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The Call of the Cantata Answered

Ionarts’ tireless pursuit of finding the best music around and covering as many interesting concerts as possible had us at Samson et Dalila on Tuesday night, in New York the next day to catch the last of this season’s Bachanalia concerts at Merkin Hall, and back on Thursday for the German Requiem at the Kennedy Center. The Bachanalia concert was of interest because of the premiere of Benjamin C. S. Boyle’s latest composition, the cantata To One In Paradise.

Before that work, modeled on Bach’s Magnificat, was heard, the audience in the well-filled, acoustically excellent Merkin Hall, across from Lincoln Center, was treated to Bach’s Concerto for Oboe and Violin, BWV 1060, which is, if you wish, the retro-original transcription from the only surviving score in its consequent two-harpsichord version. Double bassist Paul Harris marvelously played throughout the work, even after his G-string (the one on the double bass, please) snapped with a loud plunk. Not the least to his own amusement, he improvised his fingering accordingly for the rest of the night. Oboist Vladimir Lande’s contribution was beyond reproach on every level, something that cannot be said for his soloist partner, artistic director Nina Beilina, who detracted a little from the over-all very pleasing performance of the Bachanalia band.

Exchanging his oboe for a baton, Mr. Lande led the players in the raison d’être of the New York excursion, Boyle’s cantata. I had a reason to expect much from this work, based on other compositions of his, especially his outstanding Edgar Allan Poe song cycle for baritone and piano Lenoriana. As it turns out, To One in Paradise, one of the few Poe poems not yet set to music, came to his attention during the composition of that cycle but proved too substantial to fit within the restrictions of the baritone songs. The commission of a cantata by Bachanalia must have come very conveniently, and thus this work was born. It did not disappoint.

Of the neo-Romantic school Boyle may be (with teachers like Foss, Maw, Del Tredici, and an audible influence of Rorem’s, that label is almost inevitable), but whether in neo(-neo)-classical (like his Kreutzer Sonata Variations) or neo-Baroque works, one cannot miss for a second that these are fresh, modern compositions that service almost everything I love in ‘music with a pulse’. The cantata does not pander to the ear in the syrupy way a John Rutter does; it has substance and something to say. ‘Substance’ is of course difficult to gauge, but by the measure of being logical, clearly structured, and developing new musical ideas, it passes with flying colors as far as these ears are concerned. A contrapuntal work, it is one large musical palindrome, culminating (structurally, if not musically) in the central fugue “For alas! Alas!,” itself a palindrome over its inversion.

The vocal soloists, with the exception of countertenor Augustine Mercante, whose cotton candy voice is of the namby-pamby kind I rather dislike in countertenors, were very good. Shari Alise Wilson’s clear, chamber-like voice befitted the character of the cantata very much, and tenor Jeffrey Dinsmore and especially baritone Andrew Cummings equally delivered far more than adequate performances. At times faint reminiscences of John Adams’s “El Niño” could be made out, if for no other reason than the relative scarcity of cantata/oratorio-style compositions of the 21st century to which to compare To One in Paradise. The lyrical treatment of E. A. Poe’s texts became beautifully plain in the concluding chorale of “And all my days are trances,” offering a bit of respite in an otherwise very driven work.

The two jazzy works after the intermission – a Ruslan Agababeayev arrangement of Ravel’s "The Magic Garden" from the Mother Goose Suite for saxophone and string orchestra (Ofer Assav on tenor sax) and Scott Joplin rags arranged for string orchestra by William Zinn – were pleasant and unpleasant, respectively, not quite as well played as the previous works and none too noteworthy. They were a lighthearted and Bachanalia-atypical concert and season finale thrown in for the board-members’ and sponsor’s entertainment, and to that end they worked rather well. Even with these two cute ‘throw-aways’, the concert must be considered to have been a success on account of the first half and its promulgation of new music, something that will continue during next season’s mix of Bach, Shostakovich, Arensky, Gould (!), some of which will come in the guise of arrangements (by Rudolf Barshai, Benjamin Boyle et al.).

For those who thought that Joplin’s Entertainer for string orchestra was phenomenal fun, the encore Pizzicato Polka must have been sheer heaven. Sadly, its sweetly lyrical legato lines were seriously under-accentuated.

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