Vermeer, Music Offered In A Citadel Of Culture: Vermeer Was Flawless

A scene from the Dutch National Opera production of Dvořák’s ‘Rusalka.’ (Photo by Clärchen and Matthias Baus)

AMSTERDAM — Just to the south of the scenic semicircle of canals that form the 17th-century core of “Golden Age” Amsterdam lies the sprawling green known as the Museumplein, home to the Concertgebouw at the near end and the Rijksmuseum at the far end. In early June, an artistically inclined traveler could have chosen no more inviting destination. We’ll get to the musical offerings, but first, a few words about Vermeer, no subtitle to gild the lily, a show boasting 28 of the 35 accepted canvases of the beloved but far from prolific Old Master and art dealer of nearby Delft.

Never before have so many been assembled in one place at one time. For “enrichment,” there were concise wall texts — no preparatory sketches (there are none), no attempt to fill in his biography (which is sketchy in the extreme), no works of his contemporaries. The initially offered 450,000 timed tickets available through the final date of June 4 sold out in four days. Viewing hours extended to 2 a.m. could not begin to satisfy the demand.

In the galleries, a music lover could savor images of ladies posed with flute in hand or at a keyboard, as well as the more intriguing Young Woman With a Lute (on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art), which lets us see the sitter’s concentration as she tunes her instrument with a critical ear. But beyond the Rijksmuseum walls, there was also lots to listen to.

On June 1, at the Concertgebouw, Andris Nelsons led the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in a program of major Beethoven in minor keys, with the Chinese superstar Lang Lang on hand as soloist in the Third Piano Concerto. On June 2, Joana Mallwitz conducted the Concertgebouw Orchestra in a new production of Dvořák’s Little Mermaid fantasy Rusalka at the Dutch National Opera and Ballet. And on June 3, back at the Concertgebouw, the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and the Netherlands Radio Choir shone in a concert performance of The Death of Klinghoffer, presided over by its composer, John Adams.

My only previous visit to the Concertgebouw dates to April 11, 1988, when Bernard Haitink observed the institution’s centennial with Mahler’s heaven-storming Eighth, the so-called “Symphony of a Thousand,” in the presence of Queen Beatrix and Prince Claus. Yes, the evening blew me away — all the more since I had never heard the score in live performance before. 

The Concertgebouw

With the Coriolan Overture, Nelsons and his sizable instrumental cohort (Mahler Chamber Orchestra? I counted some 60 players) instantly refreshed long-dimmed memories of the Concertgebouw’s fabled acoustics. Beethoven launches on the long-held, naked note of C, flung out fortissimo by the massed strings, cut short by a tutti of startling dissonance. The gesture stings like a slap to the face dealt by an iron hand, repeats twice, and then yields to a swift volley of chords that land us in the home key of grim C minor.

Here within moments was sound as drama. The music evoked ancient Rome in the harshness of an Iron Age. In eight brief minutes, we heard colors that smoldered from within, with tangy lower woodwinds and a flute that traced its lines in liquid silver. Trumpets pierced like arrows, horns growled like distant thunder. The fierce energy of the double basses set the ribcage humming. Lyric episodes from the higher strings intervened only to be swept aside.

Alas, the main events could not match excitement of this curtain raiser. For all of Nelsons’ diligence, Lang Lang’s discreet showing in Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto remained entirely on the surface. Predictably, the pianist came through with imperturbable technique. As his lifelong preoccupation with the Bach of the Goldberg Variations along with his occasional explorations of Mozart concertos under Nikolaus Harnoncourt and study of towering Beethoven’s sonatas with Daniel Barenboim attest, Lang Lang is a seeker.

But the stock-in-trade he has groomed his base to expect is the old razzle dazzle. This he supplied in his encore, a paraphrase of Kermit the Frog’s ditty, “Rainbow Connection,” from The Muppet Movie (music and lyrics by Paul Williams and Kenneth Ascher), which the pianist plays on his new CD collection, The Disney Book. Starting wistfully, the music quickly goes viral with virtuosity, eventually to subside into artless simplicity and a final chord that is not the tonic. Some have discerned in this exquisitely crafted bauble reminiscences of Robert Schumann. And Lang Lang lavished on it all the technique a person could wish. On a program of light classics, who could have objected? In this context, its charms were misplaced.

Yet a sizable segment of the audience swooned and skipped out on the program’s revolutionary grand finale: Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Their loss, even if a technical peculiarity robbed the performance of much of its potential thunder. Once past the hair-raising attacca, phrase after phrase of the opening Allegro con brio took off in high definition only to go blurry by the close. Further on, the time-stopping bridge from the Scherzo to the Allegro finale lacked mystery; while the plunging scales and peroration merely clattered without elevating, as much as the Concertgebouw sound enhanced Nelsons’ Coriolan Overture, it magnified the flaws in his account of the Fifth.

The following evening, the Concertgebouw’s house orchestra migrated to the pit of the Dutch National Opera and Ballet, which commands the Amstel riverfront from a handsome crystal palace dating to 1986. In no time at all, the ravishing prelude to Rusalka swept us into the depths of Dvořák’s water world. As the score unfolded, Mallwitz proved as responsive to the composer’s grotesque and festive episodes as to the predominant undertow of romantic longing. 

A scene from Act 1 of the Dutch National Opera production of ‘Rusalka’ (Photo by Clärchen and Matthias Baus)

As co-directors, Philipp Stölzl and Philipp M. Krenn transpose the action to what reads as a Depression era Main Street somewhere in the American Midwest. There’s a cheesy sex shop that seems to have gone belly-up, a busy hair-and-nail salon belonging to the tough cookie, Ježibaba (here “Jezi”), and a flophouse. What dominates, though, is the crummy movie house where a trio of hookers turn tricks while their pimp’s favorite — Rusalka, embodied as a dead ringer for Marilyn Monroe — pines to enter the Shangri La she sees on celluloid. The Purple Rose of Cairo, anyone?

Stölzl and Krenn’s smart conceit has points to make about the price of self-delusion. And the aesthetic of the show — part comic book, part doll house with lots of moving parts — has undeniable appeal. But while the package diverted and provoked, it for the most part bypassed the heart. Maybe ingenuity rather than magic is as much as we can hope for in an age as hostile as ours is to fairy tales. International audiences can decide for themselves as of June 25, when a live video will post free on

As so often nowadays, the cast may make a stronger showing on screen than they did in the house. One who did catch the brass ring in person was Raehann Bryce-Davis as the witch Ježibaba, spinning earth-mother mojo from tones of dusky sensuality. Johanni van Oostrum as the lovelorn water sprite Rusalka and Annette Dasch as her human rival, the Foreign Princess, looked hewn from the same cookie cutter, and they fought like wildcats. Vocally, too, they were peas in a pod, breaking the fourth wall only at high pitch and high volume. Pavel Černoch’s wooden Prince sounded frayed, not enraptured, and Maxim Kuzmin-Karavaev as the Water Goblin pimp could barely be heard at all. Georgiy Derbas-Richter’s Hunter, Erik Slik’s Gamekeeper, and Karin Strobos’ Kitchen Boy (here a party girl) contributed striking cameos. Despite their demotion to the gutter, the three nameless Wood Nymphs found worthy avatars in Inna Demenkova, Elenora Hu, and Maya Gour.

Through a glass darkly

For Klinghoffer the next  afternoon, it was back to the Concertgebouw. Like Nixon in China, the first of the John Adams operas, this second one was inspired by recent events — in the case of Klinghoffer, the hijacking of a cruise ship in the Mediterranean by Palestinian terrorists and the murder of an elderly American-Jewish passenger confined to a wheelchair. The material has proved incendiary with Jewish and Palestinian thought leaders alike — so much so that Klinghoffer threatened to nip any further operatic ambitions of the composer’s in the bud. With few exceptions, impresarios have shunned it; this concert performance, blessedly free of theatrical triggers, offered a welcome opportunity to revisit a score whose singular powers some connoisseurs of the Adams catalogue have insisted on from the start.

John Adams conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra in a concert performance of his opera ‘The Death of Klinghoffer’

For the composer’s anglophone constituency, the conditions turned out to be far from propitious. Neither a bilingual libretto nor even an English-language synopsis was provided, and supertitles were only in Dutch. What’s more, with the exception of a few female soloists, everyone onstage wore black, and the lights were low. For the most part, the performers vanished into an anonymous mass. Complex musical pictures often come into focus when the eye can see what the ear can hear. But that was seldom an option here. One’s senses seemed to keep playing tricks.

Even so, the score held the house spellbound. The infinite variety of orchestral textures, the mastery of instrumental color spiked with keyboards and percussion accents that get under the skin, the drive and the lyricism — all these aligned in dynamic equilibrium, constantly shifting yet never unmoored. Had the assembled forces deliberately set out to establish Klinghoffer as the composer’s operatic testament, they could not have made a stronger case. Nobody conducts Adams like Adams. (Happily, the concert was captured for streaming. Audio is already available by going here, with video to follow shortly).

That said, it may be fair to call the overall effect symphonic rather than operatic. Intimations of the librettist Alice Goodman’s ceremonial tone in the meditative communal episodes came through in flashes, thanks to the crisp diction of the chorus. Something of the individual characters’ texts registered as well. But what told most was the highly individualized vocal profile Adams gives each of those characters — that, and the singers’ own distinctive  personalities.

Elliot Madore took the leading role of the anonymous Captain, quietly heroic. Anne Marie Stanley enlivened her turn as the Austrian Woman with zesty theatricality. In striking contrast to the air-headed British Dancing Girl of Laetitia Gerards, Joshua Bloom gave the terrorist known as Rambo hair-raising stentorian menace. John Moore invested the critical yet reactive and unexpectedly brief role of Klinghoffer with poised humanity. The opera’s despairing last words belong to Klinghoffer’s widow, Marilyn, who wishes she had died in his place. The mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong projected them with the purple gravitas of a Victorian contralto.

How instructive and also how wondrous that Klinghoffer could register so magisterially when a listener’s comprehension, moment to moment, was so vague. Prima la musica, I guess.