Review: Philip Glass and the Bangles, Mashed at the Symphony
It’s not like the New York Philharmonic has never been queer before. I can’t have been the only boy for whom Jessye Norman’s hair, when she sang Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene with the orchestra on national television in 1995, marked a turning point. The ensemble supported Mariah Carey in Central Park, and Elaine Stritch for Sondheim’s 80th. This once paired Lou Harrison and Bruckner.
But it’s safe to say it featured nothing like the Philharmonic debut of Anthony Roth Costanzo and Justin Vivian Bond as a duo on Thursday at Jazz’s Rose Theater at Lincoln Center. Performing a rich portion of their recent “Only an Octave Apart” show, they made jokes about G-spots and sex travel, mixed Purcell’s Dido with Dido’s “White Flag”, layered Philip Glass on the wristbands and usually camped the seal.
When “Only an Octave Apart” played at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn last fall, it was a riff on Beverly Sills and Carol Burnett’s 1976 high-low special of the same name, reuniting Costanzo, a counter- operatic tenor, and Bond, the cheerfully wild cabaret diva. I walked in with a bit of trepidation – a fan of both performers, but not entirely sure the experience would pan out. Would it be too stiff? Too stupid ? Too talkative? Too complacent?
It was sublime.
By turns hilarious and tender – these double Didos are really not played for laughs – the show was a small miracle of careful craftsmanship and improvised looseness, arch characters and soulful sincerity. Costanzo was a handsome, erect man with Bond’s batteness, and their voices – one thin and pure, the other raspy and heavy with vibrato – blended improbably. Returning to live performance after a year and a half of confinement only increased the poignancy and delight of their evident mutual love and respect. It was a nourishing confection.
It’s always like that. Along with the release of an album versionthe show is a fitting opening for the festival “Authentic Me: Inner Beauty” organized by Costanzo as part of his Philharmonic residency. Focused on marginalized identities and (pardon the mutual aid) being yourself, the festival’s programs include a pair of premieres sung by Costanzo, as well as a rare countertenor from Berlioz’s song cycle “Les Nuits d’Été “.
On Thursday, I missed Zack Winokur’s full and stylish staging of “Only an Octave Apart,” especially Jonathan Anderson’s wacky dresses. But the 90-minute show compressed nicely into a 50-minute concert half, the union between classical and cabaret smoothed by Nico Muhly’s lush yet subtle orchestrations.
Some Nelson Riddle-style string arrangements, like the score for a Douglas Sirk melodrama, nodded to what preceded the intermission: the premiere of Joel Thompson’s “The Places We Leave.” Featuring new text by poet Tracy K. Smith, Thompson also reveled in sumptuous, restless strings, and gave Costanzo smooth, narrative vocal lines that build into piercing climaxes. There was even a spot of exhausting Handelian coloratura, a nod to the narrative of a lover’s text that “took my breath away”, and a specialty of Costanzo. (He appears in “Rodelinda” at the Metropolitan Opera in March.)
The concert opened with the splendor “Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman” No. 1 by Joan Tower, as well as Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1, “Classical”. What was this chestnut tree doing here? Particularly under Jaap van Zweden, the music director of the Philharmonic Orchestra – who was otherwise a sensitive leader – with his tense, witless approach all too characteristic of standard repertoire.
But one aspect of the choice resonated. Like “Only an Octave Apart”, Prokofiev’s First was created in times of crisis, the violence of the February revolution in Russia, but has few hints of this darkness in a work of energy and depth. a sparkling grace.
Is making happy music in dark times escapist, even reactionary? Sometimes the opposite: the “Classical” looked, just like “Only an Octave Apart”, towards the past with a fresh spirit, a kind of progressive nostalgia. And like Costanzo and Bond in their show, Prokofiev used the work not to rest on his laurels but to stimulate himself to develop; the symphony was the first major piece he wrote without relying on his beloved piano as a compositional tool. This made his future possible.
As improbable but satisfying a couple as Costanzo and Bond, these two works – bridging an intermission and a century – remind us that what emerges and survives from our harrowing times may not be what we expect. All we can do is give artists the space to create and keep our ears open.
New York Philharmonic
This program continues through Saturday at the Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center, Manhattan; nyphil.org.