The Cunning, Not Quite Little Orchestra

Children in Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen, being staged at the New York Philharmonic June 22-25, 2011. i i

hide captionChildren in Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen, being staged at the New York Philharmonic June 22-25, 2011.

Chris Lee/courtesy of the New York Philharmonic
Children in Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen, being staged at the New York Philharmonic June 22-25, 2011.

Children in Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen, being staged at the New York Philharmonic June 22-25, 2011.

Chris Lee/courtesy of the New York Philharmonic

A fully staged production of Janácek's The Cunning Little Vixen opened last night with the astonishingly good soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian in the title role. (If you haven't heard her yet, go quickly, at least to her marvelous album of Gomidas songs.) The setting was a mossy dreamland forest, with sunflowers shading the orchestra and delightful little sprites running about as frogs, butterflies and other marvelous woodland creatures. The lush and warmly glowing score was vividly realized by a world-class orchestra and conductor.

Soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian and mezzo Marie Lenormand in The Cunning Little Vixen. i i

hide captionSoprano Isabel Bayrakdarian and mezzo Marie Lenormand in The Cunning Little Vixen.

Chris Lee/courtesy of the New York Philharmonic
Soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian and mezzo Marie Lenormand in The Cunning Little Vixen.

Soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian and mezzo Marie Lenormand in The Cunning Little Vixen.

Chris Lee/courtesy of the New York Philharmonic

Where was this mounted? At a most unlikely venue: the dry, dull stage of Avery Fisher Hall, with conductor Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic. Was it a perfect evening? No. Certain elements were quite uneven — for example, baritone Alan Opie, singing the Forester, had trouble cutting his voice through the orchestral thicket. But in addition to its many charms, last night's performance created even more questions than answers, at least for me.

Vixen marks the second year in a row in which the Gilbert-led New York Philharmonic has presented a staged opera. Last year's season-ender was György Ligeti's rarely heard Le Grand Macabre, which was, like Vixen, staged with a very smart production team led by director-designer Doug Fitch. (Next June, instead of putting on another opera, Gilbert and the Phil musicians will be bringing Stockhausen's Gruppen to the Park Avenue Armory.)

It would be hard to look at the crowds streaming into the New York Philharmonic's home to hear a fully staged, not terribly often heard 20th-century opera, and not think of the New York City Opera's very visible struggles across the plaza, where according to recent internal documents less than half the seats were filled on average.

By marked contrast, the Philharmonic tells me that of this week's Vixen run, last night's performance was sold out, tonight's show is nearly sold out as of late morning, and that sales are brisk for the last two performances as well. Moreover, just as with Macabre last year, I saw so many more younger and clearly first-time attendees at Vixen than I ever do on a regular night. So, then, why is the Philharmonic — treading into the territory of not just City Opera but of its other Lincoln Center neighbor, the Metropolitan Opera — succeeding in the same arena where City Opera is so visibly flailing? And couldn't there have been some collaboration?

New York Philharmonic/YouTube

How this Vixen project came together.

All of this tumult, the marketing successes and the heartbreaking failures, are a sign of the times. As we all are well aware, no orchestra can still be content to continue along the same well-worn rails of decades past. (At the recent League of American Orchestras conference, the organization's president, Jesse Rosen gave a succinct presentation about this very topic that was a bit more eyes-open than usual. And if all this stuff interests you, Drew McManus' blog is one must-read.)

We live in what is quite literally a make-or-break time for American orchestras. The programming, marketing and administrative decisions made right now can shake an institution right down to the ground.

In all too many sad instances, we've seen utter financial unraveling at hand, from Philadelphia to Detroit to Honolulu to Louisville, and other efforts seem to hover somewhere in the neighborhood of desperation. But in other cases, such real and concrete worries have created something of an adrenaline rush, one that has recharged certain orchestras into some creative programming, presentation and outreach efforts. Some of these experiments hit it out of the park, like the New York Philharmonic's recent operatic ventures — though, admittedly, the Phil is perhaps an institution better positioned than others for adventure.

All this roiling leads to even more questions. How financially secure does a major organization have to be already to dip their toes into such waters? And considering all the hard-earned success of many of the "DIY" ensembles, in 2011, what role and mission do the Goliaths of the music world have?

We know there's a lot of wisdom to be culled amongst our readership, and we welcome your insights on this topic. Whether you're a fan, a musician, an administrator or come from another vantage point, let us know what you've seen work in your own community in the comments section below.

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