Tag Archives: Robert Russell

“Joy shall be yours in the morning…” PSO Does the Ninth

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
April 25, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

Isak Dinesen once observed that there are three sources of joy: love, to have been in pain and be out of it, and to feel in oneself an excess of strength.. Each of these applies to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony , which ends with Schiiler’s “Ode to Joy,” gloriously performed by the Portland Symphony Orchestra under music director Robert Moody on April 23 and 25.

One suspects that people nowadays are desperate for any source of joy—witness sold-out houses at Merrill Auditorium on both days. But there is another source of joy that Baroness Blixen neglected to mention—what William James called the “oceanic” feeling— the experience of being one with the universe, or the universal brotherhood celebrated by Schiller, Beethoven and Karl Marx.

Universal brotherhood was a subversive concept during the Romantic period, with the aristocracy desperately trying to hold on to power in the face of the French Revolution. and other popular movements. Beethoven had pondered setting Schiller’s poem to music for over 30 years before he wrote the Ninth, and there is evidence that the poet originally intended his ode to be in praise of liberty, rather than joy.

Music doesn’t have to be about anything but itself, but there must have been a powerful impulse at work for Beethoven to devote all of his genius, for an extended period, to a work that he would never hear, except in his own mind.

The Ninth is such a monumental creation that it is seldom heard live. To pull it off, Moody had to recruit a quartet of fine soloists: Mary Boehlke-Wilson, soprano; Margaret Lias, alto; John McVeigh, tenor; and Philip Cutlip, baritone, willing to risk their voices in Beethoven’s impossible roles, the combined forces of the Oratorio Chorale, under Emily Isaacson and the Choral Art Masterworks, under Robert Riussell, plus the full orchestra devoted to a demanding score lasting over an hour.

Although there were a couple of strained points, inevitable in such an undertaking, Moody held everything together admirably. The soloists tackled the impossible successfully, and the combined choruses were able to hold their own against the orchestra gracefully, and to sing a monumental fugue without the muddiness that often accompanies large numbers of voices.

The result was tremendously moving, in spite of superfluous supertitles (there is not a single decent translation of the Schiller ode anywhere on the internet). After the final fortissimo the audience leaped to its collective feet instantly, with the accompaniment of cheers and foot stomping. No one wanted to leave.

In the face of the Ninth, the opening Samuel Barber Adagio for Strings seemed a little muted, at least in retrospect, but its selection to set the sombre opening mood of the Beethoven symphony was inspired programming.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

An English Deutsches Requiem at the PSO

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
March 13, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

The change of date, from March 14 to March 13 to beat an oncoming blizzard, didn’t seem to affect attendance at Merrill Auditorium for the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s Lenten program.

It wasn’t billed as Lenten, but that was the impression given by three Christian religious works, played without intermission, backed by the combined forces of the Choral Art Society and the Oratorio Chorale, plus two soloists: baritone Troy Cook and soprano Twyla Robinson.

Music director Robert Moody began the program with a Bach Chorale, “Kumm süsser Tod,” transcribed for full orchestra by Leopold Stokowski. (Disclaimer: I met Stokowski once many years ago when he came to Kodak looking for a grant to stage the Scriabin “Poem of Fire,” complete with light organ to be built by us. He was turned down.)

The chorale is one of Bach’s inspired shorter works, but everything transcribed by Stokowski sounds like, well… Stokowski. Given the state of world affairs, I’m not sure that the sentiment in the title is one that should be widely promulgated.

“Come sweet death” was followed immediately by “In Paradisum,” for orchestra and chorus, by Dan Forrest (b. 1978). It was pleasant enough, well played and sung in traditional harmony, but bears the same relation to religious music as Bob Jones University (which commissioned the work) does to Christianity. It descended into kitsch with a part for handbell ringers in the aisles.

Now we come to the meat of the evening, the great Brahms “Deutsches Requiem,” one of the most profound expressions of religious sentiment ever written, by a man who wasn’t very religious himself.

Only God knows why the work was sung in English. Brahms chose the passages from the Lutheran Bible himself, and the music was written to fit them—as beloved of the Germans as the King James Bible is of us— certainly not English.

With supertitles, one can follow the text perfectly well, no matter what language is being sung. So why the translation? Incidentally, the supertitles in both the Forrest and the Brahms, were their usual ham-fisted selves, complete with misspellings.

Moody put Robinson on the balcony for the movement that was written to commemorate the death of the composer’s mother,  in which she seems to communicate with him. It was a nice touch, but the spotlighted singer could not be seen from under the left balcony overhang, and her part seemed to emanate from somewhere in the chorus. Both she and Cook have clear, well-projected voices, which would have been a delight to hear in German.

The orchestra was on its best behavior, but needed to expand its dynamic range beyond mezzo-forte to piano.

The combed choruses, under the direction of Emily Isaacson and Robert Russell, were fine, but could have been a little smaller, for better focus, and shifted toward the bass end of the spectrum.
Still, I would walk miles in the cold to hear the Requiem sung by a high school choir, and the audience agreed, giving the performance a for-once-deserved standing ovation.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can reached at classbeat@netscape.net.