SO OFTEN COLLECTIONS, be they of essays, poems, or Silver Latin recipes, the Practical Cogitator or Palgrave's Golden Treasury, wind up on the sunporch or in the pantry bathroom with selected junk mail and last year's magazine subscriptions. There is something wilting in the very idea of a collection or anthology for consumer and publisher alike. It is, by definition and necessity, a start-stop-start affair that importunely demands to be considered wheat less chaff.
This, Andrew Porter's third collection of music reviews, reprinted from The New Yorker, stands apart for start-to-stop excellence. The title Music of Three More Seasons, 1977-1980 suggests no more special importance than Jaws II, but these pieces, considered individually or together, display a commitment to scholarship and elegance of execution rarely encountered in critical writing today. Possibly the most valuable element here is the vector of choice: Porter has, by evidence, listened to the music that he feels is most deserving of attention, and time affirms his judgment. As New Yorker readers know, his inclination is toward opera. This is not an exclusive interest (he also favors new music), and in any case opera stands, by its complex nature, more in need of learned discussion than, for example, the oboe repertory, but it is Porter's passion and accordingly he gives music drama more than democracy would allow.
Were the years 1977 to 1980 significantly richer musically than any other given period? Probably not, though television brought a greater number of concerts and operas into American homes than before. These three seasons featured the complete Berg's Lulu, a haunting and slick mass-distributed film of Don Giovanni, the publication of the New Grove Dictionary of Music, the acceptance generally of Mozart's Clemenza di Tito (or Titus) as a Great Work. More people listened to Tippett, Janacek, and Britten; they sampled unfamiliar Donizetti, the early-isms of Malgoire, Ponnelle's provocative Wagner, and more early Verdi. They gasped at the ages of certain elderly pianists and welcomed the young, new piano competition winners. They visited Caramoor and America's own Spoleto (in Charleston, South Carolina)--and, I am tempted to add, "they found them wanting." Porter did. And he tells why.
To leap gracefully from an audience's inchoate sense that something just doesn't work to the crack critic's articulated horror at the state of the art is a passage which sadly we in America too rarely experience in the press, but Andrew Porter commands that skill and he is a born reformer. His music-historical erudition has for many years now (eight in The New Yorker) helped to cultivate among his readers a more nearly utopian community of audiences and professionals. He exhorts us not to tap time, cough, or blow our collective nose during the music; asks managements to provide good texts and adequate light to read them by--and that ventilation systems not add their "rumbling bourdon" (Porter, in his youth, played the organ) to the music; enjoins enthusiastic fools not to bawl out their appreciation during pianissimo passages, suggests that cello and piano duos not sit in such a way that their eyes are prevented from meeting; observes that the presence of a cafe or buffet for intermission "cheer" is just as essential as are places near the theater where people can talk after the concert is over. Among less pedestrian imperatives he recommends that major operas, such as Don Carlos (because it was written in French) ought sometimes to be produced in the correct language, while unfamiliar, densely plotted baroque works for the stage should be offered in the language of the listeners.
Singers and other performers have good nights and bad, and Porter seems ever to be fluid and just, according to the essential quality of the fare. Riccardo Muti's conducting one night is "exquisite but cold, as (his) Verdi often is," while nearly a year later he "seems to be the only conductor both able and willing to do pieces like Guillaume Tell and Les vepres siciliennes unabridged." Beverly Sills' Thais falls under attack in 1978: "a mistake to essay it without a heroine more alluring of voice and more secure on exposed, sustained high notes above the staff." Ten months later, referring to the Met Don Pasquale, we read: "Beverly Sills' portrayal of the heroine was especially distressing" but a year later, at her farewell performance, she is the "incandescent heroine" of La Loca. Not oddly, in that same review Porter cites La Loca as "perhaps Menotti's best opera," while that composer fares poorly elsewhere: His Trial of the Gypsy is "trashy music, and not even tuneful or tearjerking, the way that Amahl is." And Barber's Vanessa has "a slightly less awful libretto than it seems." (Menotti wrote it.) Whom does he praise? To list a few, Peter Pears, Radu Lupu, Sarah Caldwell, Dame Janet Baker, Marianna Christos, Alfred Brendel, Elisabeth Soderstrom, Youri Egorov, among others. Bernard Haitink is "not just a thoroughly sound and satisfying conductor but a great one." Fischer-Dieskau "sang (Schubert's Winterreise) almost as if he were drunk--drunk, that is, both with rapturous contemplation of the great cycle and with the grief that has stolen from it into his soul."
Despite its bounds in time, this is an important, exemplary book because it affirms so often what we, listeners, concertgoers, performers, all suspect to be true but occasionally need reminding of: that media hype is a form of pollution, that good is good, and bad boring, that there are a number of new artists who are very very good, new operas that the big houses really ought to try out, and that even old BohMeme has some tricks up her sleeve.