IN: Reviews

To Blend or Not To Blend

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Jamie Kirsch (Santa Mila photo)

One wonders if any broadminded listeners other than this one followed up Blue Heron’s bracingly layered, quietly precious, and precisely artful aperitif of distinct and distinctive six-voiced learned counterpoint in Aeronaut Brewery last Sunday with a main course of 200-voice choral outpourings from the combined Chorus pro Musica and the Metropolitan Chorale at Jordan Hall last night, and enjoyed both of those radically different proclivities.

Jamie Kirsch led 241 singers and players in Zoltán Kodály’s Budavári Te Deum, producing the loudest choral entrance from which this listener has ever shrunk. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, or praise the Lord, indeed! The portentous 20-minute memorialization of the 250th anniversary of Buda’s liberation from the Turks made for a fuguing, pleading, and cheering romp. Four committed, declaiming soloists alternated with the choral outbursts in enlivening the Church Latin. I fully agree with annotator Reg Didham: “The final moments of the work, with the soprano solo and softly-intoning chorus leading to the last statement of the major theme of the whole piece in the low strings, are nothing short of magical.” Even though it is said to be in the composer’s Hungarian folk idiom, its churchiness and rather predictable orchestration generally concealed the lighter Kodaly magic familiar to listeners of his folk song settings. [example HERE].

Singing “Žil v klášteře od dětství; jak tam přišel, sám nevěděl, že děkoval však hříchu své zrození, tož Amarus jej zvali” in Leoš Janáček’s 1898 cantata Amarus, even with major language coaching, must have presented an extreme challenge. Except from the soloists, the articulations didn’t come through clearly enough to allow much vouching for verisimilitude. But it didn’t matter if the diacriticals deployed, since in our introduction to the work, we encountered an absolute gem of musical storytelling, imaginative and evocative orchestration, and successful setting of Jaroslav Vrchlický’s text. The story tells of a lonely monk who keeps a sanctuary light burning and hence himself alive, until he witnesses a pair of young lovers, whose embraces persuade him to let go of his sad life.

Baritone Bradford Gleim, looking and sounding like a great Elijah (more on that later), introduces the story and the protagonist with very operatic engagement and attractive production over a wide range, especially his ringing top. The chorus elucidated further, before the “tall, pale and very pensive monk,” in the person of tenor Lawrence Jones, sang with tremendous commitment and intensity of his agony and yearning for death—always sweetly but holding nothing back. Janacek penned a particularly poignant and mysterious moment in the interactions of tenor with oboe and harp. From the balcony soprano Teresa Wakim floated ineffable intimations of the monk’s ultimate fate.

Throughout the well-told tale of searching, suffering and redemption, the composer provided fascinating orchestration and characterization in his very satisfying and singular language. The orchestra sounded never less than adequate, except in some demanding divisi moments and passagework. Orchestral soloists though proved exemplary; grateful nods to concertmaster Rachel Kitagwa Shapiro, violist Caitlin Lynch, cellist Jacques Lee Wood, and clarinetist Alexis Lanz.

The monk suffers a gorgeous death on his estranged mother’s grave as a bird sings over him and the cantata fades out…or so it seemed, but an emphatic epilogue closed the work on a more outgoing and didactic and perhaps unnecessary note, as in the sextet at the end of Don Giovanni.

What a revelation we shared in this non-stop drama and poetic storytelling. The attentive and on-fire Kirsch and his colleagues brought us something exquisite to add to the standard repertoire.

Anyone who has heard Incidental Music to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” or the Italian Symphony knew what to expect from a first hearing of Mendelssohn’s Die erste Walpurgisnacht (1831, revised 1843), and could imagine it as something of a romantic tryout for the deeper and more advanced Elijah.

After witnessing some Mayday revelry, Goethe’s worried early Christians prepare to do battle with cavorting Druids just as the Baalophiles would later contend with the Hebrews in Elijah. But in Walpurgisnacht, the baddies get most of the tunes. Mendelssohn conjures fairies and a witches’ sabbath with his particular ingeniously refined methods. The Druids’ “…horribly bewitched bodies of werewolves and dragon women” seem to drive the Christians to distraction. Heinz-Klaus Metzger saw Mendelssohn’s setting as a “Jewish protest against the domination of Christianity.” We heard it on this night as a well-crafted music drama.

With a brisk, clear, and dominant reflexive beat and fine nose for destination, conductor Lisa Graham, maintained shape, drama, and good support of solo instrumental and vocal passages, while securing good balances by acting as watchman on the exuberance of the very large chorus. Bradford Gleim, active and dominant through the night, contributed Sarastroesque tones to the role of the Druid’s high priest. Mezzo-soprano Alexandra Dietrich, with creamy, consoling pipes, gave the distaff perspective. Particularly ornamental solos came from flute/piccolo Jessica Lizak, Vanessa Holroyd and Rachel Braude.

Perhaps the dramatic highpoint came in the call and answer discourse between a Druid watchman (Nathan Halbur, a Metropolitan Chorale Artist in Residence, in a well-projected baritone) with his uproarious pagan compatriots. “These insufferable Papist Christians/ let’s cleverly outwit them!…Come, with prongs and pitchforks like the very devils they invented …. Join us in our whirling howl!” Who could resist?

Kirsch and his Chorus pro Musica should make this collaboration with Lisa Graham and her Metropolitan Chorale an annual arrangement. We would love to hear a monster Elijah, or even better, the Eugene Goosens’s Messiah arrangement coming from those sonorous, well-marshalled, and well-blended forces.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer.

According to Reg Didham:

Lisa Graham (file photo)

Leoš Janáček (3 July 1854-12 August 1928) was, like Kodály after him, strongly influenced by the folk music of his native region, then Moravia in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now the Czech Republic. He was born in the mountain village of Hukvaldy, and at the age of eleven, was sent by his father to Brno to enroll in the Queen’s Monastery and its choir school.  Young Leoš was unusually gifted, even among a group of gifted students, and quickly impressed his composition teacher, Pavel Křížkovský. He was constantly at the school’s organ, and amazed Křížkovský with his ability to learn and play mass motifs. While he also attended a German-language secondary school, it was his life at the monastery choir school that had the stronger impact on the composer.

A master of opera as well as other important musical forms, Janáček was drawn to dramatic sources for musical inspiration. In 1897, he set to music a poem by Jaroslav Vrchlický (1853-1912) called Amarus (in English, “bitter”). The poem tells the story of a young monk by that name who goes to live in a monastery as an escape from the tragic circumstances of his life, illegitimacy and prejudice. Once there, he hopes for nothing but to be left alone and allowed to die. One of his assigned tasks is to refill the altar lamp with oil and keep it lit each night. An angel comes to him and tells him his wish to die will be fulfilled only if he neglects to keep the lamp lit and filled with oil. After years of faithfully tending to this duty, Amarus one evening is distracted from filling the lamp by two lovers in the church. He follows them out and hypnotically watches them embracing. In the morning, the altar light has gone out, and the monks find Amarus dead, lying on the grave of his mother.

It’s easy to imagine the composer being immediately attracted to this tale, and in fact, writing about Amarus’s composition thirty years later, he said, “The long, cold, quiet corridors, nearby hangs the silver eternal light, and Amarus’s quiet steps are pressing deep into the silent gloom. Add my youth, and how could the work not come about?”

Set in five movements, the cantata Amarus employs a shifting narrator, from the baritone and the chorus, to the tenor, and back to the baritone and chorus again. A soprano voice completes the trio of soloists, and the chorus divides into multiple parts at times, other times emphasizing the melodic line of one part with the others providing harmonic support. Many characteristic musical devices are employed by Janáček to express the drama and pathos of the story, especially melodic lines with seconds and fourths, and quick, repetitive, even compressed gestures. The style is also strongly influenced by folk harmonies and rhythms, with one prominent example being the chorus baritones in the fourth movement singing a rapid declamation of the text telling of the discovery of Amarus’s body, while the rest of the chorus sings a much slower version of the same text around them.The work ends with a calm epilogue, looking back at the story and remembering the forlorn young monk who finally found his lost mother, love, and peace.

Reg Didham is a well-known figure in the Boston choral scene. He has sung with Chorus pro Musica for nearly four decades, and lends his talents to numerous other choral groups. By day he works at the Albert Alphin Library at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee.

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