Orchestra of St. Luke’s/Spano at Carnegie Hall – Bach & Messiaen

Brandenburg Concerto No.3 in G, BWV1048
Trois petites liturgies de la Présence Divine
Magnificat in D, BWV243

Susanna Phillips (soprano), Sasha Cooke (mezzo-soprano), Nicholas Phan (tenor) & Joshua Hopkins (baritone)

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chamber Chorus

Orchestra of St. Luke’s
Robert Spano

Reviewed by: Lewis M. Smoley

Reviewed: 15 December, 2011
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Not often do Christmas concerts afford opportunity to experience a lesser-known work that also embellishes the holiday spirit. The focal point of this concert was an enthusiastic performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Trois petites liturgies de la Présence Divine.

Robert Spano. Photograph: J. D. ScottThe Brandenburg Concerto served as a curtain-raiser, its high-spirited and light-hearted character fitting the occasion well. An ensemble of nine strings (three each of violins, violas and cellos) and continuo of double bass and harpsichord, played stylishly, securely and steadily, weaving the work’s linear strands in perpetual motion, penetrated by canonic entrances made clear without over-emphasis.

Trois petites liturgies is scored for women’s chorus, piano, ondes Martenot, celesta, vibraphone, percussion and strings. Its florid and inventive effects reflect Messiaen’s conceptualization of the work in terms of “harmonic colors” and “rhythmic explorations” influenced by music of ancient India and the gamelans of Bali and Java. Messiaen often turned to religious subjects in his music but did not intend to make any distinctive theological statements here, although he did incorporate biblical quotations into his text, which, like the music, has a surrealistic quality.

Messiaen dedicated the three parts of this work to different aspects of the divine presence. The first, ‘Antienne de la conversation intérieure’ (Antiphon of the internal conversation), with text from the Song of Songs, is dedicated to “God present in us”. It is in ABA form, with the first and third sections featuring birdsong on piano and celesta. In the middle section there is a rhythmic canon with one part on the vibraphone and the right-hand of the pianist and the other on pizzicatos, maracas and the pianist’s left-hand. Added to this is choral chant that vocalizes significant words of the text, a violin solo with plainchant neumes, and a solo on the ondes recalling the timbre of an eastern clarinet. The second part, ‘Séquence du verbe, cantique divin’ (Sequence of the word, divine canticle), dedicated to “God present in Himself”, quotes Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews and Saint John’s Gospel. It is in strophic form with variations, continually alternating refrains and couplets, and the simple and striking melodic line of the chorus juxtaposes two distinct rhythms. Instrumentation is impressively creative, with the piano employing chord-clusters, groups of very rapid runs, bell-tones and percussive effects in the deep bass, the ondes gliding fortissimo over the top of the choir, and the strings in trilled chords supporting the emulation of the Balinese gamelan on celesta, vibraphone and piano. Also in ABA form, part three, ‘Psalmodie de l’ubiquité par amour’ (Chant of the omnipresence through love), is dedicated to “God present in all things”. It features spatial effects generated by the ondes, its widening trill-like effect embellished by its métallique timbre. The reprise includes fast piano runs in contrary motion, the return on the ondes of a theme from the first part of the work, a spoken passage for the chorus, and violent superimpositions of overlapping polymodal colors, all emphasized by the resonant tam-tam.

Singers and instrumentalists alike were completely immersed in the music, performing with enthusiasm and agility. Pianist Margaret Kampmeier was particularly impressive, executing with remarkable facility and vigorous bravura. Jean Laurendeau worked magic on the ondes. Much of the success of this performance was due to Robert Spano’s dedicated work with the Chorus, its members capturing heavenly serenity in the first section, articulated the rhythmically complex text of the noel-like second with festive spirit, and brought joyful élan to the frolicking segments of the third.

Unfortunately, such exuberance was not much in evidence in the Magnificat, Its twelve brief sections combine choruses with arias and a duet. Although all of the soloists had youthful voices, only Sasha Cooke impressed with her secure and vibrant singing. Susanna Philips sang admirably against an oboe plaint in ‘Quia respexit humilitatem’, but Joshua Hopkins’s baritone was too light to do justice to the bass solo. Nicholas Phan attempted to overcome rather restricted dynamic range by over-dramatizing in ‘Deposuit potentes’, which tells of the deposition of the powerful and the uplifting of the humble. Although the introduction reflected the Magnificat’s celebratory character the chorus seemed to become dispirited as the performance continued even in the concluding ‘Gloria’.

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