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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Concert Review: Pyramids and Floods

The Collegiate Chorale premieres works by Glass and Golijov.
by Paul J. Pelkonen


Pyramid scheme: James Bagwell (center) leads the
Collegiate Chorale and the American Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall..
Photo by Erin Baiano © 2013 The Collegiate Chorale.

Last night at Carnegie Hall saw the Collegiate Chorale offer two of the more interesting New York premieres of the 2012-2013 season. The concert, performed with the American Symphony Orchestra under the baton of James Bagwell offered Philip Glass' Symphony No. 7 (the Toltec) with Oceana, a cantata by the Argentinean composer Osvaldo Golijov.



The Glass work came first. Philip Glass is best known for his lengthy biographical operas, which span his career and offer meditations on the lives of such luminaries as Albert Einstein, (Einstein on the Beach) Mahatma Gandhi (Satyagraha) and Johannes Kepler. With this 2004 symphony, he turns his imagination to the religious practices of the Toltec peoples, in a three movement work for orchestra, percussion and large chorus. Each movement is named for an element of the Wirrakira trinity, sacred to the Toltecs of ancient Mexico.

In a standard symphonic development, musical ideas are presented, developed, improved upon and often recapitulated. Mr. Glass does not work that way. His movements are a series of continuous musical ideas, that start fully formed and then are played, repeated and then dropped for the next idea. The work is built from these tiny melodic cells, which together create vast, long-form structures that become almost organic in their shape.



That approach could clearly be heard in Corn, the first movement of the Toltec Symphony. Performed without the chorus, this section laid out the work's melodic ideas with clarity and rhythmic drive. The second, Sacred Root, featured the composer's wordless transcription of a  90-year-old Mexican-Indian storyteller. This was a fast, mostly sung choral movement with driving rhythms. The piece ended with Blue Deer, a long, massage-like slow movement that ended in a series of quasi-syllabic, fortissimo chords.

Osvaldo Golijov was inspired to write Oceana as part of a project celebrating the 250th birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach. This work is written for a small (Bach-sized) orchestra consisting of strings, flutes, two classical guitars and exotic percussion including rain-sticks and talking drums. The text is adopted from the poetry of Pablo Neruda, although Mr. Golijov recuts and re-edits the text into an unrecognizable but musically pleasing shape.

In the opening Call, rain-sticks spattered and flutes played long lines to evoke the mystery of the sea. T They were joined by soloist Biela da Costa, a Venezuelan jazz singer who alternated between poetic discourse and vocal melismas, giving an almost operatic quality to this multifaceted, polyrhythmic music. With the first proper movement (First Wave) the chorus entered, proclaiming the title "O-ce-Ah-na" in a four chord figure that resembled the crashing weight of water.

Two more Waves were followed by an Aria, a wordless section for Ms. Da Costa featuring the Manhattan Girls Chorus and more flutes and rain sticks. The final section, Coral di Arrecife ("Chorale of the Reef") incorporated some of Neruda's beautiful nautical imagery with the slow sound of the chorus fading to silence--Mr. Golijov's depiction of the tide rolling out.


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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.