What Makes a Gala a Gala?

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This is the season that music lovers, Yankee fans and avid schoolchildren look forward to. As summer gives way to fall, there is crispness not only in the air and in the first crop of Gala apples, but also in the demeanor of those who live for art, baseball and education.

Opening day of school should be a gala event. In Italy, smiling children wear cape-like smocks as their back-to-school attire. In New York, Philadelphia, Detroit and other places to be determined, baseball fans wear team colors and pinstripes as a show of solidarity.

Attendees at the opening nights of New York arts companies such as the Philharmonic (on September 21), the Metropolitan Opera (September 26) and Carnegie Hall (October 5) tend to dress up, but not necessarily in the black tie and gowns that once were de rigueur.  This is particularly so now that economic times are hard (one in five New Yorkers is living in poverty), so that dressing up tends to be what is called “sober.” Things have not really changed since the photographer Weegee shot his iconic photo, "The Critic (Opening Night 1943)," (below) except that the fanciest gowns and jewels show more restraint than in the past. Sadly, there are still too many have-nots.

It is a great thing that our leading arts companies are able to bring performances to the public on television, video and audio transmissions and, occasionally, live and for free. If funds raised from the well-off at galas make this possible, that is all to the good. I have often found that “social” types who attend arts galas are not necessarily passionate about the performance, but are there because it is just what one does, my dear.

Galas, Italian-Style

Nothing in the world can rival the opening night at La Scala, held each year on December 7, the day of Milan’s patron Saint Ambrose. It gives the notion of “gala” a whole other dimension. The entire city celebrates with panettone and spumante, while the Italian media focus on which politicians, designers, film stars and intellectuals will attend. In terms of what audience members wear, it is even fancier than the red carpet at the Academy Awards.

Inevitably, there are demonstrations outside the theater and polemics about the lavishness of it all. The opera company usually presents a splashy new production and this year will be extraordinary: Daniel Barenboim conducts Robert Carsen’s staging of Don Giovanni, with Peter Mattei in the title role, Bryn Terfel as Leporello, Anna Netrebko as Donna Anna, Barbara Frittoli as Donna Elvira and Giuseppe Filianoti as Don Ottavio. If Silvio Berlusconi attends, as he often does, what lessons might he glean from this opera whose subtitle refers to the punishment of a dissolute man?

Our New York companies make no attempt to rival Milan in this regard (would that the whole city might shut down for a holiday to celebrate the openings of one of our great musical institutions!), but they do a fine job. The Met’s new production of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, starring Anna Netrebko, is exciting news indeed and I will discuss it in my next post. Carnegie Hall will do an all-Russian program played by the Mariinsky Orchestra and their dynamic leader, Valery Gergiev, with superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma as soloist. In musical terms, the excitement at the Met and Carnegie is of “gala” dimensions -- virtuosic, glamorous and featuring superb artists who also happen to be big stars.

Downplaying the Glitz…Slightly

All of this came to mind after I attended the opening night gala of the New York Philharmonic. In our time and place, it was just right in most every way. The orchestra played splendidly for Alan Gilbert, now beginning his third season as music director. In Deborah Voigt, there was a soloist who rose beautifully to the occasion. All the forces performed music that is exciting for listeners and challenging for the musicians. The audience was nicely dressed, but there was little excess. Ticketholders who paid “gala” prices that help support the orchestra had sparkling wine and canapés before the show. The stage had an American flag (as is customary, the National Anthem was sung before the performance) and attractive flowers and bunting made for a festive atmosphere. (The orchestra reportedly raised $2,640,000).

Two foreign terms came to mind during the performance that English-speakers do not know. The first is i professori d’orchestra, whose literal translation is “the professors of the orchestra.” In Italian, it suggests a group of scholarly, talented musicians who are wise in the ways of musicology and performance, but not stuffy about it. This is a title of great esteem and is only used when the spirit and technical accomplishment of the music-making is first-class. Some American orchestras tend to have a signature sound (the strings of Philadelphia, the brasses of Chicago), but I usually think of the New York Philharmonic as a collection of fine soloists who just happen to be playing together. It seems that they can do anything well (and, under Maestro Gilbert, better than in a very long time). Their lack of a trademark sound is, I think, a badge of honor.

The other foreign term is Publikumsliebling, a wonderful German compound word that translates literally as “darling of the public.” It suggests a figure such as an athlete or performer whom the public has taken to heart. Deborah Voigt’s triumphs and troubles are well known, but she does not project the frailty or falseness that some divas do. Her hearty humor, ready smile and willingness to scale steep musical mountains and take us with her are endearing traits. There are many opera singers who are more willful than courageous, but Voigt is one of the latter. She also has a great temperament (fiery and lovable all at once) that rings true because there is no pretense. It also helps that she is a superb musician with flawless diction in German and English who is always “in the moment” no matter what she is performing. If she occasionally loses her vocal footing on the lofty peaks she climbs, that too is in the moment and we share it with her and love her for trying.

The pieces chosen by Alan Gilbert were perfect for a gala. They were serious and consequential for people who care about music but beguiling and just challenging enough for those socialites who are not musically inclined. Samuel Barber, whose 2010 birth centennial went by largely unnoticed, was represented in the opening music, the overture to The School for Scandal, and in Voigt’s thrilling account of Andromache’s Farewell, a scene for soprano and orchestra that is as compelling as great scenas by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Berlioz and Schoenberg. Watch for a future blog posting about the scena.

Wagner and Strauss, Voigt’s bread and butter, made up the rest of the program. She sang a fine version of “Dich, teure Halle” from Tannhäuser and then the orchestra gave a radiant performance of that opera’s overture. In the first half of the program Voigt wore an elegant blue dress, and fashion forecasters who saw that the second half was all from Salome knew a red gown was sure to come. And so it did.

The professors of the orchestra played a deeply sensual Intermezzo and Dance of the Seven Veils before Voigt came onstage, planted her feet and transformed her face and lithe body into that of the teenager who insists on getting what she wants, even if it is the beheading of John the Baptist. Singer, orchestra and conductor built this scene gradually in intensity, causing more than a few brows to sweat onstage and in the audience. The audience exploded in cheers at the end, and for the right reason: they were moved by the music and the performance.

To answer the question, “What makes a gala a gala?” It is in small part fancy wardrobe, air kisses, sparkling wine and finger food. Fund-raising is also implicit in the equation. But a gala is really about the conviction, among artists and audience members who share the occasion, that art matters and it is incumbent on us all to do our part to keep it front and center in the lives of us all. Now, more than ever, when we need it the most.

Weigh in: What do you think of gala concerts? Please share your thoughts below.