Authentic Selves [2]: In pursuit of love – NY Philharmonic and countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo

United StatesUnited States Various: Anthony Roth Costanzo (countertenor), New York Philharmonic / Jaap van Zweden (conductor). Alice Tully Hall, New York, 4.2.2022. (RP)

Anthony Roth Costanzo (countertenor), Jaap van Zweden (conductor) and the New York Philharmonic © Chris Lee

Beethoven – Leonore Overture, No.3 Op.72a
Berlioz – Les Nuits d’été, Op.7
Gregory Spears & Tracy K. Smith – Love Story
Julian Eastman – Symphony No.II The Faithful Friend: The Lover Friend’s Love for the Beloved

The New York Philharmonic and countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo are continuing their exploration of questions of identity entitled Authentic Selves: The Beauty Within. In the latest performance, Costanzo, the singer and artist, was on full display, and the music took center stage. In the prior week’s concert (review click here), his personality and versatility were the attention grabbers in Only an Octave Apart with Justin Vivian Bond. Not that he did not do full justice to a breathtaking new work by Joel Thompson and Tracy K. Smith, The Places We Leave.

The theme this night was love. It opened with Beethoven’s stirring Leonore Overture No.3, the musical manifestation of the composer’s idealization of heroic, self-sacrificing love. It was followed by a work by one of music’s true visionaries, Hector Berlioz.

Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’été is generally the property of lush-voiced female singers. Costanzo’s desire to venture into these hyper-romantic songs could easily have been little more than a stunt, but it wasn’t. Instead, it was an artistic triumph for him, a combination of not only his extraordinary voice but also his inimitable ability to capture a mood or create a character.

After a particularly happy, quick ‘Villanelle’, came ‘Le Spectre de la rose’, which was the high point of Costanzo’s assaying of the cycle. The orchestra created a mysterious mood which Costanzo inhabited as the ghost of a rose that had for one night adorned a young woman at a ball. When Costanzo dipped into chest voice, a spell was cast, but it was the voice in full bloom, as the rose rhapsodized over the glorious night that had likewise meant his death, where the countertenor proved he could really sing these songs.

Jaap van Zweden (conductor) with the New York Philharmonic © Chris Lee

Gregory Spears’s approach to writing for the voice is the polar opposite of a composer such as Berlioz: he seeks to articulate feelings of ambivalence, confusion and conflict rather than chase after heightened emotion. In Love Story, Spears crafted four different settings of Tracy K. Smith’s poem of the same name in an exploration of love and loss. It is a typical human response, a little voice in your head that keeps repeating the same thing over and over.

On a smaller scale, Spears might have more fully achieved his goal, but Costanzo was often overpowered by the slabs of sound that the orchestra threw at him, especially in the first setting of the text. Van Zweden, who had achieved an optimum balance between singer and orchestra in the Berlioz, was not as successful here.

Love Story, however, has some stunning moments, and Costanzo captured the mood shifts of each setting of Smith’s poem, as subtly as if he were turning a prism to capture a different color. But as for eschewing overt displays of emotion, as Spears wrote was his intent in the program, that notion went out the window with a soaring melody in the third go-around that could stop a Broadway show.

Julius Eastman’s creative gifts were recognized when he was still a child. He was young, gifted and Black as well as gay and radical, which was no easy road to travel in mid-twentieth-century America. His use of racial slurs in the titles of his works bruised sensibilities then and would have him censured today. A downward spiral led to homelessness and drug abuse and, when he died in 1990 at the age of 49, he and his music were all but lost to the world.

This symphony survived because Eastman’s lover, the poet R. Nemo Hill, had kept the manuscript for decades. The composer had given it to Hill after they broke off the relationship, telling him that it was a diary of their ill-fated romance.

Resurrecting Eastman’s Symphony No.II The Faithful Friend: The Lover Friend’s Love for the Beloved from obscurity has been the work of Luciano Chessa, a composer, visual artist and music historian. Chessa began work on creating a performing edition of the score in 2016 and conducted its world premiere in 2018 with the Mannes Orchestra. The NY Philharmonic concert marked the work’s first performance by a professional orchestra.

The work’s unusual orchestration – trios of low sounding woodwinds and a boatload of tympani – is perhaps a mark of the composer’s eccentricity and impracticality, but it yields some wondrous sonorities. In a single movement, the symphony charts the arc of the relationship. It starts off loud, but Eastman’s orchestral textures are remarkably transparent, and there is no heaviness to the music. There are moments of ecstasy beautifully rendered in a passionate fugato, but the ending is sudden and soft – nothing more than the sounds of the despondent lover’s still-beating heart.

After van Zweden acknowledged the audience’s applause, he turned to the podium and patted the score with affection. Nothing could have been more authentic.

Rick Perdian

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