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Conductors in Haydn

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MUSIC OF THE BAROQUE

at Saint Paul's Church

June 6

CONCERTANTE DI CHICAGO

at DePaul University Concert Hall

June 10

Music of the Baroque ended its season recently with a major work from the Classical era, Haydn's The Creation. Like virtually all of the Mozart pieces MOB has performed in the last few years, The Creation had been performed earlier by the City Musick to great effect. (Duplicating repertoire is a tiresome habit of MOB's, given that there is so much repertoire that has never been heard here before.)

Much has been made of the strong influence of Handel and the English oratorio tradition on The Creation, but you'll be hard-pressed to hear much of either in the music itself. This is pure Haydn, more influenced by, if anyone, the younger Mozart than the older Handel. The piece is certainly one of Haydn's most adventurous harmonically and one of his grandest designs--Haydn was influenced by some performances of Handel oratorios with enormous forces that far exceeded anything Handel ever used. The work is always an audience favorite because of its programmatic qualities and its portrayal of the familiar Genesis creation stories.

MOB music director Thomas Wikman did a far more stylish job with The Creation than he has with the Mozart works I have heard him perform, largely because Haydn's phrases are more choppy than Mozart's lyrical ones and so they better suit Wikman's conducting style. The conducting here was still slow, but Wikman was able to make a convincing case for his tempi, and he was not as heavy-handed as he has been with his Mozart. Balances were good, as were instrumental ensembling and dynamic contrasts. In fact, Wikman's Haydn was better than that of most of the conductors who have been leading the Chicago Symphony in its ongoing five-year Haydn retrospective. Wikman got a beautiful string sound and achieved a more successful blend and balance of winds to strings--something he has always emphasized in the Bach passions.

The choir produced its usual large and mostly loud sound--part of the 19th-century choral aesthetic Wikman likes for such works. Which is fine if that's what you like, but more attention should still have been paid to matching up individual voice timbres within each section for a cleaner sound. Sometimes the choral texture was pretty muddled, though for the most part the sections were well-balanced. The solo singing too was mostly disappointing. Bass Myron Myers, who sang the narrative role of Raphael, was strong in his projection and timbre but very unfocused in his pitch and diction. His voice often sounded so vibratic that one could imagine he was being pounded on the back, an effect that was minimized when he held back his voice, which was usually too loud anyway. Soprano Patrice Michaels Bedi, who has become the leading early-music soprano in town, sang the role of Gabriel, but with an uncontrolled, tight vibrato that was very uncharacteristic. Was she adapting her voice to those around her, or was this just a bad night? Tenor William Watson sang the role of Uriel with apparent strain and poor diction, though he did manage some moving and expressive moments in his solo passages. The trios combining Myers, Watson, and Bedi in the first two parts of the work basically followed a pattern: Bedi drowned out Watson, and Myers matched her in volume but not in technique or vibrato speed.

In part three of the work, which recounts the Adam and Eve story, baritone Richard Cohn sang the part of Adam, and soprano Alicia Purcell the part of Eve. Cohn's voice was pretty wobbly, and his diction almost unintelligible because he overemphasized his vowels. But Purcell was in splendid voice--the best I have heard her--and far outshone everyone else, even Bedi, who, under usual circumstances, would have been the standout. Purcell's darting high notes and runs were seamlessly executed, and her technique and timbre were firm and consistent throughout her register shifts. She's obviously doing something right, and it's a real pleasure to witness such a dramatic improvement in a local singer.

The big selling point of Concertante di Chicago is that they, supposedly, perform their repertoire without a conductor. There's no question that this is a superb chamber orchestra, but this gimmick owes more to public relations than necessity. It's true that the use of a stand-up conductor is rather recent (mid to late 19th century) and that stand-up conductors are occasionally employed because of player sloth. And it's laudable that CDC, as they explain in their programs, perform through "observation and listening." But I suggest that they could observe and listen far more effectively if they dumped the conductorless gimmick. Not only is it untrue--each piece on CDC's final program of the season was performed with a conductor, though not standing up, which was a hindrance during much of the performance--but it also gives CDC audiences the false impression that a conductor is superfluous to orchestral music making. True conductorless playing is as likely to work as pilotless flying.

David Schrader conducted the first two pieces on the program--the Handel Concerto Grosso in F Major (op. 6, no. 2) and the Bach Concerto no. 5 in F Minor for Harpsichord and Orchestra (BWV 1056)--from the harpsichord. I had never seen Schrader attempt this kind of exercise before, and unfortunately it seemed beyond him. The orchestra was together, so he did his job there. But without a stand-up conductor to watch balances, the string sound became coarse, unbalanced, and extremely heavy-handed. Lines were clean but stodgy, and the string sound was overbearing (which wasn't helped by the concertmaster coming in under pitch in solo lines most of the time). There was little life or swing here--it was the kind of dry, dusty performance that gives Baroque music a bad name. I can't imagine that Schrader conceives this piece in such a pedantic manner, since I have heard him play Bach and Handel solo pieces on harpsichord and organ with lively tempi and excitement, and to great effect. Perhaps Schrader decided to take the approach of the group and not force an interpretation on them, or perhaps it was just too much for him to play and conduct at the same time, something one must do regularly if it's to work.

The major work of the afternoon, the Shostakovich Symphony no. 14, fared much better. It was conducted by CDC music director and concertmaster Hilel Kagan, who picked up his instrument only once near the beginning (so the rest of the performance had no concertmaster), then remained seated in his chair and conducted everyone from there. Why? He was cueing and directing in exactly the same way any stand-up conductor would, but neither the singers nor performers could see him as well. The performance was tight, but it would have been tighter if he had been clearly visible.

The Shostakovich 14th is a very unusual work, and you don't often get a chance to hear it. It is a symphony only in the sense that Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde is a symphony, for it is actually a cycle of 11 songs for soprano, bass, strings, and percussion. Written in 1969, when the composer was near the end of his life, it is unquestionably the most introspective of Shostakovich's enormously uneven symphonic output. Each song is a vignette about death--each offers another worldview from which to understand its inevitability. The texts by four poets--Federico Garcia Lorca, Guillaume Apollinaire, Wilhelm Karlovich Kuchelbecker, and Rainer Maria Rilke--are very cynical. But it is particularly fascinating that Shostakovich created a completely different sound world for each one--an astonishing variety.

This was a memorable performance of a memorable work, and much time had obviously been taken to work through the piece's many peculiar details. (It was a special treat to hear it sung in English.) Bass Henry Runey and soprano Winifred Faix Brown did very stylish jobs with their texts and duets, always evoking the proper mood and spirit of each--though they often had trouble with diction and with finding the right notes (no small task with this work). Brown also sometimes had trouble projecting over the small ensemble when its stops were pulled out (notably in "Malaguena"). Runey was sometimes weak at the lower end, and he had trouble keeping pure pitch when he wanted to. (This is a consistent weakness of many other singers involved with the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists--most don't even try to keep pure pitch, so Runey deserves credit for at least being aware that there is such a thing.) With more work he'll be able to achieve it, and his voice will be formidable when he does.

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