‘Pelléas’ Returns: The Week in Classical Music | Modern Society of USA

‘Pelléas’ Returns: The Week in Classical Music

‘Pelléas’ Returns: The Week in Classical Music

[Read all of our classical music coverage here.]

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

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.”

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

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