15 October 2010

Collegiate Chorale’s Brahms-O-Rama

A Rhapsody in Blythe
All performance photos by Erin Baiano

A really huge chorus always strikes me as anachronistic. In the Good Old Days, every community (to say nothing of colleges and churches) boasted a chorus, and a big city such as New York could boast several. That’s no longer the case — blame the decline of music education in schools, the rise of competing entertainments, changes in taste and, not insignificantly, soaring expenses. So it’s a rare treat to hear New York’s Collegiate Chorale, an ensemble so vast, it’s indispensable, giving the city’s music lovers a chance to hear great works as the composers intended — or only dreamed about.

At a gala celebrating the Chorale’s 69th season, music director James Bagwell conducted two 19th-century masterworks that benefit from massive forces such as these, Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody and A German Requiem (October 13). Yet such was Bagwell’s sensitivity and the Chorale’s impeccable polish that both works, for all their majesty, were never ponderous. The effect was like some wonderful hybrid of an 18-wheeler and a Maserati, a combination of power and swift grace.

James Bagwell

These virtues happen to apply equally (at least) to the soloist in the Rhapsody, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, who is possessed of one of the most powerful voices I’ve ever heard. In the congenial acoustics of Carnegie Hall, she sailed effortlessly over the Chorale and the American Symphony Orchestra — always giving the impression that she could blow the roof off the joint any time she chose. Hers is an instrument of great beauty, as well as strength: plush in all its registers, with surprising agility.

I first heard her as Isabella in Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri, where she displayed her gifts for coloratura — and for comedy. Indeed, she’s such a vivid stage presence that, outside of a concert such as this one, it’s hard to focus exclusively on her singing. Even in the Rhapsody, she seemed at times to assume a character: the Storyteller, who recited Goethe’s lyric as if to the faithful gathered at her priestly altar.

Johannes Brahms

The trouble with the Rhapsody for this listener is that it ends just as it seems to get started, and here as in the German Requiem, I was reminded that, for all my affection and admiration for both works, I find neither satisfying. The Rhapsody understays its welcome, and the Requiem gives me no catharsis.

Brahms presumes that we the living have already endured our pathos (bereavement), so he takes us directly to the mathos. For an emotionally involving requiem, I turn to Mozart and Verdi, but Brahms offers consolations aplenty: rich harmonies, evocations of Bach, stirring dramatic passages (especially in and around the baritone solos). And when performed by a chorus as populous as the Collegiate Chorale, the German Requiem provides a supplemental comfort — as if derived from Immanuel Kant. If so many people agree, how can I deny their wisdom?

Bass-baritone Eric Owens

Eric Owens (who, like Blythe, is singing Wagner at the Met this month) gave a vibrant reading of the baritone solos, though the quality of his voice is less juicy than I’m accustomed to hearing in this music, and it didn’t quite match his commanding interpretation. Erin Morley sang the soprano solos with unforced purity, shimmering top notes and a creamy lower range.

Bagwell did a superlative job. The art of the chorus master and that of the conductor are related but not identical, and generally it makes sense to me that two people divide the work (much as a restaurant hires a separate chef to make pastries). Bagwell, whom I heard for the first time tonight (he assumed leadership of the Chorale since I’ve been away) achieved something close to a balance between his tasks, however, his symphonic interpretation wholly accomplished, with utter clarity and drive. The real marvel remains the Chorale, however.

Soprano Erin Morley

Their precision, dynamic control, and flexibility are just about peerless in my experience, and beyond that, it’s thrilling to be in the room with them and to hear so many voices in chorus. Nowadays that privilege is, as I say, too rare, and even prodigal New Yorkers (like me) ought to seize the opportunity to hear them.

Next up for the Chorale is a pleasure of another kind altogether: Kurt Weill’s Knickerbocker Holiday, on January 25 and 26, at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall.

Soprano Morley, with Bagwell

1 comment:

William V. Madison said...

The performance on Wednesday started auspiciously: Marilyn Horne was backstage when I arrived to collect my tickets. It was through her recording of the Alto Rhapsody that I first came to know the piece. Thanks to Michael Benchetrit for making sure I got to say hello to her.