Carnegie Hall 2018-19 Season Review: The MET Orchestra and Isabel Leonard

An Evening Of Beautiful French Colors

By Logan Martell

On June 4, the Stern Auditorium/Perelman Stage of Carnegie Hall was host to a musical feast, as performed by The MET Orchestra under the baton of its new conductor and music director, Yannick Nezet-Seguin. The evening’s program was comprised of works from French composers Debussy, Ravel, and Dutilleux, all of which allowed for an abundance of expression. With guest star Isabel Leonard, what followed was a concentrated outpouring of sound and passion.


First on the program was Claude Debussy’s “La Mer.” Fitting for such a nautical piece, the soft drumroll of the opening measures began the first movement, “De l’aube a midi sur la mer,” with wondrous delicacy. This served to veil the exact beginning of the work, choosing instead to draw the music from the depths of its source as the drumroll rose in audibility to a softer, but more certain, presence.  From this evocative framework, the descending lines from the strings added direction, while the joining of the scarce, beckoning horns granted emotion. These elements flowed together for a brief but mighty instant, before settling back into the waters as the flute and first violin carried much of the following measures. This sense of settling returned after three sforzando beats were answered by a single deflating measure from the trumpet, before the rising strings quickly dispelled the calm with their almost-sputtering phrases. Gesturing to the brass, Seguin drew the horns forward to gently announce the tres lent section which crested to a powerful height, ending the first movement with the heightened return of the three sforzando figure; the final beat conveyed a strong sense of skyward release.

The second movement, “Jeux de vagues,” began with quick, portentous phrases from the woodwinds, establishing early on a sense of brewing conflict. Additional elements, such as the triangle’s metallic chiming, and the exchange between the brass and the rolling harp, did much to add contrast. The unpredictability of the waves was made clear by the en animant beaucoup, as the counter-current of the brass seemed to take things in a different direction before tapering out. This aspect returns later as the tres anima which had been building fell apart when the strings plunge an octave and the winds seem to deflate; everything melded back together for the final movement, “Dialogue du vent et de la mer.” Bearing a dark tumultuous start, thanks to the running basses which stop and resume suddenly, the musical ideas reintroduced in this movement seemed to be thrown to the growing storm of sharpness and fluidity; this storm was temporarily split as Seguin gestured the cymbals, crashing with the drums like a single clap of thunder, as the strings descend towards near-silence once again. The rumblings of this aftermath finally built toward a grand and triumphant conclusion, accented all the more by the brilliance of the horns and pounding of the drums.


Next on the program was Henri Dutilleux’s song cycle “Le temps l’horloge.” Joining Seguin and the orchestra onstage was mezzo-soprano, Isabel Leonard, lending her interpretation to the first complete performance of this work at Carnegie Hall. The first song, also titled “Time and the Clock,” featured unconventional devices such as wooden clacking to contrast the brass, followed by seemingly-balanced measure from the harpsichord. The overall rhythm did not seem to congeal to a definite form, with all these aspects evoking Dutilleux’s intended dichotomy between time as an absolute and time as perceived by humans. Leonard’s polished mezzo delivered the observational phrases which, due to the brevity of the first song, glossed over their imagery rather than explore it.

The next song, “Le masque,” allowed more room for Leonard’s lyricism in unexpected but sonorous ways. Softly holding phrases, such as the word “hollow,” to create an echo and imply the presence of the titular mask, the mystery held by this image was musically highlighted by the dissonant orchestral bloom set to the phrase “Up to this green star, to this Visage…” The narrator’s approach is answered by a crashing from the cymbals, resulting in a few short measures of fearful ornaments from Leonard before she resumed the text.  The third song, “Le Dernier Poeme, opened with an uneasy accordion as Leonard outlined the descriptions of an obsessive love; her tragic sort of affection highlighted phrases such as “so loved your shadow, that I’ve nothing left of you, I’m left to be the shadow among shadows… to be the shadow that will appear and reappear in your sun-filled life.”

The final song in the cycle, the aptly-titled “Get Drunk,” preached a hedonistic escape from “time’s horrid burden.” The brief lines were followed by an almost-ranting stanza, with Leonard’s ecstatic vocal heights mocking the myriad of subjects and ideas presented in the cycle, finally dismissing them all with a final laugh.


After the intermission came Maurice Ravel’s romantic song cycle “Sheherazade.” The alluring call of the winds and brass which begin the first song, “Asie,” was softly approached by Leonard’s demurring opening; the imagery of her first “Je voudrais” bore a more conversational tone as she seamlessly eased her way into the unfolding musical journey. While more than capable of outlining sights and scenes that are visually appealing, Leonard also shaped more dangerous images such as I’d like to see murderers smiling,” bolstered by the dissonant orchestral peak. Leonard’s passion and tempo built towards a powerful majestic section driven by the trumpets, as she reached out to seize the wonders she saw before her; Seguin brought this song to a gently-rumbling finish, cleanly marked by a single pizzicato.

The last song in the cycle, “The Indifferent One,” made for a beautifully sobering contrast to Leonard’s earlier piece “Get Drunk.” Her affectionate phrases carried a more romantic, if unrequited, tone, lending itself to phrases such as “Your lips sing at my doorstep… but no, you pass on.” These lines gave Leonard ample time to indulge in legato which seemed to ease to a sigh and bring this work to a close.

Last among the pieces heard this evening was Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloe Suite No. 2.” The first movement “Daybreak,” begins with the flighty, evocative running of the winds, establishing the sunrise and hinting at the prominence of the god Pan, who has rescued Chloe from a band of pirates. This pastoral romance finds places to introduce dissonant beauty, such as the half-diminished orchestral bloom, shading the musical texture until everything rebuilt into a grand and rolling climax that melted away into the second movement, “Pantomime.” As Daphnis and Chloe act out the courtship of Pan and the nymph Syrinx, this finds musical expression in the almost-meandering pipes that, like the heart of Pan, are led on by a nostalgic beauty, highlighted by the idyllic rolling of the harps. Other such devices include the plucking of the basses which provide a pulse for the flutes to dance over from their emotional height.

A quick, tumultuous shift, and the rapidity of the strings brought the third movement “General Dance,” to a running start, bolstered by the flutes and nearly-belligerent strength of the drums. This intensity is compounded by the return of earlier musical ideas, as well as the shifting meter which firmly kept one’s attention as Seguin and the orchestra brought the piece to a massive, triumphant close.

Throughout the night, Yannick Nezet-Seguin and the MET Orchestra demonstrated a wealth of sensitivity and musical insight. The fluid themes and structures of the pieces, such as water, time, fantasy, and memory, were brought to intoxicating heights thanks to Nezet-Seguin’s sense of control and expression. Lending voice to this French program, Isabel Leonard captivated during her time onstage; her gorgeous renditions closed what has no doubt been a fruitful season with the Metropolitan Opera, having starred in the company’s productions of “Marnie,” “Pelleas et Melisande,” and “Dialogues des Carmelites.” Nezet-Seguin and the MET Orchestra will return on June 14, for an exciting program of lieder with star mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca.


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