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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Concert Review: It's a Kind of Magic

The Orchestra of St. Luke's opens its 2014 at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Pablo Heras-Casado. Photo by Josep Molina © 2014 Harmonia Mundi.

The Orchestra of St. Luke's marks four decades this year. They remain one of this city's most versatile ensembles, at home in everything from Mozart to Metallica. For their 2014 season opener at Carnegie Hall, principal conductor Pablo Heras-Casado designed a program that illustrated his ensemble's flexibility, featuring four different pieces in a jarring juxtaposition of styles. In the end, this program's combination of Purcell, Tchaikovsky, Dallapiccola and Mendelssohn, four different composers from different historical periods, proved unique and ultimately, satisfying.

The loose theme of the evening's program was works inspired by great literature. The first half was devoted to Shakespeare, opening with the Suite from A Midsummer Night's Dream, a set of orchestral dances and diversions draw from Henry Purcell's five-hour opera The Fairy Queen.. Purcell was among the most important early English opera composers, with his stage works laying the groundwork for the baroque operas of Handel in the 18th century.

Leading a stripped-down ensemble supplemented by harpsichord and theorbo, Mr. Heras-Casado produced a warm, enchanting sound from his players. Separated from the context of tis huge work, these pieces are easy on the ears, combining Purcell's gift for melody with a rustic humor, climaxing in the ever-accelerating Monkey Dance.

The Tempest is an early Tchaikovsky tone poem, loosely inspired by Shakespeare's final completed play. The fully expanded orchestra (with harpsichord and theorbo removed) generated a fierce storm of sound, with the lyric love music sounding forth in warm-toned strings. Mr. Heras-Casado balanced this with warm, burnished brass and intricate winds, capturing the spirit of Shakespeare's brave new world.

The second half of the program was more interesting, led off by Luigi Dallapiccola's extraordinary 12-tone work Musica piccola notturna. (And yes, that title translates to "A Little Night Music" although there lis little resemblance if any to the Mozart suite.) A curative for those who find serial composition "unsustainable", this intricate, delicately orchestrated work charmed the ear despite being built entirely from tone-rows. The OSL players responded to the intricacies of this music with a fleet-footed performance, creating a ghostly gossamer of sound that bewitched the ear.

Bewitchings were very much the focus of the evening's finale, a rare performance of the Mendelssohn cantata Die Erste Walpurgisnacht. For this piece, the OSL was joined by the Musica Sacra choir, under the leadership of the seemingly tireless Kent Tritle, and three soloists: tenor Joseph Kaiser, alto Elizabeth DeShong, and baritone Luca Pisaroni, a regular in the Met's current production of Don Giovanni. These singers and choristers spun a darkly comic tale of pagan worship in old Germany under the very nose of the Christian church, with the singers alternating roles between Christian soldiers and the high priest and priestess of some dark rite.

Mendelssohn gets a bad rap as a composer from the modern listener, but this performance revealed this cantata to be a complex, dramatically fascinating work with skilled orchestral effect and complex, contrapuntal choral writing that involved the listener in following the machinations of the musical line. Ms. DeShong sang with dark, almost guttural tone, in passages that recalled the early efforts of Wagner, particularly Die Feen. Mr. Pisaroni was sonorous when needed. Mr. Kaiser's noble instrument was carefully chosen for this performance, and his contribution was the most interesting vocal performance of the three.
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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.