No Bœuf Sur Dutoit
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
Darius Milhaud: La Création du Monde, opus 81a
George Walker: Lilacs
Gustav Mahler: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
Antonín Dvorák: Symphony No. 9, “From the New World”, opus 95
Russell Thomas (Tenor), Eric Owens (Bass-Baritone)
The Philadelphia Orchestra, Charles Dutoit (Chief Conductor and Artistic Adviser), Jessye Norman (Presenter)
When Ms. Jessye Norman stepped on the Carnegie Hall stage last night, her appearance not only was a surprise, but the woman adjacent to me didn’t believe that it was the great soprano herself. The regal Ms. Norman is the curator of Carnegie Hall’s massive festival, Honor!! A Celebration of African American Cultural Legacy, and the Philadelphia Orchestra was very much part of it.
Each of the works had direct connection with the “experience”: Milhaud’s work was, for its time (1923) far more sophisticated in jazz than Stravinsky or Ravel, who had only second-hand knowledge. George Walker was the first Black composer to win Pulitzer Prize for his Lilacs, while Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer was a favorite of Marian Anderson, who was celebrated by Ms. Norman in her speech. Finally, Dvorák’s symphony, while has more ersatz American Indian themes than Black, celebrated a composer whose friendship with Black pianist Harry Burleigh is worthy of a book in itself.
Still, whenever Charles Dutoit mounts the podium, it turns into his evening. And with La Création du Monde he attempted to transform the first authentic homage to jazz into a Swiss meringue. Neither genre quite worked. Milhaud was the only European composer who had actually heard jazz in Harlem, so he never resorted to mere syncopated overlays. But this was originally a ballet, and the stops and starts today seem unnerving, with only momentary joy. Yes, Dutoit danced the main movement, and he beat out the jazz fughetta, but this was neither jazz nor fugue. It is incidental music for a ballet and perhaps should stay that way.
This was my first hearing of George Walker’s Lilacs, and I frankly loved it. Walt Whitman has been set countless times, but Mr. Walker had a special take. For the poem When Lilacs Last In The Door-Yard Bloom’d is desolation, and Mr. Walker sensed that from the beginning. Over all four songs was one chord which was neither major nor minor, but this ambiguity gave the sense of unease over the entire work, ending only with a kind of mournful percussive effect.
Tenor Russell Thomas did the honors, literally. So lovely is his voice that one almost wishes he was reciting the poems. But singing them, with the sudden leaps to near falsetto range, he retained all the emotional impact.
The second singer was Eric Owens, delivering Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer without concert-singer grace but diction-perfect deep understanding. This, though was where Dutoit excelled. It was the Mahler tone-painting grabbed any listener here
The “New World” was lively and fresh, and never hackneyed. This was the second tone-painting of the evening, but Mr. Dutoit’s secret was that he painted a European landscape, all those third-movement Indian gallops and the ersatz spiritual notwithstanding. It was an al fresco picture, with chortling woodwinds, peasant drumming, and the Philadelphia string section charming the natives of any country. That we were sitting in the same auditorium where the symphony made its premiere made it even more memorable.