IN: Reviews

Uncommon Celebration at Harvard


Remembrance and unity sounded and resounded at Sanders Theatre Friday, April 29. All told, nearly 300 voices and instruments from four choruses and a symphonic orchestra mounted stage and balcony, along with prerecorded voices and city noises. On the Transmigration of Souls, John Adams’ Pulitzer Prize composition, and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony coupled in uncommon celebration.

Conductors Andrew Clark and Federico Cortese, the Harvard Glee Club, Radcliffe Choral Society, Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum, Boston Children’s Chorus, and Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra astounded by sheer size and number, their presence in and of itself glorious. Yet from the very last row of the upper balcony of Sanders, this great mass of humanity left at least some listeners bewildered. Boisterous cheers coming after the Ninth from the nearly full theatre, though, told another story.

With little time to meet a request from the New York Philharmonic for an original composition commemorating the 9/11 catastrophe, John Adams worried about his being able to complete such a work. In his autobiography he wrote, “I recognized that the request for this piece was virtually a call to civic duty and that the orchestra was reaching out to an American composer, asking him to give voice to complicated, communally shared emotions, but I could not imagine what such a piece would be.” Who better than John Adams who has become for so many of us our American voice?

Words coming directly out of that awful and unforgettable September scene — “I love you to the moon and back,” for one  — and the names of those lost read one after another hold our gaze, their repetitions so purely expressed through a kind of chanting cloaked in sincere orchestral empathy that go straight to the heart. A lone trumpet in the balcony, pealing bells, children’s voices, a siren, footsteps — all convey clear of conceit something of the unimaginable. Adams’ account is as real as it is ever so deeply touching.

So you might imagine my frustration at not being able to hear clearly, especially the voices, the names, even the bells, from where I sat.

Soprano Diana Jacklin, mezzo-soprano Joanna Porackova, tenor Brian Landry, and bass-baritone James Kleyla could be gloriously heard in their parts in the Ninth. I couldn’t always hear the full chorus of choruses, but at the times that they were in the open, they, too, sounded glorious. The orchestra rose on occasion. Strings could tune better, horns be more reliable, winds more flexible. Quite a few times I observed Cortese asking for something but not finding his orchestra responding to his spangled direction. I am sorry to report that, overall, the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra held back both of these performances, being particularly stodgy and square in their phrasing of the Beethoven.

The concert will be repeated at Sanders Theatre, Harvard University on Saturday, April 30 at 8 pm.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in  Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.

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  1. David,

    Attending a live performance of Beethoven’s ‘Ninth’ is something I don’t look forward to anymore. It’s simply too much at this point. Ditto the ‘Missa Solemnis’.

    The mood to listen to these works just isn’t there for me.

    Comment by The Unrepentant Pelleastrian — April 30, 2011 at 1:41 pm

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