music director — and an openly gay maestro whose appointment signifies a turning point in New York culture. As Zachary Woolfe writes in this revealing (and often touching) profile:
While culture — particularly high culture — is indelibly associated with gay tastemakers, audiences and creators, it’s a sign of how outmoded our conception of authority is that remarkably few major performing arts leaders have been openly gay. In classical music and opera, even New York, the city that gave rise to the modern gay rights movement with the Stonewall riots 50 years ago this June, has been dominated since then by two conductors: Leonard Bernstein and James Levine, who both kept sexual relationships with men hidden.
What matters most, of course, is Mr. Nézet-Séguin’s artistry. And I’m happy to report that his conducting in “Pelléas” on Tuesday was brilliant. Teasing out inner, deep voices, he made a rich score even richer — and inherently more Wagnerian, though you won’t hear any objection from me on that front. (I’d be remiss to not also mention the bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen, a commanding and compelling Golaud.) Enjoy this clip of Mr. Nézet-Séguin leading the ominous opening bars of the opera. JOSHUA BARONE
When Columbia Records originally produced its “Black Composers Series” — a nine-LP set, released between 1974 and ’78 — some reviews gently pondered the question of why such a collection might be necessary in the first place.
More than four decades later, the failure of mainstream classical music programming to incorporate works by composers of color has not changed drastically for the better. All of which makes Sony’s reissue of the full “Black Composers Series,” on CD and digital platforms this month, a welcome development.
The repertoire of the series included works by the 18th-century composer Joseph Bologne — a.k.a. the Chevalier de Saint-George — as well as then-contemporary pieces by artists like Hale Smith. The albums in Columbia’s series contained some smart sequencing, too (often pairing a composer’s best known works with comparative rarities). The LP dedicated to Mr. Bologne contains a compelling fragment from his opera “Ernestine.”
A stretch of one LP devoted to William Grant Still kicks off with his Symphony No. 1 (which the Los Angeles Philharmonic is scheduled to play, next month, as part of a Harlem Renaissance festival). But the album also includes two arias from “Highway 1, U.S.A.,” Mr. Still’s rarely heard opera. Here, alongside the conductor Paul Freeman and the London Symphony Orchestra, tenor William Brown delivered a suitably dramatic version of “What Does He Know of Dreams?,” an aria for the opera’s stingingly arrogant villain. (What would it have sounded like if these artists had been given a budget to record the entire work? The mind reels.)
Cutting-edge trends were also emphasized, on these Columbia albums. In particular, Olly Wilson’s “Akwan” — for piano, electric piano, amplified strings, and orchestra — proved a worthy addition to the madcap-modernist American catalog.
And Ulysses Kay’s symphonic work “Markings” gleefully tears through a succession of textures, in its opening minutes: exploding with some percussive polyphony, before settling into some droning tones and more brooding themes.
One of the most rewarding albums in Columbia’s series was split between works by three composers — including Adolphus Hailstork (who is still active, with a new commission set to debut at the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s series in February). The punchy finale of George Walker’s Piano Concerto, from that same album, gives a sense of the richness that Columbia’s series made available to a wider audience.
Encountering the “Black Composers Series” anew, at this remove, can also feel a bit depressing — given these recordings’ implicit reminder of what’s still not being performed more widely, today. Though the documentation they provide remains enticing, on its own terms. SETH COLTER WALLS
Two of the most moving depictions of aging kings in opera come in quite different works: Philip II in Verdi’s “Don Carlo” and Arkel in Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande.”
The great Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto has long been acclaimed as Verdi’s Philip, a monarch who, in a peacemaking political maneuver, marries the young French princess intended for his son and heir, Carlo. But this rash act reveals Philip as a hobbled and isolated leader threatened by his dreamy, idealistic son.
In the Metropolitan Opera’s 2010 production, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Mr. Furlanetto brought grave authority touched with unbearable anguish to the profound Act IV aria “Ella giammai m’amo,” when Philip grieves over his loneliness as an unloved husband and as a king.
Here he is singing the aria at the Met. And now, at 69, Mr. Furlanetto, working again with Mr. Nézet-Séguin, is magnificent as Debussy’s Arkel, the leader of a sullen, troubled royal family. Though nearly-blind, this king sees clearly that we are all controlled by fates we can only guess at. The haunting “Pelléas,” a revival of Jonathan Miller’s production, is a highlight of this season. ANTHONY TOMMASINI