La création du monde, Op.81
Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
Symphony No.9 in E minor, Op.95 (From the New World)
Russell Thomas (tenor)
Eric Owens (bass-baritone)
Reviewed by: David M. Rice
Reviewed: 17 March, 2009
Venue: Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
This Philadelphia Orchestra concert is part of a Carnegie Hall festival titled, “Honor! A Celebration of the African American Cultural Legacy”. The three-week-long festival encompasses a wide range of musical genres, including classical, sacred and gospel music, jazz, rhythm and blues, soul and hip-hop, and includes concerts at Carnegie Hall and other venues, as well as several panel discussions. Soprano Jessye Norman, the festival’s curator, appeared to introduce the concert, which was dedicated to the memory of Philadelphia-born contralto Marian Anderson. Chief Conductor and Artistic Adviser, Charles Dutoit, whose tall frame and correspondingly sweeping gestures evoked responsive playing throughout the evening, led the Philadelphia Orchestra.
The programme included orchestral compositions by Milhaud and Dvořák that were influenced by African-American music, a song cycle by George Walker (himself African-American), and a Mahler song-cycle that Marian Anderson had performed in Carnegie Hall in 1946. Two young African-American singers were the soloists in the Walker and Mahler works.
To begin the concert, Dutoit led a performance of Darius Milhaud’s La création du monde, the earliest composition incorporating jazz elements that still remains in the active classical repertoire. Milhaud, captivated by the music of jazz bands in New York’s Harlem whilst on an American lecture tour, composed this work a year ahead of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Although the influence of ethnic music on this piece is considerable, it remains, along with the rest of Milhaud’s œuvre, quite characteristic of French post-impressionist neo-classicism.
The chamber ensemble of 19 musicians gave a delightful performance of Milhaud’s score for a ballet based on African creation myths. A lyrical saxophone solo, interwoven with interjections from a pair of trumpets, created a dreamy mood representing the serenity of the gods. This was soon interrupted by the chaotic double bass and winds, and quietened the double bass and oboe intoned a standard blues phrase (“Good Evening Friends”). A dance tune for two violins gave way to jazzy clarinet riffs, the music becoming progressively more rhythmic, percussive and chaotic. The ballet’s creation story ended with a single human couple as the serene saxophone theme that began the work returned.
Perhaps because saxophone solos are rather infrequent in the classical repertoire, and the double bass rarely enjoys the prominence Milhaud gave it here, I found the contributions of those instruments to be the most arresting aspects of the performance. This is not to slight the other musicians, as the individual virtuosity of each stood out.
Next, in the presence of the composer, Russell Thomas sang 86-year-old George Walker’s “Lilacs”, a setting of excerpts from Walt Whitman’s poem, “When lilacs last in the door yard bloom’d”, an elegy to the assassinated Abraham Lincoln. Walker is among America’s most distinguished music academicians, and this piece – which won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1996 – was reflective of the composer’s academic background and did not seem to contain any overt allusions to African-American musical traditions.
Thomas gave a fine account of this rather atonal score, clearly articulating Whitman’s unrhymed text with a generally pleasing voice that became more thrilling at the score’s most dramatic moments. Dutoit generally kept the orchestra in balance with the soloist, but did briefly overwhelm his voice in the second of the cycle’s four settings. In the final one, ‘Sing on! sing on, you gray-brown bird!’, Thomas projected a deep sense of emotion as the winds reflected the birdsong of which he sang.
The first half concluded with Eric Owens performing Mahler’s “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen“. He sang with fine musicality and a deep, resonant voice, but he might have varied its timbre more when appropriate to the text. In the first song, ‘Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht’ (When My Sweetheart Has Her Wedding) his voice was simply too deep to convey the cheerfulness of the birdsong that makes the poet’s world so lovely. The birds came through better, however, in Owens’s rendering of the succeeding song, ‘Ging heut’ morgens übers Feld’ (I Went Out This Morning Over the Fields) – which Mahler later adapted and incorporated into his First Symphony. Owens sang with a powerful and exciting edge to his voice in the dramatic ‘Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer’ (I have a Glowing Knife), and then in ‘Die zwei blauen Augen’ (My Sweetheart’s Two Blue Eyes) brought the cycle to a soft, funereal close.
Following the interval, Dutoit led the Philadelphians in a rousing ‘New World’ Symphony, which Dvořák composed in New York during an extended visit to the United States, and which was premiered in Carnegie Hall in 1893. Dvořák regarded his American experiences, including African-American music, as significant influences on this symphony, but it contains few, if any, direct allusions to such music, and is far more reflective of the composer’s Czech heritage and the Germanic orchestral tradition of Beethoven and Wagner.
At the outset, Dutoit emphasised the contrasts within the introductory Adagio between the gentility of the low strings and woodwinds and the sudden outburst and ensuing crescendo that lead to the Allegro molto, with the horns proclaiming the principal theme. Dutoit opted for power rather than speed, adopting a moderate tempo whilst evoking tremendous sounds from the orchestra, with the strings and brass resonating together gloriously. After the flutes and oboes introduced the second subject and the solo flute a third, spiritual-like theme, Dutoit again emphasised the orchestra’s power in the relatively brief development section and soon afterward in the dramatic and sharply executed coda.
In the Largo, Elizabeth Starr Masoudnia’s cor anglais solos were lovingly played, with the first violins and later a pair of muted horns interposing sweetly played variations on the same theme. The haunting melody introduced by the flute and oboe over string tremolos in the central portion of the movement brought a nice change of pace, as did a brief reprise of the principal theme from the opening movement. After the cor anglais restated its theme, a short but sumptuous violin and cello duet, a pp brass choir, and a rising arpeggio marked the way to resolution.
Dutoit dug into the scherzo with great vigour, the timpani and the contrasting brass and strings making a marvellous sound that one could not help but associate with the corresponding movement of Beethoven’s Ninth (‘Choral’) Symphony. The winds and violins were prominent in the lilting, dance-like trio, and in the coda the horns and trumpets again recalled the first movement theme before a sudden ff chord ended the movement.
In the finale, the brass section brought out the grandeur of the principal theme, and after a rather gentle cymbal crash (its only contribution to the symphony) a lovely clarinet solo introduced the haunting second subject. After a passage featuring tripping figures on the violins, echoes of the opening movement were heard again on the horns, and the Largo theme also returned, first on flutes and clarinet and then on trumpets and trombones. When the principal theme returned, Dutoit engineered a subtle transition from the bombastic brass to a gentler version of the theme on oboe and horn, on clarinet and then on the violins, maintaining that tranquil mood as the second subject returned in an extended passage played beautifully by the cello section accompanied by solo clarinet. Yet another allusion by the horns to the opening movement accelerated into a return of the finale’s opening tempo and theme, and Dutoit made the most of the last, majestic statement of that theme, the music’s relentless drive toward the finish, and the long last chord that faded away into a silence soon broken by enthusiastic applause.