Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass Crowns an Evening of Welcome Rarities

United StatesUnited States Sibelius, Dvořák, and Janáček: Tatiana Monogarova (soprano), Kelley O’Connor (mezzo-soprano), Anthony Dean Griffey (tenor), John Relyea (bass), Michael Stairs (organ), The Philadelphia Singers Chorale (David Hayes, music director), Philadelphia Orchestra, Alan Gilbert (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 18.10.2014 (BJ)

Sibelius: Night Ride and Sunrise
Dvořák: The Golden Spinning Wheel
Janáček: Glagolitic Mass

There was a time when the music director of one of the “Big Five” (or “Big Six”) American symphony orchestras was routinely excluded from consideration for a guest engagement with one of the other ones. Happily, that time is long past, and it was a pleasure to welcome the music director of the New York Philharmonic for a return visit to Verizon Hall.

I first heard Alan Gilbert conduct—already very impressively—during his student days at the Curtis Institute around the turn of the century. He is now in his sixth season in charge of the Philharmonic, where he has been making a considerable reputation not only for his actual conducting but for his innovative programming, evident most recently in The Nielsen Project. This is his multi-year effort to record performances of Carl Nielsen’s six symphonies and his concertos for clarinet, flute, and violin—great music that has been largely absent from the orchestra’s programs since Leonard Bernstein stepped down from the music directorship all of 45 years ago.

The program he presented at this Philadelphia Orchestra concert was similarly enterprising, if not as consistently attractive throughout its length. Neither Sibelius’s Night Ride and Sunrise nor Dvořák’s Golden Spinning Wheel can be regarded as belonging among its composer’s greatest masterpieces. Yielding to the temptation to compare, I would suggest that the Finnish composer’s evocation of sunrise is nowhere near as effective as that offered by his Danish contemporary Nielsen’s Helios Overture; and the Dvořák work is something of a stop-and-start affair not as convincing as some of the composer’s other tone poems.

The chance to hear two such unfamiliar pieces was nevertheless welcome, and Gilbert conducted them with skill and conviction, though I felt that there was a certain lack of sheer power in some of the more heavily scored passages. No such complaint could be directed at either music or performance after intermission, when Janáček’s monumental and thrilling Glagolitic Mass was given an equally rare and equally welcome hearing.

The orchestra responded to Gilbert’s crisp direction with evident enthusiasm, and the superb contribution of David Hayes’s Philadelphia Singers Chorale ensured that the composer’s idiosyncratic word-setting, which arises naturally out of the rhythmic patterns of the Old Church Slavonic text, came across with vivid immediacy. The four vocal soloists had less prominent parts to project, but they fulfilled their responsibilities well, with especially rich tones provided by bass John Relyea and mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor, and Michael Stairs made a strong impression with his performance of the work’s penultimate movement, a brilliant organ voluntary.

Next time, might Maestro Gilbert perhaps give us some Nielsen?

Bernard Jacobson

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