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The MET Orchestra: Onto the Stage

By Harry Haskell

When the lights went down for the inaugural performance of Gounod’s Faust in the brand-new Metropolitan Opera House on October 22, 1883, the audience was in for a surprise: The opera band was not discreetly tucked away in the orchestra pit, as had recently become the norm in European opera houses. Instead, the players—at the insistence of their conductor, Auguste Vianesi—occupied a highly visible position on the same level as the spectators on the auditorium’s main floor.

Since that time, The MET Orchestra—as it’s known when it ventures outside the opera house on its own—has often been out of sight, but rarely out of mind. The ensemble has achieved a reputation for excellence that is set to continue as the Met enters a new era under incoming Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who will officially take charge in September. Meanwhile, Carnegie Hall audiences will have an opportunity to both hear and see the orchestra onstage in a series of three concerts this spring led by an international trio of conductors: Lithuanian Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, Italian Gianandrea Noseda, and American Michael Tilson Thomas.

Gianandrea Noseda by Tracey Salazar

“I love The MET Orchestra,” says Noseda, whose relationship with the Metropolitan Opera goes back to 2002, when he stepped in as a last-minute replacement for Valery Gergiev in a production of Prokofiev’s richly orchestrated War and Peace. “I consider it one of the greatest orchestras, period—and not just in the pit. The ability of the players is extraordinary. They know how to breathe with the singers onstage. That singing quality is incredibly important to me, as an Italian.”

Gražinytė-Tyla, who will be making her debut with the orchestra, agrees that the skills and sensitivities the musicians have developed in the operatic context carry over into the symphonic repertoire. “Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death are very opera-like, and the other two pieces I’ll be conducting”—Debussy’s Prélude à l’après midi d’un faune and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony—“are also very theatrical and poetic. The MET Orchestra knows the language of these composers from having performed their operas, from Boris Godunov to Pelléas et Mélisande to Eugene Onegin.”

The Metropolitan Opera’s “house” orchestra has a long and distinguished track record in the concert repertoire. Early conductors such as Anton Seidl, Gustav Mahler, and Arturo Toscanini molded it into a first-class symphonic ensemble that just happened to be buried in what Wagner called the “mystic chasm” between audience and stage. In fact, it was with the Met’s orchestra (augmented by players from the New York Philharmonic and New York Symphony Orchestra) that Toscanini made his American debut in 1913 as a symphonic conductor in a program of Wagner, Strauss, and Beethoven.

“I consider it one of the greatest orchestras, period—and not just in the pit. The ability of the players is extraordinary.”
—Gianandrea Noseda

In those days, the Met had the reputation of being, in Toscanini’s words, a “teatro per cantanti [theater for singers], not for conductors.” But things changed over the years as the world’s foremost maestros beat a path, first to the so-called “yellow brick brewery” on 39th Street, and then to Lincoln Center. As a result, the current crop of MET Orchestra musicians may well have performed under the batons of more conductors than many of their symphony-orchestra peers.

While Tilson Thomas’s repertoire is largely symphonic, both Gražinytė-Tyla and Noseda have extensive experience both in the opera house and on the concert stage. One of Noseda’s goals as music director of the Teatro Regio Torino has been to heighten the visibility of the company’s resident orchestra. Since taking over in 2007, he has doubled the number of symphonic concerts to a dozen or so per year and featured the orchestra in recordings of works like Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.

Noseda says the members of his orchestra in Turin find it “very motivating” to perform non-operatic repertoire on a regular basis. Although he would like to see more opera companies showcase their instrumental talent in this way, he acknowledges that it’s easier to squeeze in symphonic concerts at the Teatro Regio, which operates on the stagione system (mounting one production at a time), than at the Met, where the rotating repertory requires the orchestra’s services for seven performances a week, 33 weeks a year.

“We get one crack at the piece like a Mahler symphony in Carnegie Hall and get compared to other world-class ensembles who play Mahler as much as we play the Ring cycle.”
—Jerry Grossman

These days, The MET Orchestra is hard-pressed to schedule three or four concerts a year in the off-season. Yet the musicians continue to benefit from the exposure they have gained through their informative website; their several commercial recordings (including Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony, Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps, and Strauss’s Tod und Verklärung); a pair of high-profile international tours they undertook in the late 1990s and early 2000s; and their world premieres of symphonic works by composers as diverse as Milton Babbitt, Hsueh-Yung Shen, and John Harbison.

Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla by Benjamin Ealovega

From a conductor’s perspective, the limited time The MET Orchestra has to devote to concert music may actually be a positive factor. Says Gražinytė-Tyla, “I am excited to work with them in a symphonic program which they are not performing every day, and therefore I expect a nice hunger for this repertoire.” For Noseda, who will lead the orchestra in Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 and Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, the fact that the repertoire isn’t old-hat to the musicians is a big plus. “Since they don’t play a work like Mahler’s Fifth very often, their performance has an element of surprise. For me, that is crucial in any performance. When you are just making a photocopy of a performance you have given before, there is something wrong.”

Michael Tilson Thomas by Chris Wahlberg

Tilson Thomas—one the world’s most acclaimed interpreters of Mahler’s orchestral works—makes his debut with The MET Orchestra in a program that includes the composer’s Fourth Symphony. “I think about all these great masterpieces as being kind of like national parks,” he says. “We revisit them at different times in our lives, and we revisit them in the company of different people, and that changes the nature of the experience. Mahler demands that the sophisticated members of the major orchestras not only do all this gorgeous playing, but from time to time take the risk to really play in a kind of outside-the-box way that requires complete courage. We all have to be fearless!”

That sentiment is not lost on Jerry Grossman, The MET Orchestra’s principal cellist. “We get one crack at a piece like a Mahler symphony in Carnegie Hall and get compared to other world-class ensembles who play Mahler as much as we play the Ring cycle.”

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