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Friday, May 8, 2015

Concert Review: Prophets and Losses

The Collegiate Chorale travels The Road of Promise.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Wholly Moses: Mark Delevan in The Road of Promise at Carnegie Hall.
Photo by Erin Baiano © 2015 The Collegiate Chorale.
The Nazi persecution of Jewish composers and musicians remains a permanent blood-stain on the history of 20th century art music. On Thursday night, the Collegiate Chorale presented Kurt Weill's The Road of Promise to close out their season at Carnegie Hall. This is a new condensed concert version of Weill's little heard magnum opus Der Weg der Verbeissing (presented originally as The Eternal Road), a massive opera-oratorio written as a vehement protest against the encroaching darkness of Hitler's Germany.

The Eternal Road was a collaboration between Weill, librettist Franz Werfel and producer Max Reinhardt, conceived by the composer following his own flight from Nazi persecution in 1934.. It premiered on Broadway in 1937 but has sunk into obscurity thanks to its six-hour length and massive staging demands. This new version (prepared by Ed Harsh) reduces the four-act drama to a lean two hours, keeping most of the original music and making deep cuts in Werfel's spoken dialogue. Sung and performed in English, the performance was led by conductor Ted Sperling and featured the Chorale and the Orchestra of St. Luke's and a large cast of soloists.

Set in a synagogue in an unspecified nation, this is the story of a rabbi leading a service as an angry anti-Semitic mob gathers outside. Against this rising darkness, the Rabbi (tenor Anthony Dean Griffey) retells stories from the Old Testament, chronicling the great deeds of Abraham, Moses, King David and other Biblical heroes. A large cast sing the roles of these heroes and heroines, interrupted by questions from a refugee 13-year old boy  (Eli Tokash) and a character simply called The Adversary (Ron Rifkin) who represents the voice of cynicism and pragmatism in the face of oncoming terror.

Weill's sprawling score incorporated an astonishing variety of orchestral styles. from Jewish folk-songs and rabbinical chants to the polyphony of Bach, the orchestral grandeur of Wagner and the atonality and chromaticism of his own late Romantic period. And yes, the music-hall style of Threepenny Opera shows up in a few key scenes, although this much more serious piece is bereft of the dark humor that laced the composer's collaborations with Berthold Brecht.

At the core of this performance was the Collegiate Chorale, a taut and tightly focused ensemble that provided a strong musical and emotional core to this wide-thrusting work. Whether commenting on the events of the Old Testament, providing the Voice of God (which was also represented by a solo singer listed in the programme as "Anonymous" or literally building the Temple of Solomon out of fugal building blocks, these choristers showed their mettle throughout. The St. Luke's players provided rock-solid accompaniment, playing this big-shouldered work with authority and poise.

They were supporting a strong group of soloists. Mr. Griffey sang the part of the Rabbi (who functions in this story much as the Evangelist does in the St. Matthew Passion) with fervor and bright, clear tone. Mark Delevan was an awe-inspiring Abraham and Moses, singing his lines with authority and capturing the self-doubt at the heart of each of these heroic figures. Soprano Lauren Michelle is a new talent, and her performance as Ruth brought a graceful soprano to the parts of Rachel and Naomi. Also impressive, bass-baritone Philupip Cutlip as Joseph, Solomon and Jeremiah and character tenor A.J. Glueckert as Jcon, Boaz, King David and the prophet Isiah.

The music was presented in near-darkness with backgrounds projected onto the triptych of white plaster panels above the Perelman Stage. These backgrounds featured stained glass to represent the synagogue setting. Mr. Harsh's reduction of Weill's score kept the action of this work moving inexorably forward, although the music lacks the excitement and passion that characterize this composer's best work. It is nonetheless powerful, and a work worthy of revival and further performance. If this shortening of a long dark work into a digestible form for this century proves a success, The Road of Promise will indeed go on and on.

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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.