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Friday, November 2, 2012

Concert Review: Before God Showed Up

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
(Ed. Note: Here's the review of last Saturday night at Carnegie Hall with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. I know it's a little late in coming but things haven't been exactly normal around here.)
Before the storm: Robert Spano (right) conducts countertenor John Holiday
and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus  in Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms
at Carnegie Hall. (Photo by Chris Lee © 2012 Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.)
On Saturday night at Carnegie Hall, New Yorkers attending this year's appearance by Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus knew that a storm was coming. They didn't know that Hurricane Sandy would create the greatest natural disaster that this city has seen in a century, or that the venue itself would remain closed, due to the danger of a collapsed crane that has hovered over 57th Street this week like the anvil in the Metropolitan Opera's current production of The Barber of Seville.

Concert programs for touring orchestras are determined well in advance of a performance. There was no way of predicting that the three works on this program (Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring, Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms and William Walton's 20th century cantata Belshazzar's Feast) would share the common thread of depicting the interference of the Almighty on people's everyday lives, even as Hurricane Sandy barrelled towards New York.

The concert opened with the Suite from Appalachian Spring, one of Copland's most enduring compositions. Mr. Spano displayed the rich, dulcet tones of the Atlanta cellos and basses to full advantage here, creating a rich, woven texture shot through with the homespun authenticity of Copland's folk melodies. The sonorous climax (featuring the full statement of the Shaker hymn Simple Gifts created Copland's frontier idyll for the listener in rich, glowing detail.

The result of Leonard Bernstein's composing sabbatical of 1964, Chichester Psalms ranks as one of his most inspired choral creations. It is a sort of sequel to his Third Symphony (Kaddish) but much more uplifting in its religious message. The work pairs complete psalms with "complimentary" excerpts from others. Sung in Hebrew, it features some of his most adventurous orchestral writing, bold strokes of sound for the male and female choristers.

Mr. Spano raised a whirlwind of sound for the crashing Introduction, a sound that visibly jarred some members of the audience. From there, it was Norman Mackenzie's excellent Atlanta Symphony Chorus that came to the forefront, with a mighty shout of devout power and feeling in the opening movement:  The second movement featured a potent contribution from countertenor John Holiday, whose angelic delivery belied his imposing presence in the key role of King David.

The second half of the program featured Belshazzar's Feast, one of the most popular examples of 20th century British choral music. Like the Chichester Psalms, it uses texts from the Bible. But in this case, the Feast describes the end of the Babylonian Captivity, the Writing on the Wall of the palace of Babylon, and the ultimate downfall of the Chaldean emperor Belshazzar.

To depict these cataclysmic events, Walton calls for large sonic "walls" of brass, which were cued perfectly and given expert support from Mr. Spano and the rest of the orchestra.. Baritone Brett Polegato brought a powerful, orotund delivery to the key role of the Narrator. In the end, it was the chorus ( n the role of the oppressed Jews and the Babylonians at the titular feast)that was instrumental in depicting the wrath (and mercy) of God.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.