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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Concert Review: Finishing the Exodus

The Cincinnatti Symphony Orchestra and May Festival Chorus at Spring For Music.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Conductor James Conlon.
Photo by Dan Steinberg © 2013 Los Angeles Opera.
The conductor James Conlon has a reputation for making fearless choices when it comes to repertory. On Friday night, Mr. Conlon brought the Cincinnatti Symphony Orchestra and the May Festival Chorus to Carnegie Hall for the fifth and penultimate installment of this year's Spring for Music festival. The program was bold and innovative: pairing John Adams' tripartite choral work Harmonium with The Ordering of Moses, an oratorio by composer R. Nathaniel Dett.

The May Festival Chorus is the oldest permanent choral ensemble in North America, an all-volunteer organization that carries on the rich tradition of choral singing brought to the southern Ohio region by German immigrants in the 19th century. In fact, the founding of the Chorus predated the start of the Cincinnatti Symphony Orchestra by 22 years, a fact pointed out in the pre-concert conversation between Mr. Conlon and WQXR host Elliot Forrest.

Harmonium proved to be a dense choral symphony, an immersive setting of three poems: Negative Love by John Donne and two by Emily Dickinson ("Because I Could Not Stop for Death" and "Wild nights"). However, the texts, (included in this evenings Playbill) were not much help in hdeciphering the repeated words, phrases and chopped-up syllables that Mr. Adams deconstructed from his source material. With the four-part chorus engaging in tight counterpoint over the chugging, droning orchestra, this was an immersive and absorbing work.

The Ordering of Moses is an historically significant work: a major hour-long oratorio by the Canadian-born, African-American R. Nathaniel Dett, who studied music at Oberlin Conservatory and the Eastman School. The work is written for a huge orchestra and chorus, fusing traditional spirituals (i.e. "Go Down, Moses") with a complex choral style and rich orchestration that evokes Anton Bruckner in its power, weight and rock-solid spiritual faith.

Unfortunately, Moses is also remembered for its 1937 broadcast premiere, which was yanked off the air 15 minutes before the conclusion of the piece. NBC claimed that the broadcast had to end "due to prior obligations" but the cancellation was more likely due to the slew of phone calls from racist listeners objecting to the fact that the work was written by a black man. Mr. Conlon chose to remind his audience of this historic moment, opening the work with the beginning announcement of the NBC broadcast and pausing the work at the appropriate moment to insert the shameful cancellation notice.

For this performance, Mr. Conlon assembled a strong quartet of soloists. Roderick Dixon was a potent Moses, using his high tenor to slice into the work's punishing tessitura. He was joined by Latonia Moore as Miriam. The soprano, whose 2012 performances in the title role of Aida sparked her international career, used her big spinto soprano to good effect in her solos and in the complex, operatic duos and trios that pepper the score. As the embodiments of the Voice of Israel and the Voice of God, mezzo Ronnita Nicole Miller and baritone Donnie Ray Albert made important respective contributions.

However, the real stars here were the May Festival Chorus. Whether engaging in a massed shout of humanity as the oppressed Hebrew slaves or depicting the parting of the Red Sea in a display of impressive counterpoint, these choristers never failed to impress. They were at their best in a complcated four part fugue where tenors, basses, mezzos and sopranos followed each other closely, creating an overwhelming storm of sound that built into a whirlwind of intensity. It was impressive stuff, and a motivation for curious listeners to explore more of the work of this important and overlooked American composer.

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