In moments of national crisis and dissent, many classical musicians have made statements through their art. I’ve been thinking lately of another divisive inauguration, President Nixon’s second in 1973. The night before, official inaugural concerts were taking place at the Kennedy Center (the Philadelphia Orchestra’s program included the “1812 Overture” and Beethoven’s Fifth). At the same time, Leonard Bernstein conducted a Concert for Peace at Washington’s National Cathedral for tens of thousands, both those who had seats inside and those (including me) standing out in light rain. With local musicians and a volunteer choir, Bernstein led Haydn’s “Mass in Time of War.” Though not formally a protest performance, it was all but officially the anti-inaugural concert.
We see and hear culture through the context of the moment we live in. A series of performances I’ve heard over the past year, while not specifically conceived in reaction to the campaign or the Trump administration, have wound up having uncanny power.
Political strands within familiar works have been popping out with startling resonance, as with that “Barber” at the Met. The opera was loosely based on the first in a trilogy of audacious plays by Beaumarchais that stoked anti-aristocratic sentiment in late 18th-century Paris. Rossini stripped out much of the incendiary content to maximize the comedy. Or so I had assumed, until seeing it at the dawn of the Trump presidency.
Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” is based on the second play in Beaumarchais’s trilogy. Like Rossini, Mozart, working with the librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, softened the sharpest edges of the text’s anti-royalist barbs to pass muster…