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Friday, March 28, 2014

Concert Review: He Supposes, Erroneously

The American Symphony Orchestra exhumes Max Bruch's Moses.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Sssh: American Symphony Orchestra music director Leon Botstein
Photo by Jito Lee © 2011 The Melos Ethos Festival.
Since assuming the directorship of the American Symphony Orchestra in 1991, Dr. Leon Botstein has made it his mission to expose audiences to long-forgotten works of the 19th and 20th centuries. His latest discovery is Moses, a two-hour oratorio by Max Bruch, written in 1895 when the Romantic tradition was breathing its last. On Thursday night, Dr. Botstein led the ASO in this work, joined by the Collegiate Chorale and a trio of up-and-coming opera singers at Carnegie Hall.

Bruch is remembered today chiefly for his Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor. In fact, he wrote ten oratorios on mythological as well as Biblical subjects. At the fin de siecle, Moses was one of his most popular works, written at the height of his musical powers. It is a large-scale retelling of four episodes from the Book of Exodus. Scene One depicts the Hebrews' arrival at Mount Sinai. Scene Two depicts the construction and worship Golden Calf, followed by Moses' rage. The second half opens with the battle with Amalek. The work concludes with the arrival of the Israelites in Canaan and subsequent death of Moses. In the concert notes provided. Dr. Botstein pointed out that Bruch was firmly opposed to the popularity of Wagner and the rise of music drama, and saw this heavyweight oratorio as a viable alternative to the Ring.

Despite his fervent anti-Wagnerism, Bruch was not above cribbing leitmotivic ideas, melodies and musical structures from Wagner's published works. The first half of Moses opened with muddled playing from the orchestra and an unusual lack of cohesion with the choral singers. The dramatic scenes that followed played like a fusion between Act I of Tannhäuser (with the Golden Calf standing in for the Venusberg) and Act II of Lohengrin. The confrontation between Moses and the worshippers of the Calf recalls the great chorus and ensemble in front of the Kementate at the end of that opera's second act. The use of a massive diatonic chorus and the addition of an organ to the huge orchestra completed the illusion.

Bruch's oratorio dates from 1895, twelve years after Wagner's death. Yet the style that he chose to accompany Moses recalls the other composer's middle period. There are clear and repeated leitmotifs throughout the score. Every time God gets angry, a 12-note progression sounds in the lower brass, recalling the decisive music that (in the Ring) represents Wotan's spear. Also, the appearances by the Angel of the Lord (Tamara Wilson) is supported by divided violins underpinned by organ, the same music that accompanies Lohengrin on his missions in that opera.

A work with big choruses and orchestra (Bruch originally called for 300 singers and quadruple brass and wind) needs singers with big voices. The most prominent of these was Sidney Outlaw, a baritone who showed great potential, resolve and beauty of tone in the oversized role of Moses. Mr. Outlaw managed a wide range of emotions in this somewhat limited libretto, summoning the wrath of God against the blaspheming idolators at one moment, singing tenderly of his love for his people in the next. As Aaron, tenor Kirk Dougherty was less successful: he mostly managed to be loud enough to be heard but had a harsh metallic tang to his voice that was less than pleasing.

The divine appears in Moses in the person of soprano Tamara Wilson as the Angel of the Lord. Her high-reaching soprano recalled Wagner heroines like Elsa (again, in Lohengrin) or Brunnhilde, and her appearances to Moses remind one of the Todesverkündigung. Ms. Wilson's bright but curiously weightless soprano had less of the orchestra to battle than the other singers, a minor miracle in its own right. However, like her fellow soloists, she was hamstrung by the lack of dramatic characterization and a less-than-stellar German setting of Biblical verse.

Mr. Outlaw was at his finest in the last scene, a series of lengthy monologues for Moses interrupted by occasional appearances by the Angel and the assembled (and now contrite) Hebrew people. And yes, this moving, beautifully sung farewell to life brought recollection of another Wagner work: Die Meistersinger. Moses' final address to his people is eerily like the last speech of Hans Sachs in that opera--except that Bruch replaces "Holy German art" with an exhortation for the people of Israel to live in peace and freedom. That's a worthy message to take from this strange oratorio, and one might speculate that that was Dr. Botstein's intention in reviving the score in the first place.

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