Carnegie Hall was happily packed; some of Cincinnati’s population seemed to have moved temporarily to New York. Applause began when the orchestra took their places on the stage and accelerated when James Conlon appeared. Hundreds and hundreds of audience members had dark green and white neckerchiefs that they waved as they clapped. When WQXR’s Elliott Forrest joined James Conlon on the podium to engage in a brief conversation about the evening’s program and its world-wide live broadcast, the audience cheered; shouts and ululations reverberated.
Had the concert been anything less than marvelous, the pre-performance noise would have been perfectly awful. But the concert was splendid, and the hoopla was appropriate.
The first half of the concert consisted of John Adams’ ravishing 1980 Harmonium, the work that definitively established Adams as a composer who could make even the most complex musical shifts, turns and developments seem both simple and inevitable.
On many levels, John Donne and Emily Dickinson, whose texts Adams chose, are poets with little in common. What is remarkable about Adams’ writing is that he identifies their commonality their brilliant ability to make simple and familiar words carry profound depths and densities of meaning and makes of it his own musical discussion of the relationship between simplicity and complexity, matching in sound the poets’ discussions of desire and death, longing and emptiness, narratives fixed in time and possibilities loosed in limitlessness.
Both chorus and orchestra, under Conlon’s effective and excellent direction, were fully equal to the demands of Adams’ music. Singing and playing alike were consistently clear and unblurry. Singers and instrumentalists seemed to relish the nuances of Adams’ music, proving themselves equally comfortable with shimmery quiet as with wildly crashing, thundering sound.
In this fine performance, the musicians fulfilled Adams’ purpose: the layered largeness of the music successfully unpacked the poetry’s close-woven meanings. Musical daring was both exciting and accessible.
The second half of the concert consisted of the monumental oratorio, The Ordering of Moses, A Biblical Folk Scene by African-descended Canadian-American R. Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943), a work with which the May Festival has a long and complex history.
It was the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and May Festival Chorus that premiered Dett’s Ordering of Moses in 1937. Doing so was courageous. In addition, NBC radio broadcast the premiere. In fact, though, they only broadcast the first three quarters of the piece, interrupting the transmission with a claim that previous commitments took priority. The live audience responded to the work as a great triumph, but the interrupted broadcast was outrageous. In the three quarters of a century since then, Dett’s Ordering of Moses has not received the recognition it deserves. This May 2014 concert will help redress that wrong.
James Conlon and his colleagues made a bold programming decision. The original 1937 radio announcer’s introduction of The Ordering of Moses was played just before the piece began. Then, later in the piece, at the precise moment when the 1937 broadcast was interrupted, the radio broadcaster’s interruption announcement was played, a brief pause hung in the air of Carnegie Hall, and then Conlon directed the beautiful rest of the piece.
The decision to replicate the 1937 interruption was inspired: it reminded the audience of America’s difficult and continuing history of racism and it presented Dett’s magisterial oratorio as both an American story of triumph over slavery and a work of art that transcends its particular historical contexts.
Dett’s libretto, based on scripture and folklore, tells the familiar story of the Israelites’s escape from Egyptian slavery under Moses’s leadership. The text comes primarily from Exodus 15 and is supplemented by the old slave spiritual, Go Down Moses, whose melody as well as words are incorporated into the rich, complex music of Dett’s sacred oratorio.
As in the Adams, the chorus and orchestra performed beautifully in the Dett. Of particular note was principal cellist Ilya Finkelshteyn: Dett’s demanding writing for the first cello sets both tone and main theme for major sections of the piece.
In addition to the fine performances by chorus and orchestra, the soloists were marvelous.
Baritone Donnie Ray Albert, the Voice of God and the Word, was powerful: his authority and omniscience stretched from the depths of the earth straight up to heaven’s ends. Mezzo-soprano Ronita Nicole Miller, as the Voice of Israel, embodied centuries of anguish born from the depths of women’s hearts: she was the elegant and intimate quintessence of all of Zion’s mourning daughters.
Tenor Rodrick Dixon was thrilling: his Moses was virile, young, at once astonished at the task God has given him and then able to fulfill it. Soprano Latonia Moore was equally stunning. The prophet Miriam was entirely womanly and profoundly wise; God’s praise in her mouth was ravishingly beautiful.
The Ordering of Moses’s extended conclusion consists of Moses, Miriam and the chorus all together proclaiming God’s glory and Jehovah’s eternal reign. It is an ecstatic swell of gorgeous music, and Dixon, Moore, chorus and orchestra performed it with unabashed passion.
Adams’ Harmonium and Dett’s Ordering of Moses are both big, big pieces; together, they made the evening itself feel expansive. As something akin to an encore, Conlon led audience, chorus and orchestra all together in Handel’s great Hallelujah chorus; this fifty-year-old May Festival tradition also contributed to the sensation of exuberant musical inclusiveness.
It was an entirely wonderful evening.
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and May Festival Chorus, Adams Harmonium and Dett The Ordering of Moses
May 9, 2014
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New York, NY 10019