By Edward Kliszus
St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church on Park Ave in New York City was the perfect venue for Maestro Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra. They performed two works incorporating the rich sounds of the marvelous Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ with organist Paolo Bordignon, the Bard Festival Chorale directed by James Bagwell, and vocal soloists Soprano Anya Matanovič, Mezzo-soprano Eve Gigliotti, Tenor Joshua Blue, and Bass Adam Lau.
Famed conductor Leopold Stokowski began his illustrious musical career at St. Barts as an organist, conductor, and choir director. Here in 1962, he founded and directed the American Symphony Orchestra.
The cathedral’s nonpareil acoustics facilitated crisp instruments and vocal parts delineation with a glorious cathedral resonance. Instrumental shades and subtleties were remarkably portrayed and ensured clarity from rapturous pathos to musical pyrotechnics.
The program opened with Camille Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3 in C minor “Organ” (1886). When the organ spoke at the first poco adagio along with lush strings and harmonies, the amalgam of sound was exquisitely sublime, inspiring reverence and spirituality from Saint-Saëns’ melodic prose. Saint-Saëns was an exponent of purity, clarity, refinement, and Classicism, whom Franz Liszt considered the most excellent organist of his time. Admitting his eclecticism, Saint-Saëns dabbled in astronomy, lepidoptery, geology, poetry, and occult sciences. He said of his music, “I am after the chimera of purity of style and perfection of form.” We discovered these tenets in this work, as the Orchestra confirmed through its elegant delivery. From the final Stringendo to the closing bar, the ensemble propelled the work’s breathtaking, passionate afflatus to a dramatic culmination, audience approbation, and standing ovation.
After intermission, the Orchestra and organist joined the Bard Festival Chorale and tonight’s vocal soloists for Dame Ethel Smyth’s Mass in D (1891). A contemporary of England’s Sir Edward Elgar, Smyth is considered England’s greatest woman composer. She studied in Germany and was encouraged by musical luminaries like Edvard Grieg, Johannes Brahms, Clara Schumann, and violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim.
Upon hearing Smyth’s Mass in D (1891), critic George Bernard Shaw noted in his usual Shavian manner that “she writes indiscriminately, with the faith of a child and orthodoxy of a lady…” One may sense the innocence and psyche to which Shaw refers, and while the work might be attributed to lighter church music literature, it is not frivolous. The Mass indeed lies in the artistic sphere of the well-acclaimed Gabriel Faure’s Requiem or Francis Poulenc’s Gloria, and its inspiration is palpable.
The reactions to the Mass of many seated nearby consisted of softly audible orisons and approbations. One can draw spirituality from the Mass’s soaring, choric beauty, well performed by the distinguished Bard Festival Chorale in this astounding space. A listener might characterize parts of the work as products of musical phylogeny traced from a counter-reformation composer like Thomas Tallis to Smyth but with the chromatic fluidity of the late 19th century at her disposal.
Smyth’s Mass utilized the tenor soloist continually, with lesser but critical roles assigned to the three other parts. Tenor Joshua Blue met the challenge with aplomb and brilliance. Soprano Anya Matanovič provided soaring, inspired intones while mezzo-Soprano Eve Gigliotti captured the rich inferences from the liturgical text. Bass Adam Lau contributed with commanding brilliance and power. When the four performed as a quartet with the full Chorale, Orchestra, and Organ, they helped achieve astounding aural beauty and devotional rapture.
Maestro Botstein conducted with depth, confidence, precision, and mastery, guiding the ensembles and soloists to ensure the right mix of ebullience and politesse demanded. Program notes were excellent and included the full liturgical Latin text with translations.
Organ and Orchestra by the American Symphony Orchestra
Leon Botstein, Music Director and Conductor
Bard Festival Chorale, directed by James Bagwell
Paolo Bordignon, Organ
Anya Matanovič, Soprano
Eve Gigliotti, Mezzo-soprano
Joshua Blue, Tenor
Adam Lau, Bass
St. Bartholomew’s Church
325 Park Avenue
New York, NY 10022
St. Barts’s 2022-23 season continues with Lenten Organ Recitals, the first on March 5 featuring Paolo Bordignon and on March 19 featuring Alexander Pattavina.
For information and tickets for the entire remaining season, go to MMPAF.ORG.
American Symphony Orchestra
1330 Avenue of the Americas
New York NY 10019
For tickets and information, go to https://americansymphony.org/current-season/
Readers may also enjoy our reviews of The Players Present the 2nd Annual Artists Exhibition, Musica Sacra at Carnegie Hall, The Orchestra Now at Symphony Space, and The New Jersey Ballet at the Mayo Arts Center.