in: Reviews

June 24, 2011

Massive Undertaking with Problems and Goose Bumps

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The Songs of Life Festival, which runs this year from last Tuesday until June 26, features a massive touring ensemble giving the world premiere of Georgi Andreev’s oratorio, A Melancholy Beauty. The work had its first performance on the festival’s first day, June 21, at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., and came to Boston’s Citi Wang Center on Thursday, June 23. The work, in celebration of the rescue of 49,000 Bulgarian Jews from imminent deportation to Nazi death camps, is a massive undertaking featuring the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and a joint choir of members of the Indianapolis Children’s Choir, Victor Valley College Singers and Master Arts Chorale (Victorville, CA), Philip Kutev National Folklore Ensemble (Sofia, Bulgaria), Khorikos (New York, NY), and The National Philharmonic Chorale and George Mason University Singers (Washington, D.C.). Soprano Neli Andreeva, tenor Charles David Osborne, and baritone David Kravitz were the soloists. The production was seriously marred by an array of technical sound problems, but the work itself is a noteworthy and stirring endeavor.

That the work unearths an important celebration of humanity during one of history’s darkest hours cannot be debated. Andreev’s score is somewhat derivative in places, embracing Britten’s War Requiem and moments of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms (to name but a few examples), but weaves together various rhythms and styles in an effective tapestry. Maestro Henry Leck led the goliath ensemble with requisite efficiency and clear gestures. The Boston Modern Orchestra Project played exquisitely, and the driving entrance of the strings before the chorus of Jews who sing, “We’ll not tremble in cowardice, silenced by fear…” was a goose-bumps moment. Kravitz, portraying the insidious and anti-Semitic Commissar Belev, sang beautifully and brilliantly. In the fifth movement, when he switched to the part of Metropolitan Kyril (the benevolent foil to Commissar’s horrendous plans), Kravitz could have done more vocally to differentiate between the characters. Osborne’s singing (as the ambivalent King Boris and the heroic Dimitar Peshev) was bright and fluid, but his stage presence seemed oddly timid, as if he was reading the music for the first time. Neli Andreeva, who gave a stunning performance in the first half of the concert with the Philip Kutev National Folklore Ensemble, sang beautifully, but came across as stylistically incongruous. When singing the part of Liliana Panitsa, the nefarious Commissar’s secretary and lover, her voice was hued with “pop” inflection, and I was more than once reminded of Astrud Gilberto, the famous Brazilian singer. Had Kravitz and Osborne not been singing cantor-like and operatically (and appropriately so), the contrast might not have been distracting.

The large chorus was effective in the different groupings, but it was a pity not to hear more integration of the Kutev National Folklore Ensemble’s Bulgarian harmonies, as their sections were some of the best in the work. The Indianapolis Children’s Choir, in particular, gave a spectacular performance, with expressive singing and beautifully precise diction. The chorus as a whole, however, often sounded like they were far away, not due to their position behind the orchestra (which maintained an excellent sense of balance save for one moment in the sixth movement), but because of the bizarre amplification that plagued the entire production.

The first half of the concert was devoted to performances by each of the participating choirs (except for the National Philharmonic Chorale and George Mason University Singers). Given the sheer size of the Wang Center, I assume that is why the groups were miked.  However, amplification was not well suited to choruses, yanking out individual voices (and not always appropriate ones) from the texture, and forcing the piano sound upon the audience. This was slightly remedied in the second half, although the glockenspiel seemed to have a rather odd auditory pride of place. I was seated in the tenth row or so from the front, so it is possible that the sound was much better experienced by those sitting behind me. What was most offensive, however, was the incessant fuzz from the speaker on the right side of the stage — a terrible distraction, particularly during the quieter choral numbers on the first half — and several patrons complained. Both the sound technician and house manager explained (with varying degrees of tact) that they were only informed of the need for microphones that very day. Regardless of who made what decisions, the end result was disheartening.

Aside from the very distracting aural fuzz, each of the four choirs gave solid performances in the first half. The Philip Kutev National Folklore Ensemble highlighted the unique harmonic texture of Bulgarian folk music and a variety of different instruments, such as the kaval and gadulka. Khorikos, under the direction of Jesse Mark Peckham, delivered some of the finest performances of the evening. It premiered a work composed by tenor soloist Charles David Osborne entitled “Whosoever Saves a Single Life,” presented “in memory of the 11,343 Jews of Thrace and Macedonia who perished during the Holocaust.” The piece was lovely, but the chordal piano accompaniment seemed superfluous, given the work’s prayerful meditation. The performance of Monteverdi’s “Zefiro Torna e’l bel tempo rimena” was nuanced and attentive to the text. The group closed with a rather glorious performance of John Tavener’s “Song for Athene,” only temporarily sullied by ridiculously premature applause from some audience members. I applaud Maestro Peckham for sticking his hand behind him and quieting the clap-happy audience as the chorus finished out the piece.

This concert was quite obviously an inspired and meaningful undertaking by many performers and only really suffered from several production issues, including a printed libretto that was inaccurate. (I assume significant textual changes were made after the libretto was printed.) The revised libretto that came from the stage was indeed much better than that which was handed to the audience, so my complaint is minimal. The incorporation of sacred texts in Bulgarian, Hebrew, and even Ladino, was seamless and effective, although Scott Cairns’s libretto was inconsistent in its poetry, sometimes imposing a rhyme scheme that made the words seem trite. All performance and technical issues aside, the Songs of Life Festival is to be applauded for bringing this life-affirming testament of hope to the public. I trust that Sunday’s performance in New York will not be the last, as the musical and humanitarian message deserves to be heard.

Rebecca Marchand holds a Ph.D. in Musicology from the University of California, Santa Barbara and serves on the faculty of Longy School of Music of Bard College and Boston Conservatory.

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