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The Haunted Concert

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
10/15/1999 -  
Florent Schmitt: The Haunted Palace
Einojuhani Rautavaara: On The Last Frontier
Andre Caplet: Conte Fantastique
Sergei Rachmaninoff: The Bells

Theresa Santiago (soprano), Richard Clement (tenor), Victor Ledbetter (baritone), Nancy Allen (harp), Celeste Holm (speaker)
Concert Chorale of New York
Andrew Megill (chorus master)
American Symphony Orchestra
Leon Botstein (conductor)

Hallowe'en came early to Avery Fisher Hall this year as the intrepid Leon Botstein and his merry pranksters presented an evening of works based on the poetry of the Upper West Side's most famous wordsmith Edgar Allan Poe. It is ironic that such a scholar as Botstein seemed to have missed the Faustian point that when you delve into the supernatural you may very well have to pay a very high price. Everything that could possibly go wrong with a concert occurred on this ill-fated evening.

The event opened with an embarrassing misreading of the original poem of The Haunted Palace by an obviously confused Celeste Holm, so charming an icon from a number of memorable films. Ms. Holm was virtually inaudible (although miked) and could not keep her place even though she had the text in front of her. The hoped for "dramatic reading" (as promised in the program) was as damp as a dishrag and this turned out to be an emblem for the entire night. There were no major dramatic disasters, just a whole series of minor, ultimately uninteresting ones.

Botstein's programming is always unusual and he lives on the edge of audience acceptance on a regular basis. Tonight the crowd never got into the concert and no electricity ever manifested itself between stage and auditorium. More than once I felt like Charles Foster Kane applauding his wife at the opera, as no one but me acknowledged the concertmistress on her entrance and, even when the singers came out for the Rachmaninoff, no one seemed to notice. As this dull program ground on common courtesies began to erode and the audience started to converse among themselves, tend to other matters (there was a disruptive infant and even more discourteously self-involved parents and grandparents right in the center of the hall) and walk out during the music.

The Schmitt piece was not tightly played, but the Rautavaara was given an excellent reading with the chorus particularly impressive. My only criticism of this Finnish master is that so much of his music sounds alike, one giant wash of color as we approach the millenium and some kind of new spirituality. But whatever the message, once again it was not well received and Botstein had to do a very quick U-turn at the edge of the curtain to be able to acknowledge any of the smattering of applause (I now know what that phrase really means) for a second bow.

After intermission we came back with renewed hope that everything would be improved. Nancy Allen, an acknowledged virtuosa on her unusual instrument, launched into a spirited reading of the Caplet with the accompanying chamber orchestra. Midway, however, one of her larger strings exploded off of the harp frame and hung like an executed villain right in her fingering path as she looked appealingly at Botstein, who had no choice but to stop the orchestra while Ms. Allen cut down the offender. Of course any mood that these artists had labored so hard to establish was now broken as well.

Throughout the Rachmaninoff I kept waiting for a sandbag to drop from the ceiling and kill one of the violists and although this never happened, we were exposed to another horror. Celeste Holm, mike now adjusted to maximum volume level, came out to read Poe's entire poem The Bells upon which the Russian text of this episodic symphony is loosely based. Now with artificial voice, poor Celeste sounded like one of those people who have had successful throat cancer surgery and who communicate through an electronic voice box. Still lost but now audible she spoke Poe's alliterative verses in a manner which gave the phrase "trippingly on the tongue" a whole new meaning. This time she left the stage to the strains of only a half smattering. The performance of the work was actually quite good with the American Symphony now warmed up enough to sound lush and the singers all doing a good job. I particularly liked Theresa Santiago's sad bride in the "wedding bells" section. She understands Rachmaninoff's idea that even at the happiest of occasions there is an overlay of misery (he quotes from the medieval hymn Dies Irae in the course of his depiction of this supposedly blessed event). Unfortunately, this good performance couldn't save the evening which was cursed from the start. Botstein invoked the spirit of Poe all right, but not in the way that he had planned.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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