by Pete Matthews
Life has never been easy being a member of the MET Orchestra, the concert stage orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera. For 33 weeks a year, these 120 musicians - widely considered to be the finest opera orchestra in the world - toil anonymously in the opera pit, playing eight performances each week of everything from Donizetti to Brett Dean. But, much like the Vienna Philharmonic, which draws its members from the Vienna State Opera, the MET Orchestra emerges for a precious few evenings each season to appear onstage, demonstrating how their virtuosity extends to the symphonic repertoire. To my ears, they are hands down the best orchestra in the Western Hemisphere (sorry, NY Phil.)
But, as difficult as life is normally in the MET Orchestra, things got a whole lot harder after COVID-19 shut down the opera house in March 2020. After cancelling the remainder of the season, and then the entire 2020-21 season, General Manager Peter Gelb essentially locked out the orchestra, refusing to pay them in a bitter dispute that lasted for more than a year. The musicians were left to fend for themselves, playing chamber concerts in parks and churches streamed on demand for a fee, and depending on donations and other contributions to keep them afloat.
Aside from a pair of benefit concerts in May 2021, when 50 orchestra musicians traveled to Texas to perform with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the full orchestra didn't play together as one until their triumphant performances of Mahler's 2nd "Resurrection" Symphony at Damrosch Park last September - a layoff of some 18 months. They followed that up the following week with a performance of Verdi's Requiem on the 20th anniversary of 9/11; the only other time the MET Orchestra would appear onstage this season was the special Benefit for Ukraine in March that included Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Strauss’ Four Last Songs, and the choral finale to Beethoven’s 9th.
Finally, after a very full season of some 22 operas at the Met, the MET Orchestra returned to the limelight of Carnegie Hall last night for the first time in three years. They were led by Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who's been just about everywhere this season, including stints conducting the Vienna Phil and Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra on tour, not to mention his full time jobs at the Met and Philadelphia Orchestra. The crowd roared its appreciation when the orchestra rose at Yannick's request.
Richard Strauss' Don Juan was the ideal showcase for this remarkable orchestra. The strings were taut and crisp, the percussion explosive, the horns perfect. Clearly, this is an orchestra that can play anything - and play the shit out of it.
That ability extends to contemporary music, as demonstrated by the three 21st century operas performed at the Met this season: Terence Blanchard's Fire Shut Up My Bones, Matthew Aucoin's Eurydice, and Brett Dean's Hamlet. So, it was only appropriate that the orchestra included the music of Missy Mazzoli, whose opera Lincoln in the Bardo, based on the book by George Saunders, is scheduled to be premiered by the Met in 2025. Here, they performed her short Sinfonia (2014), inspired by the rotation of orbiting spheres, with phasing and circular motifs complemented by synths and extramusical techniques.
The main event was after intermission, when the orchestra fully embraced their opera bonafides with Act 1 of Wagner's Die Walküre. (Onstage, Yannick half-apologized to Wagner for performing this one act outside the complete Ring cycle, but it's actually fairly common to perform it as a standalone, even at the Festpielhaus in Bayreuth.) After ripping through the stormy overture, the performance showcased three of this country's greatest home-grown Wagnerians: bass Eric Owens (Hunding), soprano Christine Goerke (Sieglinde) and tenor Brandon Jovanovich (Siegmund). Yannick led the hour-long performance with a sure hand, drawing a fierce, forceful performance from the orchestra. Which only begs the question: is there a Met Ring cycle in his future? There damn well should be.
You have one more chance to catch the MET Orchestra tonight at Carnegie, with an all-Berlioz program featuring mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDinato. Tickets and info on Carnegie's website. More pics from Wednesday's concert below.