By Edward Kliszus
This evening it was my pleasure to see and hear a marvelous concert presented by the Oratorio Society of New York (OSNY) at Carnegie Hall for a full audience. As tonight’s feature work Kullervo by Jean Sibelius was to be sung in the original Finnish, I was curious as to how well program notes might ensure audience appreciation and cognition of the artistic aural subtleties of the music and language. I was pleased to discover Lawrence Schenbeck’s suberb program notes that guided listeners through each masterpiece, including historical contexts and complete choral texts and translations. A bonus was to experience the superb acoustics concomitant to a Carnegie Hall concert experience.
The Stokowski Shift is effective – instruments arranged clockwise in front of the conductor, violin I, violin II, viola, and cellos, with basses behind the cellos. This creates a stereophonic effect through the interplay of the violins and cellos while placing violins I and II next to each other to strengthen their harmonic core. The full effect is particularly powerful while listening and seated front and center. This is an evolution from the 19th century where second violins were typically staged front and to the right of the conductor to highlight the contrapuntal and harmonic interplay between the violin parts. As conductors and composers increasingly gained stature during the 19th century they exerted their independence and authority and based on their artistic preferences, experimented with instrument placement for optimum sonic effect. One can argue that this was the apposite arrangement for this program.
The concert opened with Hector Berlioz’s “La mort d’Ophélie” from Tristia conducted by OSNY associate conductor David Rosenmeyer. In this work, the orchestra and women’s chorale achieved an excellent balance to ensure each musical shading and subtlety was distinguished by singer and instrumentalist alike. As I have learned to expect from the acclaimed OSNY, choral blend was outstanding. One could clearly distinguish crisp part discrimination. That is, sopranos listen to each other with care and blend to project like one richly textured voice. Altos and other parts conform similarly. Masterful use of dynamics, articulation, and phrasing ensured that the work’s lilting melodic passages and pathos were expressed. Rosenmeyer’s conducting was precise, evocative, and communicative. With finesse, the instrumentalists ensured excellent support of the vocal framework. This was a model that was to continue through the evening.
Debussy’s “Sirènes” from Nocturnes followed and was conducted by OSNY music director and conductor Kent Tritle. “Sirènes” and their mythological songs entice ships and sailors to shipwreck on the rocks on their island sometimes called Sirenum scopuli. Inspired by the parallel impressionist movement in painting at the time, this work depicts, according to Debussy’s introductory notes, “…the sea and its countless rhythms and presently, amongst the waves silvered by the moonlight, is heard the mysterious song of the Sirens as they laugh and pass on.”
The women’s chorus and orchestra began with the idyllic and subtle sardonic song of the Sirens, capturing the essence and import of the music that subjugates doomed sailors and audience alike. Tritle’s conducting was precise and expressive, transporting his performers and listening participants into a mysterious ancient world. Debussy’s masterful use of the whole tone scale and other devices of the period helped support the character and mystery of the listening experience.
The tenors and basses of the OSNY and the Manhattan School of Music Symphonic Chorus and the OSNY orchestra set stage to present the third and final work, Jean Sibelius’ monumental choral and orchestral tone poem Kullervo, conducted by OSNY music director Kent Tritle. Kullervo’s character is from the Kalevala, a most significant work of Finnish literature.
This past Sunday, Tritle explained to me that tonight’s three works can be considered as existentially linked through tragedy and conflict such as Finland’s 19th century declamations of national identity, its struggles for freedom and independence from Sweden and Russia, and possibly through the literary and spiritual properties of water that include birth, death, peace, and violence. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act IV Scene 7, Ophelia falls from a willow tree and drowns. Sailors and ships at sea are drawn to the rocks by the Sirens. Kullervo is a doomed character with magical powers who dies tragically. Sibelius’ musical characterization of this segment from the Kalevala, national epic of Kerelia and Finland, strove to firmly declare to the world Finland’s independence, sovereignty, and unique culture, history, and language.
It is fitting that Kullervo’s story, a significant artistic and nationalistic endeavor of magic, mystery and tragedy, be presented tonight as part of a musical trilogy.
Why then has Kullervo enjoyed so few performances in the United States? Tritle explains that although this work represents Sibelius’ magnum opus and projects inspiration Sibelius gleaned from Beethoven’s 9th choral symphony for its grandeur and magnificent orchestral writing, there may be resistance in English speaking countries to rehearse and perform in Sibelius’ native Finnish. Tritle noted that singers today are quite open to the idea of Finnish choral music. As an artist, performer and educator, he believes that promulgating such important music keeps it vital, valued, and most of all performed and protected by the next generation. He explains that, surprisingly, Finnish language pronunciation is easier to teach to singers than French and some other languages.
Kullervo was marvelous. The chorus was energetic and fresh. Through their rich sonorities, Rusanen and Onishi dramatized their roles to best capture and illustrate the intrinsic dramatic features. The orchestra and chorus explicated the grandeur and soaring melodies with confidence and bravura. The libretto was powerful and ending inspirational.
Currently marking its 146th year as New York’s standard for grand choral performance, the 200-voice Oratorio Society of New York will divide for the third concert of its current Carnegie Hall season.
Do not miss the Oratorio Society’s upcoming performance at the end of its 2018-19 season on May 9, 2019, with Verdi’s thrillingly dramatic Messa da Requiem, with soprano Elizabeth de Trejo, mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis, tenor Joshua Blue, and bass Adam Lau.
Running time: Approximately 140 minutes with one 10 minute intermission.