A New, In-House Chorus Tackles the Profane—and the Sacred

United StatesUnited States Beethoven, Orff: Olga Pudova (soprano), Nicholas Phan (tenor), Stephen Powell (baritone), Philadelphia Symphonic Choir (Joe Miller, director), American Boychoir (Fernando Malvar-Ruiz, music director), Philadelphia Orchestra / Cristian Măcelaru (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 10.12.2016. (BJ)

10 December
Beethoven – Symphony No.2 in D major, Op. 36
Orff – Carmina Burana

United StatesUnited States Handel, Messiah: Ying Fang (soprano), Angela Brower (mezzo-soprano), Lawrence Wiliford (tenor), Stephen Powell (baritone), Philadelphia Symphonic Choir (Joe Miller, director), Peter Conte (organ), Davyd Booth (harpsichord), Priscilla Lee (cello),, Harold Robinson (double bass),  Mark Gigliotti (bassoon), Philadelphia Orchestra / Nathalie Stutzmann (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 18.12.2016. (BJ)

18 December
HandelThe Messiah

If the splendid new Philadelphia Symphonic Choir made a more spectacular impression in Orff’s Carmina Burana than in Handel’s Messiah a week later, this was due to the difference in the work of the two conductors involved.

Cristian Măcelaru, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s conductor-in-residence, opened his program with a performance of Beethoven’s Second Symphony that served as fresh proof of his quality. Deploying a technique that leaves the left hand free to be brought into action only for specific expressive purposes, he set sensible tempos, and drew admirably alert playing from the orchestra, with Angela Zator Nelson contributing some particularly effective measured rolls on the timpani. The only thing that I felt might have added to the effect of the whole would have been a touch more flexibility in phrasing: when conducting the Larghetto second movement, it might be useful for Maestro Măcelaru to spend a little time examining the account Beethoven’s biographer Anton Schindler left of the composer’s own fascinatingly free handling of tempo.

Principal timpanist Don S. Liuzzi duly and masterfully took over after intermission for Orff’s more outwardly spectacular “profane cantata,” which featured irresistibly zestful playing from the percussion and brass sections, along with excellent work from all the other instruments. The vocal aspects of this Carmina Burana performance were for the most part handled with equal skill and artistry. Making its inaugural appearance in this program, the choir showed itself to be at least the equal in tone quality, precision of ensemble and diction, and expressive power to any of the choirs that have previously appeared with the orchestra. Particularly impressive was the precision of intonation that made final chords radiantly ring. And in “Amor volat undique,” their one chance to shine, the young members of the American Boychoir measured up well to the exploits of their seniors.

Among the soloists, Stephen Powell was the only one of the three to perform without a copy of the music in front of him, and it may be that this usually no more than pragmatic point helped to channel his evidently intimate knowledge of the work, and to enhance the vividness his admirably warm and solid baritone brought to expressing its sometimes raunchy nuances. Tenor Nicholas Phan sang the song of the roasted swan firmly enough, though I didn’t think he realized the falsetto character of his part very effectively. And in her United States debut, Russian soprano Olga Pudova—if a tad underpowered at times—revealed an attractive lyric voice, and rose beautifully to the delicate challenge of the character’s sexual surrender in “Dulcissime, totam tibi subdo me.”

Carmina Burana is a work I can enjoy hearing perhaps once in five years, and this was a performance so lively, joyous, and tellingly detailed as to make the very best of it. Messiah, by contrast, is a masterpiece I can never get enough of—even though it is far from being one of Handel’s very greatest works—and I come to any new encounter with it after a long history of dozens, even hundreds, of previous experiences, including the revelatory account Yannick Nézet-Séguin gave here just a year ago.

Anyone expecting a Messiah of similar transcendence this time around was, I fear, in for a disappointment. There were many lovely elements to be relished, including once again the inherent virtues of the chorus. But though all of the widely varied technical challenges of the choral part were met with consummate skill and, where appropriate, virtuosity, the conductor, Nathalie Stutzmann, displayed a penchant for mannered extremes of dynamics that had her constantly pushing the singers to the brink of inaudibility and pulling them back from it. We heard, for example, “that taketh away” in a near-breathless pianissimo, immediately followed by a sturdy mezzo-forte for “the sins of the world.” Her tempos, too, were often so vertiginous that, while it was clear that the chorus was coping brilliantly with the rapid articulation needed, it was not always possible to actually hear the music with any sense of artistic or expressive communication.

The afternoon, moreover, got off to a remarkably disappointing start, revealing Stutzmann to be either unacquainted with the stylistic assumptions of Handel’s time or happy to ignore them. Her failure to double-dot the rhythm of the overture’s slow introduction might not unjustly provoke a charge of sheer stylistic illiteracy, and the main section that followed was far too fast for a Handelian Allegro in 4-4, not alla breve, meter.

The notion of a “complete” Messiah is purely chimerical, for the composer made frequent changes to the score, including additions and subtractions of entire sections, in response to the circumstances and personnel of each performance. So if I complain at this performance’s omission of some of my favorite choruses and airs, such as “Let all the angels of God worship him” and “O death, death, where is thy sting,” I am merely expressing personal taste. But making internal cuts within an included aria must surely be regarded as no mere personal choice but as an artistically improper act. In comparison with most of Handel’s large-scale choral works and operas, Messiah contains very few airs in the A-B-A pattern, with a middle section followed by a da capo repeat of the main section that invites fresh ornamentation from the soloist. The alto’s “He was despised” is the only full-scale example of this design in Handel’s original version, and to skip the orchestral beginning of the da capo and confine the singer to repeating only a few scattered phrases from the opening section is to commit a dismemberment of a shameful nature.

The soloist in this air, mezzo-soprano Angela Bower, has a beautiful voice and sang with some skill, but the ends of her phrases were always getting lost to the ear, partly because, in addition to having her eyes buried in her score far too much of the time, she also has a habit of looking down at it just before the end of a phrase. (Incidentally, to turn as she did to the tenor soloist sitting next to her with a conversational remark while the chorus was singing can hardly be regarded as setting a good example to audience members who may already be unaware that talking while the music is on is a breach of good manners and shows a lack of consideration for their fellow listeners.)

Baritone Stephen Powell, returning from Carmina Burana, once again made an excellent impression. His delivery of the Accompagnato “For behold, darkness shall cover the earth” was superbly delicate, and, in more forthright vein, he was equally good in “The trumpet shall sound,” where, however, the conductor did not manage the orchestra well enough to allow the neatly played trumpet obbligato to shine and dominate the texture as it should. Lawrence Wiliford offered a cultivated account of the tenor solos, with some appropriately caressing treatment of his gentler passages in Part II. But the most compelling solo work came from the Chinese soprano Ying Fang. Her warm tone, firm line, sympathetic expression, and exemplary diction (discreet yet crisp final consonants contrasting notably with the shortcomings in that regard noted above) brought this listener to the edge of tears, and certainly aroused keen expectations for her Susanna in Opera Philadelphia’s Le nozze di Figaro, scheduled for April.

Bernard Jacobson

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