The Here and Now
Symphony No.1 (Jeremiah) Lamentation
Paul Revere’s Ride
Hila Plitmann (soprano)
Nancy Maultsby (mezzo-soprano)
Richard Clement (tenor)
Brett Polegato (baritone)
Atlanta Symphony Chorus
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
Recorded on 14 & 15 May 2005 in Symphony Hall, Woodruff Arts Center, Atlanta, Georgia
Reviewed by: Timothy Ball
Reviewed: December 2005
CD No: TELARC CD-80638
Duration: 73 minutes
The link connecting the works on this disc is, according to theprogramme notes, the events of 9/11. Christopher Theofanidis sets texts by thirteenth-century mystic Jelaluddin Rumi whose writings became widely known throughout the Muslim world; David Del Tredici’s setting of Longfellow’s poem celebrates heroism at the time of the American Revolution, whilst the finale of Bernstein’s First Symphony takes texts from The Lamentations of Jeremiah bewailing the fate of the desolation and destruction of Jerusalem.
But the Bernstein apart, the music is not unrelievedly melancholic or muted; on the contrary, the Theofanidis and Del Tredici pieces are positive, assertive and life-affirming.
Christopher Theofanidis – born in 1967 – a name new to me, has already acquired an impressive list of commissions, of which “The Here and Now” is one from Robert Spano who requested a work to involve the Atlanta Symphony Chorus. Theofanidis has selected thirteen poems by Rumi and organised them intoa cantata-like structure, largely choral, but with brief settings forsolo baritone by way of interludes. One movement features solo soprano and tenor.
The texts are philosophical reflections on the nature of human life; the composer describes those allotted to the baritone as “like littleparables with humour”. Theofanidis’s style, as adopted in this work, is unashamedly – even defiantly – tonal with eclectic allusions – conscious or otherwise – to a range of composers. Some of the rhythmic drive and declamatory word-setting have an obvious precedent in Carl Orff, whilst listeners might also pick up an inflection or two of Walton. Perhaps the open-hearted quality of John Adams’s wonderful “Harmonium” was also an influence.But unlike the work of some composers where the indebtedness to others is overt, Theofanidis does not lack personality and “The Here and Now” is undoubtedly an appealing and approachable addition to the choral/orchestral repertoire.
Beginning with the unaccompanied chorus, the richness of the harmonic writing is instantly noticeable, as is the colourful and varied use of the orchestra, with much percussion and what sounds like grateful instrumental writing. Each of the movements has its own attractive features. I particularly enjoyed the seventh – ‘The one who pours is wilder than we’ – and the ninth – ‘Drumsound rises’ – whose menacing march would not be out of place in a Hollywood blockbuster.
But I don’t want to give the impression that this music is allderivative. Its freshness is quite captivating and if the occasionalapparent naïveté of some of the word-setting might raise a smile, then this is not entirely inappropriate given the nature of the texts themselves which are sung in an English translation by Coleman Barks.
At some 33 minutes’ duration “The Here and Now” is quite a substantial work. It engages the attention throughout. The performance given here is most assured. There is some thrillingchoral singing (with ‘scrunchy’ harmonies bang in tune) and theorchestra plays with relish. Robert Spano conducts with evidentcommitment. Brett Polegato is a characterful baritone. The solo tenor and soprano singing in unison are adequate, though Hila Plitmann’s small and somewhat pinched tone might not be to all tastes.
I have ‘got on’ rather less well with David Del Tredici’s setting ofLongfellow, whose poem tells of the midnight ride of Paul Revere (a historical personage) who was sent to warn those who the British were wanting to arrest near the start of America’s campaign for independence.
Not the least of the problems is the difficulty of following the text,even with the words to hand. This is especially so when the soprano is declaiming long lines (not always intelligibly in this performance) against the chorus’s more rapid music. I don’t think this is entirely the fault of the Atlanta Symphony Chorus– though articulation could be more biting at times – but a more-forward recorded balance would have helped.
Hila Plitmann features again. The score decrees that the soprano should be amplified, but I cannot see why a more ample voice than Plitmann’s would not be able to dominate in the appropriate fashion without assistance. Her tone is not the most ingratiating, yet she can soar into the stratosphere as the soprano is required to do at the work’s conclusion.
Del Tredici’s setting is divided into three parts plus a finalecomprising a fugue, chorale and epilogue.
The poem is a lengthy one, but quite often the words are very rapidly declaimed, with opportunities for word-painting passed by. To be sure, there are some striking images, such as the (synthesized?) sounds in Part 2 illustrating “the watchful night-wind’, and the very start, with its disturbing sirens, is arresting, though I can’t quite get over the feeling that this would be more at home as the opening number to a Sondheim-tinged Broadway show.
Undoubtedly, Del Tredici consistently conveys urgency, but the fugue near the close, which combines “Rule Britannia” and “Yankee Doodle” sounds merely contrived in its quasi-Handelian development. Yet if it was the composer’s intention to reflect present-day heroism (Del Tredici wrote on the first page of the score “Written in Memory of the Victims of 9/11 – Especially the Firemen”) via historical allusion, then one must surely respect this.
Sandwiched between the two première recordings is the last movement of Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Jeremiah’ Symphony with its doleful, lamenting quality.
It is perhaps slightly incongruous out of context, though it isbeautifully played and aptly shaped by the conductor. Once again the soloist causes one to have reservations. In her quest for fervent expression, Nancy Maultsby’s voice acquires a heavy vibrato which has the effect of making intonation appear suspect.
Collectors of contemporary choral music will want this release as a matter of course, and I for one am grateful to be introduced to the music of Christopher Theofanidis.