Detroit Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin at Carnegie Hall – Caprice bohémien, The Isle of the Dead, La valse, and Kurt Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins with Storm Large

Caprice bohémien, Op.12
The Isle of the Dead, Op.29
The Seven Deadly Sins [Die sieben Todsünden] – A Ballet with Song to a text by Bertolt Brecht [sung in the English translation by W. H. Auden & Chester Kallman]
La valse – poème chorégraphique

Storm Large (singer) with Jorge Garza & Carl Moe (tenors) and Anton Belov & Richard Zeller (baritones) [Weill]

Detroit Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 9 May, 2013
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Leonard Slatkin. Photograph: Donald Dietz/Detroit Symphony OrchestraThis concert by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, its first Carnegie Hall appearance in seventeen years, was a welcome reminder of its stature among America’s finest orchestras. Originally slated for only one night in this “Spring for Music” festival week – music director Leonard Slatkin conducing Charles Ives’s four symphonies – the DSO stepped into this slot as well when the Oregon Symphony withdrew. “Spring for Music”, now in its third year, brings good American orchestras, often from smaller cities, to Carnegie Hall, offering eclectic and unfamiliar repertoire, with every seat priced at $25. About half of the audience members were Detroiters waving red bandanas to greet their orchestra.

Slatkin retained Kurt Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins with vocalist Storm Large and Ravel’s La valse from the Oregon Symphony’s planned program, performing them in Detroit beforehand, and preceded them with two works by Rachmaninov. The Caprice, written when he was 21, more strongly reflects the influences of Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov than does The Isle of the Dead, composed some 15 years later in response to Böcklin’s eponymous painting. Both works set a gloomy picture to begin, but the Caprice has a more generous sprinkling of brighter episodes and upbeat rhythms, and flashier orchestration. There were fine solos from principal flute, clarinet and cello, and the wind and brass players seized the work’s many opportunities to show off, not least in the exhilarating close. The Isle of the Dead proved the more interesting work, however, richer in its harmonic underpinnings as well as in the subtleties of its orchestration. Accented above by interjections from the trumpets and supported by the low brass, the strings, especially the cellos and basses, played marvelously, with concertmaster Yoonshin Song visibly providing strong leadership as well as contributing brilliant solos. Slatkin shaped the piece skillfully, guiding it to a soft and satisfying ending.

Storm LargeThe Seven Deadly Sins defies categorization. It is neither an opera nor a ballet, nor is it a cantata or a song-cycle, although it has elements of all of these genres. Although Weill calls for two performers – a singer and a dancer – to portray the two sides of the personality of the protagonist, Anna, here they were taken by Storm Large, whose career has principally been in pop and rock music and musical theater. She used gestures, props and stage business to create a charming character. She also managed some dance-like gyrations – particularly in the ‘Pride’ section, set in a Memphis strip club – although this was hardly up to the level of George Balanchine’s choreography for the work’s 1933 premiere in Paris, where Weill had fled from Nazi Germany. The absence of a second portrayer made Anna’s references to “my sister” confusing, particularly as her family sings of only one daughter.

Having a barbershop quartet represent Anna’s family, with the lowest voice (Richard Zeller) portraying her mother, the highest (Jorge Garza) her father, with Carl Moe and Anton Belov as her brothers, added a humorous touch. All four were excellent but over-amplified – needlessly so, given the operatic quality of their voices. The less-than-operatic Large sang directly into a microphone, coming through with crystal-clear enunciation, which was quite important since the text was not provided in either printed or projected form. That also had the effect of making it nearly impossible to understand all of the overlapping words in some of the quartet’s polyphonic passages.

In the languid ‘Prologue’, introduced by haunting woodwinds, Anna sets out from her family home in Louisiana on a seven-year, cross-country odyssey to earn enough money to return and build a little house on the Mississippi River. Seven sections follow, each corresponding to one of the Deadly Sins and set in a different American city, although the music rarely seems evocative of the sin in question. The most amusing section was ‘Gluttony’ in which the family admonishes Anna, who is dancing in Philadelphia, to keep her weight down by thinking of the more delicious foods of Louisiana (the catalog of culinary delights having been updated from Brecht’s original list, however). In ‘Envy’, the last of the Seven Sins, Anna and her family resolve to resist temptations, and in the quiet epilogue a happy Anna realizes her dream.

Weill’s music, his last composition in his jazz-influenced European theatrical style most famously used for The Threepenny Opera, made for easy and pleasant listening, with the orchestra often secondary to the vocalists, but performing the score with great gusto under Slatkin’s energetic direction. This was a very entertaining performance of an unusual and interesting work.Finally, Slatkin led a scintillating performance of Ravel’s La valse, drawing virtuoso playing from the DSO. By systematically deconstructing the waltz form, Ravel brilliantly symbolizes the crumbling of the old order wrought by World War One and its aftermath. The dissonant, shattering conclusion, in which the waltz’s characteristic meter suddenly disappears, brought the concert to a dramatic finish.

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