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That Old Time Religion

New York
Carnegie Hall
01/24/2001 -  
Antonio Vivaldi: Gloria
Gioachino Rossini: Stabat Mater

Heidi Grant Murphy and Christine Brewer (soprano)
Susanne Mentzer (mezzo)
Stanford Olsen (tenor)
John Relyea (bass)
Carnegie Hall Choral Workshop
Orchestra of St. Luke's
Neville Marriner (conductor)

For me, the most spiritual place in Florence is the Church of Santa Croce, its prominently displayed Star of David a testament to Tuscan ecumenicalism (the original architect was indeed Jewish). The early patrons were able to commission private chapels there adorned with amazingly ethereal frescoes by Giotto. Here also the quintessential Florentines are buried, the tombs of Machiavelli, Galileo and Michelangelo vying with each other for the rapt attention of the visitor (this is the epicenter of Stendahl disease). The natives will tell you that the real mausoleum of Dante is within these walls, even though his exile as a White Guelph is apparently still in effect for the afterlife. What is most surprising, however, is the grave of another giant from a very different time and place, for here lie the remains of the immortal Gioachino Rossini.

Florence being the musical capital of Italy in the first half of the nineteenth century, the hallowed ground of the ancient church is indeed a fitting final resting-place for this foreigner. Performance history being what it is, however, the talented melodist from Pesaro slipped into relative obscurity outside of the southern Mediterranean and led a ragged existence as a forgotten figure of the opera throughout the first half of the twentieth, remembered by one generation as a writer of energetic overtures made popular by Toscanini and by another, if at all, as the composer of the theme to “The Lone Ranger”. Not until the emergence of Marilyn Horne in the 1970’s did the Rossinian repertoire experience a major fire of revival that is still being stoked today by the celebrity of Cecilia Bartoli and her arcane style of ornamented singing. Rossini was a hedonist and bon vivant who retired from composing in his thirties in order to become the most sought after guest at Parisian parties. His one great religious work is quite definitely operatic, but does not remind of the monastery scene from La Forza (to cite a more familiar exponent of the genre), rather sounding instead like a precursor to the gay opening of Traviata (not to mention that the “Drinking Song of the Nuns” from Le Comte Ory is one of my all-time favorite opera excerpts).

The Carnegie Hall Choral Workshop is an annual event which fuses nicely the missions of music education and dissemination. A week of intense instruction and practicum culminates in a concert with the always excellent Orchestra of St. Luke’s. Robert Shaw provided the impetus for this event for many years and now it is a living memorial to his ministerial gift. Choral directors, music educators and just plain amateurs (in the best sense of the word) from all over the country gather for this chance to blend their voices in glorious praise. The audience tends to be filled with parents and significant others, their deer in the headlights look instantly identifying them as tourists to the trained urban eye.

The choice of the Rossini as the major work of the seminar was, therefore, a strange one. Although there are magnificent sections which display the might of the assembled vocal forces, the work is primarily a set piece for opera quartet and orchestra and, after the seventh solo in succession, I began to wonder why we were all there. Except for the golden mezzo of Susanne Mentzer, the soloists were weak, ranging from the pedestrian sound of Christine Brewer through the strained tones of John Relyea to the inadequate tenor of Stanford Olsen who certainly should not be attempting falsetto for those castrato passages.

The choice of the Vivaldi was much more inspired. Here Sir Neville showed his experience as a seeker of the perfect string sound (he rose from the fiddlers’ ranks to first conduct at St. Martin’s) and dazzled with the fine balance of vocal and instrumental playing which gave this most sublime work of the red priest an otherworldly afterglow. One could imagine the angelic faces and voices of those orphan girls as they first performed for their mentor. The solo parts are much less pronounced here and this was a good thing, as the tennis match that is the Laudamus te was as unequal as one between me and Pete Sampras. Heidi Grant Murphy does not have a very polished voice, but she makes up for this impediment somewhat by not projecting very well. As she struggled through a phrase and was answered by the glorious Ms. Mentzer, it was as if the mezzo were saying “no dear, this is how it should actually be sung”. But the chorus, prepared by Norman MacKenzie, was spectacular and the work stood very well the test of time. While the Rossini immediately flushed out of my memory, I found myself after the concert wandering around my apartment like Robert Downey, Jr. in that good film with the terrible title, Two Girls and a Guy, singing a pretty darn good high register version of the Cum sancto spiritu.

Another fine institution of music education commits a similar sin regularly at Carnegie. The New York Youth Symphony brings together some of the most talented young people in America for regular performances. Unfortunately, they always engage a big name professional soloist for a warhorse concerto, taking the spotlight away from those who rightfully deserve it. Wouldn’t we all be better served if a rising star from the community was featured? Of course, the friends and family come to cheer anyway. At the choral workshop, they would applaud a reading of the telephone book, but why not let them (and us) relish the experience of hearing their loved ones perform as much as possible at the highest professional level?

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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