Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
Robert Spano (conductor)
Hila Plitmann (soprano)
Nancy Maultsby (mezzo-soprano)
Richard Clement (tenor)
Brett Polegato (baritone)
12 May 2005 - Symphony Hall, Atlanta
How unfair of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra to program two world premieres together on the same concert, Thursday in Symphony Hall.
These large-scale, overpowering, brand-new works by American composers had nothing to do with each other except that (a) both were commissioned by the ASO and conductor Robert Spano, (b) both will be recorded for CD over the weekend by the Telarc label, (c) both utilize a large (and loud) orchestra, the mighty ASO Chorus plus vocal soloists, and (d) both represent powerful strains of contemporary American music.
And (e) both received excellent, committed performances and received lusty cheers aimed at the hundreds of performers on stage, with the loudest bravos saved — surprise — for the composers themselves.
The easiest to explain first. Christopher Theofanidis, a Texan of Greek parentage who lives in New York, had a hit with his Rainbow Body, from 2000, an orchestral showpiece. What it lacked in new-music "edge" it made up for in a sort of cozy-Americana audience appeal.
The 38-year-old composer's new work, The Music of Our Final Meeting, operates on a more sophisticated, more confident plane. The texts come from the 13th-century Sufi mystic and poet Rumi, in translations by Coleman Barks. The language and imagery are vivid, tender, often ambiguous, perfumed with desire and a longing for ecstasy — spiritual or otherwise.
Theofanidis is exceedingly respectful of Rumi's words, such that much of the 34-minute cantata unfolds as simple declarative sing-songy speech, delivered by the chorus, with the orchestra underscoring the mood and illuminating key images. Violin harmonics and tinkly percussion put a halo around the words "The universe and the light of the stars comes through me."
Later, in one of the loveliest moments, for the line "Hear blessings dropping their blossoms around you," the composer imagines it accompanied by soft plunks from the strings.
At a few spots, Theofanidis seems ready to conjure up the ghost of Cecil B. DeMille, reaching for the big gesture with a hint of quasi-kitsch — like hyped-up Carmina Burana without the catchy tunes. It never goes that far, although the most memorable section of the score, a modal, Ottoman Empire-sounding movement called "The Urgency of Love," pointed to a sound world worth exploring. Baritone Brett Polegato sang several narrative sections with beautiful finesse.
While Theofanidis composed for huge forces, including the 200-voice chorus and a trio of soloists, one never sensed that so large an ensemble was necessary. He had it, so he used it.
This is opposite to the evening's other new work, David Del Tredici's 31-minute The Ride of Paul Revere, a dense, humongous, loud, sweet and funny cantata based on the Longfellow poem.
Del Tredici, 68, is now a figure in music history: he bucked the atonal-music trend in the 1970s with cosmic, tuneful, post-Straussian music, often inspired by Alice in Wonderland. It was a weird mix, but it sometimes worked splendidly.
That describes Paul Revere. The work does almost everything, often with subtle beauty and idiosyncratic wit, or ear-splitting noise when the textures get too clotted.
Soprano Hila Plitmann does the operatic Strauss thing
here, too. She's amplified, so she holds her own even when the
orchestra and chorus are going full great guns. It's a remarkable piece
of music, made only slightly more confusing to the audience because it
followed the clear and linear Theofanidis.