Even if the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra was not preparing this weekend’s program for Carnegie Hall, last night’s concert in Symphony Hall would have felt like one of the major events of the city’s classical season.
The ASO and Chorus performed an energized and extroverted program that involved some of the most interesting music heard in a long while. During the “Credo” movement of Janáček’s “Glagolitic Mass,” I thought I was hearing the most wildly creative piece of music in the world.
The concert was crafted to fit Carnegie’s Great American Orchestras subscription series as well as the limitations of the Carnegie stage, which is smaller than Symphony Hall’s. (In Atlanta, 185 choristers sing the Janáček; only 170 will perform it in New York.) Likewise, the concert’s opening work was switched earlier this week — no one had realized, according to the official statement from the ASO, that the choral risers on the Carnegie stage wouldn’t leave enough room for the huge orchestra required for György Ligeti’s “Atmosphères.” (Concert photos by Jeff Roffman.)
So conductor Robert Spano opted for Arvo Pärt’s “Fratres” (translated as “Brethren”). It was written in the Estonian composer’s miraculous year of 1977, when he found a mature style he calls “tintinnambuli,” evoking the tolling of bells, a spellbinding soundworld both medieval and modern.
Like Bach’s “Art of Fugue,” the instrumentation of “Fratres” isn’t specific. The ASO performed a 1991 version for string orchestra and percussion. The music is so deceptively “minimal” that it seems that nothing happens across its 11 minutes. At the start, a dry knock (claves and bass drum, played by Thomas Sherwood) cracks open the silence, and later it adds punctuation between sections. The notes A and E are droned continuously as a subterranean hum. A simple, chant-like melody, played over and over, begins quietly, then builds, then recedes back to silence. That’s the whole work. Yet the sense of ritual, of anguished emotion, of catharsis, is devastatingly effective.
The ASO moved from strength to strength. Bartók’s 1927 suite from his ballet “The Miraculous Mandarin” is music right down the center of Spano’s talent: hyper-intense, emotionally nebulous and requiring as much virtuosity from the conductor as from the instrumentalists. They gave it a white-hot performance, controlled, frenzied and with full understanding. The ballet’s story is voyeuristic and perhaps a little sadistic. A band of criminals forces a young girl to dance in a window, as a prostitute. The thugs rob the men she entices. Then a darkly allegorical figure, a Mandarin, appears. We hear it all in the music. Laura Ardan’s clarinet solos, depicting the pitiful girl’s dance, were loaded with sadness and humanity.
After intermission came the “Glagolitic Mass,” performed in Paul Wingfield’s scholarly edition of Janáček’s final, 1928 version of the score. (Spano made the decision to repeat the opening “Intrada” movement at the end, which conforms to the original score from 1927; there is still no ideal version.)
Janáček is a dazzlingly peculiar composer. He found his mature voice late in life, in his 50s and 60s. The Mass was composed for the 10th anniversary of Czechoslovak independence and in commemoration of the ninth-century Slav missionaries who brought Christianity to Moravia, which was Janáček’s native province (now part of the Czech Republic).
Janáček’s music draws strength and moral integrity, in part, by retaining its gritty and modal Moravian character — unlike, say, Dvorak, another Czech composer, who tended to regularize or “Germanize” his native folk sounds. (In this regard, Janáček’s aesthetic is akin to Mussorgsky’s and has been passed down today to Osvaldo Golijov, whose music often incorporates raw street sounds without smoothing it for polite consumption.)
On Thursday, the orchestra and chorus had it all completely digested. The violins sounded silkier than I’ve heard them in a while. Spano caught the off-balance, herky-jerky phrases — the rhythms of Old Church Slavic speech set to music — which are capped by those churning brass flourishes. At the opening of the “Gloria” section, with silvery-voiced soprano Twyla Robinson intoning “Slava vo vysnich Bogu” (“Glory to God in the highest”), the mood was springtime fresh, fragrant and more than a little pantheistic, like the verdant euphoria that starts Janáček’s opera “The Cunning Little Vixen.” Totally intoxicating.
There’s a remarkable moment in the “Credo” where the composer’s ideas flow so fast and kick in with such innocent conviction that it feels like a long, wild ride. The tenor sings his beliefs — heldentenor John Mac Master, ringing like a trumpet — then the chorus offers a gentle “Veruju” (“I believe”), both earthy and gossamer, then the cellos sing a theme, picked up by the whole orchestra with a grinding rhythm that builds to — from out of nowhere — a jittery Gothic organ solo, played by Peter Marshall. (Pity about the tinny electronic instrument, since neither Symphony Hall nor Carnegie has a pipe organ.)
The other vocal soloists delivered handsomely. Bass Burak Bilgili had a small part and sang in rich, chocolaty tones. Monica Groop’s mezzo had copper shadings, and she phrased her lines gorgeously.
The stars of the show, as expected, were all grouped at the back of the stage. Prepared to uncompromisingly lofty standards by Norman Mackenzie, the ASO Chorus handled the Old Church Slavonic with ease, each syllable clear, every phrase focused and often delivered as naturally as speech.
There’s one more Atlanta performance of this unmissable show, on Saturday night. For the Carnegie performance October 30, one might bet the “Glagolitic” itself will get the most applause, with the ASO Chorus not far behind.