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Oundjian with the BSO

Tenor Nicholas Phan
Anton Bruckner's setting of the Te Deum, premiered in 1886, needs an ally at the podium to help it win over listeners. The composer's friend and biographer, August Göllerich, recounted a famous anecdote about attending a pretty awful performance of Berlioz's operatic setting of the Te Deum in Vienna with Bruckner. After leaving the performance, in a secular concert hall, Bruckner reportedly shared his thoughts about the work, with his strongest criticism being that the work was "not very ecclesiastical." Not that Bruckner's Masses and the Te Deum do not have their more operatic moments, but Bruckner's approach to sacred music was, by contrast, extremely ecclesiastical. As scholar Paul Hackshaw has put it, Bruckner was "the most important composer since Johann Sebastian Bach to spend almost his entire professional life in the employ of the church," beginning as a choir boy with the Augustinian monks at the Stift Sankt Florian. He published the Te Deum with the Bach-like inscription "Omnia ad maiorem dei gloria," and the work ends with a monumental fugue, a tour de force that is one of the most important contrapuntal achievements of the 19th century, not a particularly contrapuntal age.

Which is all a way of saying that Bruckner's Te Deum can be a bore, leading many conductors to juice up the tempos, exaggerate the tone of declamation from liturgical to hysteric. Such was the approach of guest conductor Peter Oundjian, last heard in the area when he led the National Symphony Orchestra in 2005 (we missed his 2009 appearance in Baltimore), when he led the work, in its first-ever performance by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, at Meyerhoff Hall on Thursday night. A rather fast tempo in the opening was hard to accept as "Feierlich" (solemn), although the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, standing in mixed formation in the chorister seats above the stage, gave the work plenty of "Kraft" (strength). A good thing, since the piece is mostly a choral show, and they sang it with force and beauty, down (up) to the high C in the sopranos on the final chord. The fugue -- with subtle irony, Bruckner composed rather complicated counterpoint for the concluding lines, repeated several times, "O Lord, I have hoped in you, let me never be confounded" -- made up for the rushed feeling in other places, grand and with an eye on eternity.

Part of the problem was that the Te Deum, rushed through in just slightly over twenty minutes, served as a sort of overture to the main course, yet another performance of Beethoven's ninth symphony. The BSO last performed the piece only in 2009, but it will almost always sell out a hall, so it is hard to resist over-programming it -- and equally hard to make a performance distinctive. Oundjian actually did that in some ways, applying the same sort of insistence as he had in the Bruckner, keeping the tempo of the first three movements on the fast side (the scherzo's trio was a delightful romp), so much so that concertmaster Jonathan Carney had some vigorous head-nodding to do to keep the violins on track with Oundjian at the opening of the slow movement. Oundjian, a violinist by training (formerly a member of the Tokyo Quartet), kept the strings in the background at many points, allowing the woodwind parts, often working over themes in motivic bits, to percolate to the top of the texture (one noticeable gaffe, somewhere in the winds, marred the central section of the third movement).

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, BSO’s Ninth Symphony not perfect, but it still stirs the blood (Washington Post, May 28)

Tim Smith, Peter Oundjian leads Baltimore Symphony, Choral Arts in Beethoven, Bruckner (Baltimore Sun, May 25)
The famous choral finale was just as urgent, with the cellos and basses almost frenetic in their recitative section, until the introduction of the new theme, which was ruminative and slow, picking up triumphantly in tempo when the brass took it up. The janissary section was a tangy, sharp-footed march, punctuated by the robust blaat of the contrabassoon. In a beautiful effect, the chorus sang some sections of the piece from memory, and it is hard to overstate the emotional impact of all of those faces looking out at you instead of at their scores as they belt out Schiller's ecstatic poetry. Oundjian had a mixed bag of soloists for both pieces, with bass Morris Robinson like a growling linebacker and tenor Nicholas Phan doing a bang-up job filling in for an indisposed Brandon Jovanovich -- the tenor has a fairly central part in both the Bruckner and the Beethoven, and Phan is to be commended for taking on that heavy responsibility, his achievement being more on the side of subtle beauty than that of heroic strength. The female half of the quartet, especially soprano Joyce El-Khoury in a disappointing BSO debut, was mostly evanescent and overwhelmed by the mass of sound from the rest of the stage.

This concert will be repeated tonight and Saturday night (May 25 and 26), at the Meyerhoff and Strathmore, respectively.

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