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Sunday, January 22, 2012

Concert Review: The Rites of Winter

Stravinsky Outside Russia at Carnegie Hall.
Conductor Leon Botstein. Photo © Bard College.
On Friday night, conductor and musical archaeologist Leon Botstein led the American Symphony Orchestra and the Collegiate Choral in a program exploring the music written by Igor Stravinsky in exile from his Russian homeland. The program was  part of the ASO's annual subscription season at Carnegie Hall.

Dr. Botstein assembled a slew of unfamiliar Stravinsky, opening up the composer's repertory beyond the composer's most frequently heard works: The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring. Instead, there was a wide-ranging survey of songs, liturgical music, choral pieces, and even a short opera. Like Stravinsky's catalogue, this concert was bewildering in its its diversity.

The concert opened with a recent discovery: Stravinsky's orchestration of the Song of the Volga Boatmen. According to the program notes, Stravinsky may have written this orchestration for  legendary Russian bass Fyodor Chaliapin. It was sung by Keith Miller, the former NFL fullback turned bass-baritone. Mr. Miller sang the steady aquatic rhythms with steady, powerful tone.

Mr. Botstein then brought in the Collegiate Chorale for The King of the Stars, a choral work that finds the composer exploring the cosmos in with rich choral writing underpinned by the orchestra. Mr. Miller returned, joined by mezzo Ann McMahon Quintero for the Requiem Canticles, a funereal piece that the composer had performed at his own last rites.

The wrath of God yielded to comedy with a charming performance of Mavra, the composer's  last opera. This is Stravinsky at his most playful: The Rake's Progress freed from W. H. Auden's pesky moralizing. The score features a poke at Mahler--a funeral dirge as the Mother (Ms. Quintero) mourns her old cook. It opens with a tasty love duet for soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird and tenor Nicholas Phan, that would not be out of place in Smetana's Bartered Bride

Based on a short Pushkin farce, Mavra is about a suitor who resorts to cross-dressing to get a job as a cook in his girlfriend's mother's house. The singers made good impromptu use of the concert setting, with Ms. Bird's shoulder wrap becoming "Mavra's" headscarf. A shave kit was brought out for the climactic scene, and Mr. Phan made good his escape by running across the stage and hiding behind the organ.

The haunting, antiphonal Canticum Sacrum opened the second half. Mr. Phan and baritone Jonathan Beyer sang long melodic lines, originally written to sound across the vast Basilica of San Marco in Venice. Here, the singers engaged in call-and response with the chorus, organ and sparse orchestra, bringing an air of religiosity to the friendly confines of Carnegie Hall. That pious vein continued with Babel : a short retelling of the Old Testament linguistic crisis featuring the chorus and narrator John Douglas Thompson. 

The concert ended with the more familiar Symphony of Psalms a work that is exceptionally challenig for the chorus. The Collegiate Chorale responded ably, handling Stravinsky's tricky cross-rhythms and harmonics. With the odd melody and rhythmic quotations drawn from the score of the Rite of Spring, this symphony sounds as if the prehistoric Russian pagans of that famous ballet finally went and got religion.

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