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Carnegie Hall review: Atlanta Symphony and Chorus warm up to deliver searing Janacek Mass

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Editor’s note: Susan Elliott, a former Atlantan, has written many times about the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra over the past 15 years, including articles for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The New York Times, Symphony magazine and others. She is the editor of musicalamerica.com and lives in New York. — Pierre

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra kicked off Carnegie Hall’s Great American Orchestras series Saturday night, a group of concerts whose other participants during the 2010-11 season will be the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, the Boston Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra. It’s safe to say that the ASO, under music director Robert Spano, is keeping rather lofty company these days.

And doing so with distinctive programming. Never mind bringing Beethoven (New York), Wagner (Cleveland), Mozart (Boston) or Berlioz (Chicago) to the country’s most famous concert venue. Spano and the ASO offered an irresistibly colorful 20th-century mix of Arvo Pärt’s “Fratres,” for string orchestra and percussion, Béla Bartók’s “The Miraculous Mandarin” Suite and Leos Janácek’s “Glagolitic Mass.” These are ballsy choices, because challenging repertoire and boffo box-office sales do not great partners make. Indeed, between the World Series and Halloween Eve, it’s a wonder that the hall was as filled as it was — about two-thirds of the 2,800 seats were occupied. What the audience lacked in numbers, however, it made up for in volume of approval, especially for the “Glagolitic Mass” (and especially from the audience-right first tier, where the bulk of the home team’s fans apparently had congregated). (Photos by Jennifer Taylor.)

Few Western choruses attempt the Mass, largely because of its complex ninth-century Slavonic language. Such are its many musical delights — the motivic exchanges among sections of the orchestra and the chorus, its startling brass fanfares, its almost pre-Minimalist ostinati in the upper strings — that, had Janácek set it in Latin, it would surely be one of the staples of the choral repertoire. On the other hand, it is precisely the distinctive rhythms and guttural urgency of the Old Church Slavonic that the composer has captured so brilliantly in this music.

This score is so jammed with passion, so bordering on the barbaric, that there is virtually no margin for affectation in interpretation. Spano would seem to have inhabited the composer’s psyche Saturday night, so clearly articulated and yet wholly felt was his reading. Sterling brass choirs, translucent strings, jarring percussion — all the ingredients were in place for a performance that seared the memory. Choral director Norman Mackenzie insured that the chorus was beyond reproach in virtually every aspect: whistle-clean diction, precise entrances and cut-offs, spot-on tuning, ethereal pianissimos, earth-shattering fortes. Even their collective standing and sitting was well executed. Small wonder the ASO Chorus is considered one of the finest symphonic choruses in the world. (It recorded the Mass with its founding director, Robert Shaw, in 1991.) Some of New York’s professional choirs have much to learn from this entirely volunteer group.

The four vocal soloists acquitted themselves well, with most of the work falling to Twyla Robinson’s bright, light-voiced soprano. All used abundant vibrato, particularly the sometimes overly ardent tenor John Mac Master; Turkish bass Burak Bilgili’s rich, dark timbre was beautifully suited to the guttural utterings of the text; and Monica Groop held her own in the brief mezzo-soprano passages. The grandeur of Peter Marshall’s “Varhany” organ solo made a listener long to hear him play it on a true concert pipe organ rather than the hall’s electronic instrument, but he still managed to rattle the floor of the auditorium.

At the concert’s opening, it took awhile for the audience to clear its collective throat — not particularly helpful in setting the proper mood for Pärt’s contemplative “Fratres,” which begins at a barely audible dynamic level. The orchestra nonetheless made a respectable showing, a couple of ragged entrances in the second violins notwithstanding. Spano was not able to achieve much of an emotional impact across the work’s 10-minute dynamic build-up and denouement — perhaps an unattainable goal, given its placement on the program and the audience’s initial consumptive disposition.

Robert Spano conducting Arvo Pärt's "Fratres" without baton.

 

“The Miraculous Mandarin” Suite suffered from a similar malaise for the first 10 or so of its 20 minutes, with some tuning issues in the winds and a lack of textural focus and distinction from one section to another. Spano was a bit too polite to achieve the “horrible pandemonium, din, racket and hooting” the composer calls for in the prelude. The piece is based on a horrid, bloodthirsty tale, but until the final, screaming climactic moments, the ASO failed to tell it with real, from-the-gut conviction.

Perhaps it was saving its energies for the post-intermission Mass, whose closing brought much of the audience to its feet, with Spano, Mackenzie and the soloists coming out for multiple bows. On the applause meter, however, the ASO Chorus won, hands down.

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