Holocaust Sorrow Precedes Beethoven’s Joy

United StatesUnited States Schoenberg, Beethoven: Brad Jungwirth (narrator), Twyla Robinson (soprano), Kelley O’Connor (mezzo-soprano), Dimitri Pittas (tenor), Morris Robinson (bass), May Festival Chorus, Robert Porco (director), Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Louis Langrée (conductor), Music Hall, Cincinnati, OH. 17.11.12 (RDA)

Arnold Schoenberg: A Survivor from Warsaw
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 9, Choral

Arnold Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw depicts in text and music the story of a survivor of the Holocaust who “….saw one day the Ghetto guards beating the old and ailing. Those who fled managed to hide in the sewers, from where a handful managed to escape to the forest. “ Written by Schoenberg in 1947 after receiving a commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation, the work culminates with the Jewish prayer “Shema Yisroel” – “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One!”

This is Schoenberg at his most mature 12-tone compositional style—no sentimentality, its jagged musical contours and blunt text compactly expressing the unutterable horrors of its story. The CSO played it to perfection, warming up for Beethoven’s Choral Symphony—a paean to the love of fellow man, juxtaposing its inter-denominational text to Schoenberg’s somber homage to the fallen. Brad Jungwirth was the bilingual narrator, deftly using the half-intoned, half-spoken sprechstimme Schoenberg specified for his narrative.

In Beethoven’s humanistic cry for brotherhood, the CSO flexed its muscles in a triumphant, electrifying performance, playing the work’s four movements with depth and dexterity—masters at the service of a great composition. The May Festival Chorus met the challenges with flying colors—as always, exquisitely prepared by director Robert Porco. The choristers sang both the Schoenberg and the Beethoven with passion and musicality, and in the Ninth, delicately spinning the ethereal pianissimos of the last movement and courageously riding its wickedly treacherous tessitura.

Soprano Twyla Robinson and tenor Dimitri Pittas were both undaunted by the perils of the final movement, with mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor’s rich voice grounding her colleagues’ high-wire act. Morris Robinson—one of the few true bass voices of today and a Cincinnati favorite—produced a stunning column of sound, distinguishing himself in his several utterances during the “Ode to Joy.”

The non-singing and unsung hero of the evening was, of course, Maestro Langrée, who knew exactly when to whip his forces into a fury and when to pull them back. Cincinnatians—both audiences and players—have already embraced Langrée and taken him to their hearts. No wonder!

Rafael de Acha