in: Reviews

September 14, 2011

Truly, A Fine Tribute to Universal Brotherhood

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There were myriad ways in the United States of commemorating the tenth anniversary of that watershed date, September 11, 2001. Surely one of the most ambitious took place Sunday at Jordan Hall with the world premiere of Illuminessence, an interfaith oratorio by Silvio Amato commissioned by the Vatican to link together the common themes of the three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. This important occasion was entrusted to Benjamin Zander, the New England Conservatory Youth Philharmonic Orchestra, members of the NEC Youth Chorale, and the Handel and Haydn Young Men’s and Young Women’s Choruses. The audience was welcomed by Mayor Thomas Menino, remembering the victims of that tragic day, particularly those with Massachusetts ties, and thanking the sponsors who made this event possible.

The concert got underway with a rousing performance of the national anthem which only raised my hackles near the end when the combined choruses collectively took a breath between “star-spangled” and “banner.” The fact that this has become nearly standard practice makes it no less revolting. With 85 singers, stagger-breathing ought to be a cinch for those youthful singers who may not yet have developed sufficient breath control to sing the whole phrase in one breath. The preparing conductors need to give as much thought to the words as to the notes.

Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings followed. Early on there was some tentative playing and very approximate ensemble — no doubt due to the scant rehearsal time for a concert in early September — but things soon fell into place. Passion was held in check for some time, but when it came, Zander and his players didn’t stint. The desired catharsis was fully achieved.

The orchestra and the 14-year-old Japanese-American violinist Yuki Beppu then favored us with the famous “Meditation” from Jules Massenet’s Thaïs. It was fitting that Beppu’s dress was quasi-seraphic, because her playing was like a celestial vision. Additionally, Zander obtained a luscious sound from the orchestra. At the reprise of the main theme, the choruses added some gorgeous ambience by softly doubling the orchestral accompaniment in vocalise. This performance was pure rapture.

The main event welcomed to the stage three soloists: soprano Kirsten Scott, mezzo-soprano Cristina Bakhoum, and tenor Michael Kuhn. It should be noted that some Islamic sects discourage setting prayers from the Quran to music, and Amato consulted imams in an effort to solve this problem. In fact, he ultimately found multiple solutions, one of which began the piece: a recording of an imam chanting, soon joined by the lower orchestral instruments. When the recording finished, the soloists, each in succession, began the “Canticle of Creatures,” eventually joined by the choruses. This was an interesting Italian text with references to “Brother Sun,” “Sister Moon,” “Brothers Wind and Air,” “Sister Water,” “Brother Fire,” “Mother Earth,” and “Sister Death” Although a translation was provided, alignment problems regrettably left the last nine lines of Italian untranslated, and the source of the text was not indicated. The soloists and choruses sang expressively and with good diction, though at times I found myself wishing the music were a little more melodically memorable.

The second section, Sura 1: Al-Fatiha set the best-known Islamic prayer, “Bismillaah ar-Rahman ar-Raheem” (In the name of God, the infinitely Compassionate and Merciful). Interestingly, the music I found most memorable, generally speaking, was that which set Islamic and Jewish texts. I felt the Semitic material was more colorful and interesting, particularly in its creative use of orchestral colors. (How much credit for this goes to Amato and how much to his orchestrator, Simone Scazzocchio, I cannot say.) The Sura 1, for instance, began with a variety of percussion and wind instruments and had the character of a middle-Eastern dance. Again, a recording of an imam was used before the prayer was actually sung by soloists and choruses. The choruses demonstrated impressive dynamic control with sudden crescendos as well as subito pianos. All three soloists displayed very attractive lyric (i.e., lighter) voices that unfortunately got buried fairly regularly from this movement on. Either the orchestral accompaniment needs to be lightened considerably, or soloists of greater vocal heft need to be selected. The full orchestra (this one had 83 players) should perhaps be reserved for accompanying the full chorus.

The following movement, the Jewish prayer Adon Olam, also began with percussion, this time including tambourine, soon joined by an undulating figure in the orchestra. Though it was often difficult to follow the printed text, it would be churlish to quibble about choral diction in languages as unfamiliar as Arabic and Hebrew. The choruses and soloists all sang with commitment and conviction, and the spirit, if not always the letter, of the texts came through. After a tender ending, the Adon Olam led without pause into the Christian prayer, Praise the LORD, which began in Latin, later switching to the English translation. This was a joyous hymn of praise, commanding all creation to render praise: everything from sea monsters to mountains to cedars and fruit trees. This had some delicious syncopations and enjoyable tunes, though even the massed choruses were momentarily swamped by the surging orchestra.

Praise the LORD overlapped with the next section, O my father. The lighter orchestration here allowed the soloists to be heard distinctly. They were expressive and musical, though Kuhn had an unfortunate tendency to fracture the legato by aspirating vowels on melismas. There was an especially affecting passage when the orchestra went silent and the soloists were accompanied solely by the choruses.

The last three movements — Elohai (My God, the soul You placed within me is pure), Sura 2: Al-Baqara (Oh! Men adore your God), and Mio Ospite (My Guest) — were performed without pause. The emphasis was on choral/orchestral textures to which the soloists’ voices were sometimes added. If it was again challenging to discern where one language ended and the next began, the engagement and determination of all singers and players to make a statement about the unity of the three faiths was never in doubt. The end of the final prayer was interestingly unorthodox: “How deceiving to think of you faraway: illusionary space to my autonomy and yours: you can only conceal yourself in the present, you can only be in conflict, you cannot run from the destiny of your beloved image.” At the conclusion there was a standing ovation, and the composer, orchestrator, and conductors of the choruses came forward to take their well-earned bows.

The concert concluded with an excerpt from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony including the first choral statement of the Ode to Joy. Those of us a bit older than the orchestra and chorus members will remember a similar occasion in 1989 when Leonard Bernstein conducted the entire Ninth Symphony in Berlin at the time the Berlin Wall fell, reuniting East and West; he too used the Ode to Joy (or Freedom — he replaced “Freude” with “Freiheit”) as a hymn celebrating the universal brotherhood of humankind. An insert to our printed programs gave the German text in phonetic equivalents so that the audience could join in. For me, this was an ideal commemoration using the power of music: commencing somberly and in reverence, observing the common ground of three often conflicting faiths, and going out with joyous optimism and belief that these conflicts can one day be overcome. Kudos to Benjamin Zander and all his performers who did an extraordinary job with limited rehearsal time. And thanks to Silvio Amato and Simone Scazzocchio for undertaking this unusual challenge that, we trust, will be positively received by Muslims, Jews, and Christians alike.

Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. He is a freelance organist, collaborative pianist and vocal coach, and choir member at Trinity Church, Copley Square and in the Back Bay Chorale.

14 Comments

  1. There was in interesting event during this anniversary of 9/11. The San Francisco premiered during the last weekend a new opera “Heart of a Soldier” composed by Christopher Theofanidis on libretto of Donna DiNovelli. When I heard the news I was kind of taken back as it papered to me contrived and opportunistic. There were unfortunately too many of people in this country who use 9/11 events as tradable commodities, capitalizing on healthy American patriotism. In addition: another opera in English – it means another pitchy, banal, semi-poetic, with sophomoric metaphors mediocre Broadway show with pretentious overtures. Unless it was written by Shakespeare it shall not be English – it is my long standing attitude.

    Still, as I learned about the Rick Rescorla – the person after whom the main character in the opera was developed the more I felt that Mr. Rescorla’s life is very justifiable reason to celebrate it in operatic fashion. In addition to anything, during his service in Vietnam and during his evacuation of 2700 Morgan Stanley workers from WTC (circumventing the direct order to stay) Rick Rescorla educated his solders and his employees to sing in order to fight fear. As I understand Mr. Rescorla moved all his subordinates from the buildings (he was chef of security for Morgan Stanley) and then disobeying the begging of his wife he went up to the office to check is somebody still was there. It looks like the opera people made the Rick’s sense of duty, his relationship with his wife, his “use” of singing and his death as the main plot of the opera. Sounds like a powerful operatic setting for our days…

    I did not see or heard the “Heart of a Soldier” opera but I would like to….

    Comment by Romy The Cat — September 14, 2011 at 2:49 pm

  2. If high poetry is required in opera librettos, wouldn’t many, maybe most, Italian operas of the 19th Century would have to leave the stage?

    Comment by Joe Whipple — September 14, 2011 at 5:52 pm

  3. High poetry is required for librettos in English. Face it, there are languages that are more singable and less singable. English is fine to underwrite trade contacts and to create bumper stickers but to make it melodic and to make it not to sound like boulevard pop music it does require quite a talent. English is not alone. Russians for instance in the same boat: most of the Russian operas if librettos did not use Pushkin poetically sound very “manufactured”. The Italian operas of the 19th century do not really prove anything. In Italian you can use telephone book listing and it still will sound wonderful with music.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — September 14, 2011 at 6:26 pm

  4. “when the combined choruses collectively took a breath between “star-spangled” and “banner.” The fact that this has become nearly standard practice makes it no less revolting. ”

    Amen! Preach it, brother Wieting!!

    Comment by Josh Nannestad — September 15, 2011 at 10:33 pm

  5. It is a useful axiom, at least for conductors (and other leaders) that if something goes wrong it is almost always the conductor’s fault.
    So, I must take full responsibility for the offending breath. I confess I was so moved by the occasion that I chose a slower tempo for the National Anthem than we had practiced and then distended the end more that I had done in the rehearsal, thereby causing the necessity of the extra breath. I agree that staggered breathing could have overcome the problem, but the unsuspecting and diligent choral directors could not have anticipated this spontaneous response on my part at that highly emotional moment. The sight of two hundred young people, the youngest of whom were no more than one or two year’s old on September 11th 2001, a packed Jordan Hall, with the Mayor himself standing on stage with his hand over his heart, all singing and playing from the bottom of their collective hearts, caused me to call for more expansiveness of feeling and reverence than this wonderful song usually elicits. It was a touching moment, and surprisingly, for me, a highlight of the concert.
    Thank you for the reminder about that breath – I will be sure to eliminate it in future and may I gently admonish Mssrs Wieting and Nannestad and others who comment on musical occasions, to avoid words like “revolting”, especially when young people are giving their all. A gentle, kindly reminder is all that is needed.

    Comment by Ben Zander — September 16, 2011 at 8:29 am

  6. The Star Spangled Banner is a wretched national anthem and has been so since day one. It’s always instructive to witness a baseball or hockey game where the Canadian anthem is played before ours – a beautiful tune next to a miserable old British drinking song! The militant text glorifying war should never have been allowed to represent what is best about America. The fact that we chose this unsingable mess over “America the Beautiful”, for example, exemplifies what the United States, as recent activities have demonstrated, holds most dear. It’s time to get rid of it.

    Comment by duvidl — September 16, 2011 at 12:13 pm

  7. *** It’s time to get rid of it.

    Cellist Matt Haimovitz in response to the political absurdity that was dominating in US during beginning of Bush administration came up with his own phenomenal version of the Anthem. It was in Hendrix’s Woodstock 69 style by via unaccomplished Cello, purely acoustically and with much darker satire… Whoever did not hear the Haimovitz take you might find it “interesting”. I can see Siegfried Palm is laughing in his grave….

    Comment by Romy The Cat — September 16, 2011 at 1:16 pm

  8. While I am of the same mind as duvidl about the quality of our national anthem, there are infrequent occasions when I admittedly do find The Star-Spangled Banner moving and this was one of them. The sound of the choruses was emotionally stirring so that when they unfortunately ran afoul of one of my cherished pet peeves, I was the more distressed, hence the intemperate language. It was in all other respects a very fine rendition.

    Comment by Geoffrey Wieting — September 16, 2011 at 4:45 pm

  9. Garrison Keillor has maintained that out national anthem should be sung in G rather than B-flat. He is right that it is much more singable for most folks in G.

    And I love the lyrics of “O Canada” that I learned listening to Bruins-Canadiens games fortyish years ago, especially the words, “Car ton bras sait porter l’epée/Il sait porter la croix/ … Et ta valeur, de foi trempée/Protégera nos foyers et nos droits.” It can be sung in a good, rousing tempo. But I must point out that the first stanza of “The Star Spangled Banner” speaks only of seeing that an attack hadn’t yet succeeded, as evidenced by the glimpses of the flag which the author had during the night, hardly more bellicose than standing on guard for the true north (in the English version). In one case, the attack is underway; in the other, one is prepared to repel it (as also in French).

    Although “America” and “America the Beautiful” may have been around when Congress passed the law designating “The Star Spangled Banner” as national anthem, it had already been established in the popular mind as “our song.”

    Maybe we can all compromise and settle on “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

    Comment by Joe Whipple — September 16, 2011 at 6:45 pm

  10. *** ….by via unaccomplished Cello, purely acoustically and with much darker satire…

    Opps, sorry, I did not mean the “unaccomplished” but “unaccompanied”. My automated check speller and my legendary self-proofing “sometimes” do it….

    Comment by Romy The Cat — September 16, 2011 at 8:14 pm

  11. As the original reviewer made clear, the problem has become standard practice, and my enthusiasm is for reversing that. His comment was pretty clearly directed at the “standard practice”, not at any performer young or old other than conductor. My own students will smile at this comment thread, because they have heard it from me over and over.

    In my experience, most young performers can manage to hear flowery or intemperate language- usually it is their parents that are the problem.

    And, finally, I like our anthem. I wish we would all sing it at the ballpark, rather than waiting out the ill-advised melismas of a pop star that has only a passing acquaintance with the text.

    Comment by Josh Nannestad — September 18, 2011 at 7:07 pm

  12. Josh,

    since baseball is not sport but American recreation game then why don’t we sing our anthem in casinos, during the entering grocery store, and each time we walk to a basement? The Moronic habit to initiate baseball events with some kind semi-patriotic songs is the best devaluation of the country anthem.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — September 19, 2011 at 7:16 pm

  13. Well, Romy, I do sing the anthem for all those activities. I must ask you to refrain from using the word “moronic” because… oh, never mind.

    :)

    Comment by Josh Nannestad — September 19, 2011 at 10:10 pm

  14. The Psalmist of the Hebrew Bible would be surprised to find the “Praise the Lord” number described as part of the Christian contribution to Amato’s piece – (and not part of the “Semitic material”)

    Comment by chana — September 22, 2011 at 8:29 pm

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