Mostly Mozart Festival (6): Grieving and Weeping, Rossini Style

United StatesUnited States Mostly Mozart Festival (6), Beethoven, Rossini: Maria Agresta (soprano), Daniela Barcellona (mezzo), Gregory Kunde (tenor), Kyle Ketelsen (bass-baritone), Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda (conductor), Concert Chorale of New York, James Bagwell (director), Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, NYC, 13.8.2013 (SSM)

Gianandrea Noseda, conductor Photo: Chris Christodoulou
Gianandrea Noseda, conductor
Photo: Chris Christodoulou

Beethoven: Symphony No. 2 in D Major
Rossini: Stabat mater

Misconceptions persist about artists even when evidence is presented that clearly proves them inaccurate. One such fiction that naggingly refuses to die is that great works of art reflect the creator’s state of mind at the time of composition. When Beethoven was writing the Symphony No. 2, he was in despair over losing his hearing. Sir George Grove quotes a close friend of Beethoven as saying, “You could not believe the indescribable, I might say horrible, effect which the loss of his hearing has produced on him.” During the same period in which he wrote the Second he also wrote “Heiligenstadt Testament,” declaring that he was hastening “to meet Death face to face.” Many critics including Grove have expressed amazement that Beethoven in his Second Symphony gave no evidence of his state of mind, that given his depression he wrote a happy work. The same inconsistencies have been found and questioned regarding Mozart who maintained his upbeat style even during periods of distress and upheaval.

Art offers a creator the opportunity to forge a new world where magical notes or strokes of a paintbrush take the artist out of the quotidian. Tragic music may come from a carefree artist as well as from a dejected one. We talk about the effect of the death of Mahler’s daughter on the creation of his last three symphonies, but are the seven before any “happier,” even the ones written during his joyful years with Alma?

In his Mostly Mozart Festival debut, Gianandrea Noseda made no attempt to find the tragic, if there is any, in Beethoven’s Second. Tempos were brisk, and attention to detail was the hallmark of this performance. The orchestra played crisply and clearly, even highlighting a few phrases that I had never noted before. The MMFO seems to respond best to animated leaders, and Noseda’s enthusiasm and energy were apparent throughout. The Second may be one of Beethoven’s “undervalued masterpieces” as noted in the playbill, but no one told this to Noseda.

Noseda took on a bigger task in leading the orchestra in Rossini’s Stabat Mater. While this is no masterpiece, it has delightful moments. Rossini had trouble with the piece (it has a convoluted compositional and performance history), and he wrote beautiful but often inappropriate music for the texts: it’s music that could easily have come from a Rossini opera. The opening Stabat Mater is mournful enough, but the dramatic center does not support the words. Cujus animam gementem, translated here as “Through her weeping soul,” begins with an oompah-pah in the bass and continues its rollicking way through mourning, grieving, trembling and torment. (Cenerentola might have walked on stage without seeming out of place.) The duet Quis est homo qui non fieret is a catchy dance-like aria that gives the mezzo a chance to sing in her upper range and the soprano the opportunity to reach up to the high A’s. The contrast between the music and the words “Who is the man who would not weep” is almost comic. Finally, in the Pro peccatis suae gentis, “For the sins of His people,” we get music that somewhat reflects the text. Two of the arias are almost instrument-free, supported by just the low strings; perhaps Rossini felt that for these to be effective they would be better as plain chant than as operatic-style arias.

Both soprano Maria Agresta and mezzo Daniela Barcellona handled their arias with flair when needed and were sensitively subdued for the few laments in this lamentation. Gregory Kunde’s voice was a little tight at first, but he warmed up as the work proceeded. Kyle Ketelson worked the wide range of bass-baritone with barely a weak spot.

The final “Amen, world without end,” a most dramatic and tricky choral fugue, was a test for the chorus and orchestra. Noseda went all out to draw together the different groups of instruments and voices, and at the end barely a second passed before there were shouts of praise and a standing ovation.

Stan Metzger