May Festival 2014: Ode to Joy

MayFest2014

Friday night’s concert repeated a pattern I had seen before at the May Festival: a minor introductory work featuring well intentioned but clumsy fugues, followed by a good regional orchestra tackling the first three movements of a challenging masterwork, and ending with a spectacular, world class performance of the Ode to Joy.

In 2008, the introductory work was by Zeisl, an Austrian composer from the WWII era whose work has been largely forgotten. In 2014, it was Tchaikovsky’s Ode to Joy, a work written while he was a student at the conservatory and one that the composer wanted people to forget.

This was an interesting history lesson. You can hear hints of the genius that would later flourish, but these were separated by some pretty tedious passages. I became more engaged with the piece during the a cappella setting of “But if there be one to whom these blessings [the paradise of women’s friendship] are strange, in tears, in secret, retreat and be gone”. Given Tchaikovsky’s sexual orientation and the culture of his time, it is not surprising that such lines inspired the young student to write something more personal, more meaningful, than the studied formality that constrains much of the rest of this work.

Frankly, I was dissatisfied with the performance of the the first three movements of the Beethoven. The same thing had happened in 2008: having recently heard wonderful concerts conducted by Paavo Jarvi, I wondered, upon hearing the opening section of the Ninth, “Is this the same orchestra?”. Friday night was similar. The thrilling opening movement should sizzle, and it simply didn’t. The ensemble was not always crisp, the horns were sometimes a bit insecure, the balance seemed haphazard, and the melodies lacked luster. The scherzo was better, but the slow movement was a bit dull. In sum, it was ok, but nothing to get excited about. Perhaps, during the busy preparations, these movements were underrehearsed; after all, the orchestra has performed this music often. Perhaps Conlon’s heart wasn’t in these merely instrumental pieces. In any event, this was not the work of a world class symphony orchestra.

Then, the final movement, the one with soloists and chorus, the one the May Festival is designed for, began. A new energy immediately appeared. The opening recitative in low strings had shape, intensity, unity of ensemble, subtle nuance. The conductor’s gestures seemed to shaped the sound. In short, the orchestra was suddenly great.

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I was pleased to see Rodrick Dixon substituting for the tenor who was sick, thus integrating the cast of soloists. The performance of the Dett in the earlier concert brought attention to the racial prejudice in the late 1930s. Our culture has made some progress in this area since then, and Dixon’s presence made that progress visible on stage during Beethoven testament to to the brotherhood of man.

The soloists sang beautifully, with power and grace. I was particularly impressed by the bass, Kristinn Sigmundsson. Often, basses with large, powerful voices sing with such a thick vibrato that it is difficult to follow the music. With Sigmundsson, I had no such problems. (On the following night, I had the pleasure of hearing his recital of Romantic German Lieder, accompanied masterfully by pianist Micheal Chertock: never have I heard a finer performance of this repertoire.)

However, the real star of Friday night’s concert was the May Festival Chorus, one of the best large chorus in the world. The Beethoven Ninth, as demanding as it may be, is right in their wheel house. Their opening “Freude” sent chills down my spine (it always does). The long high notes in the sopranos floated in the starry night. The final double fugue was clear and thrilling.

I found the last movement so packed with material, so exciting, and, though nearly a half hour long, so short! It was worth the wait.

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May Festival 2014 Opens

mayfestivalchorus   This year’s May Festival opened with a program featuring two major works by American composers: one by John Adams, the leading composer of his generation (my generation), and an oratorio by Nathaniel Dett, premiered at the May Festival in 1937, and largely forgotten since.  This kind of adventurous programming is just what should be expected for a world class event, balanced, of course, by the old favorite, Beethoven’s Ninth, scheduled later in the festival.

James Conlon conducting

May Festival Chorus, Robert Porco, Director
Latonia Moore, soprano
Ronnita Nicole Miller, mezzo-soprano
Rodrick Dixon, tenor
Donnie Ray Albert, bass
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra

JOHN ADAMS Harmonium

john-adams-composer-at-work      What a lustrous sound!  Harmonium starts with a single note and gradually builds to a glowing diatonic cluster.  It features huge harmonic spaces, always enlivened with an ever evolving, often complex rhythmic surface, and almost disembodied melodic fragments.  Particularly effective (and easy to describe) is the connection between the last two movements: the low, dark burial ending the second movement becomes gradually more and more agitated until it burst into the “Wild Nights!” of the finale.

The texts that Adams chose for this are profound: poems by John Donne (“Negative Love”) and Emily Dickinson (“Because I could not stop for Death” and “Wild Nights”).  I find the Donne fascinating, intriguing, but far too complicated and intellectual for a musical setting, even one as complex as this.  Music works much better with Dickinson’s  evocative images than with the tortured reasoning in this particular poem of Donne.

This music emphasizes the collective effect.  Though the work is full of technically demanding passages, it is the energy and intonation of the ensemble that is important. Consequently, James Conlon conducted this piece with unusual restraint.  There were no romantic flourishes: he focused on keeping time, and keeping the group together.

And such a spectacular group it is.  The chorus, as always, was well prepared.  When there was homophony, the diction was crystal clear, amazingly clear for such a large chorus.  The orchestra managed complexities of the score with grace and power.  Together, they were awe inspiring.

Robert_Nathaniel_Dett_r   Robert Nathaniel Dett  The Ordering of Moses

Cincinnati, like most other cities, loves to celebrate its heritage.  One part of that heritage is its role in the Underground Railroad.  Consistent with that tradition, in 1937, the Cincinnati May Festival premiered an oratorio by a Negro composer, R. Nathaniel Dett.

This piece of history was emphasized in the concert.    Preceding the music, they played a recording of the radio announcer’s introduction to the live broadcast of the 1937 performance.  Later, before the large finale, they again played a recording of the radio announcer, this time saying that “because of previous commitments”, they would have to cease broadcasting the concert.  If I had been bored by the music, I would have welcomed an interruption reminding me of this ugly piece of American history.  However, by that time I was not interested in the history of that 1937 radio broadcast, I was engaged listening to a live concert in 2014.  I found the interruption disturbing.  It is possible that the performers were also disturbed by it, or that the following section of the music was not up to the standard of the rest; in any case, it took a while for me to get back into the music.  If this oratorio is worthy a performance today, as I think it is, the place for the history lesson is in the program notes.

Mining material from that rich vein of folk music and using a story that had particular meaning to his enslaved forefathers, Dett wrote an oratorio in the grand European tradition, conservative enough to appeal to a Cincinnati audience of the 1930s, but original enough to still be relevant.   You hear the influence not of the modernists of his day, or of the jazz that was sweeping across popular culture, but of Dvorak, who had advised American composers to look to their folk heritage for the foundation of their music.  Like any good follower, his music is influenced by, not derivative of, the master.

Predictably, Dett makes use of that old favorite, “Go Down Moses”.  Sometimes, his use of the theme is straightforward and obvious, but even then, the direction that he takes is fresh.  More often, he uses themes that are not obviously derived from the material in this tune, but are related to it in a more subtle way.  The harmony is more chromatic certainly than Dvorak, but clear in it’s direction, traditional without being totally familiar.

I  find it difficult to judge the quality of a performance when I am unfamiliar with the a work.  There were places when the orchestra hands off the focus from one instrument to the next: if it does not go as smoothly as I thought it should, was that because of the orchestra or the orchestration?  Regardless, I found the work engaging.  This orchestra and chorus consistently amaze me.  Among the soloists, I particularly enjoyed the clear tenor of Rodrick Dixon, who, even when the melody twisted, landing on an unexpected note, always conveyed the composer’s intentions with conviction.

This work certainly deserves its place on the program, seventy years after the premiere.

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The concert is being repeated at Carnegie Hall.  It will be broadcast on NPR.  I am confident it will be a major success.