Mark Gresham | 12 APR 2019
Favorite repertoire naturally draws a crowd. In Atlanta, that is especially so when the esteemed Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus is involved. This week’s classical subscription concerts by the ASO and its Chorus sold out days in advance of Thursday night’s opener, led by guest conductor Thomas Søndergård and including a handful of vocal soloists: soprano Jessica Rivera, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Lauricella, countertenor Daniel Moody. tenor Thomas Cooley and bass Andrea Mastroni.
The program, comprised of Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 offered high expectations for the audience, but there were some unfortunate elements that made it fall short of what it should have been. The primary culprits were Søndergård’s choice of tempos and curious orchestral balance issues that are atypical of ASO performances, both being most conspicuous in the Beethoven, though the Bernstein was not absent its own problems.
The opening choral-orchestral fanfare of Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms was glorious, showing off the sound of the ASO Chorus at its very best, as did the work’s gossamer closing chorale based upon the same theme. The fanfare, declaring in Hebrew “Urah, hanevel, v’chinor! A-irah shaḥar” (“Awake, psaltery and harp: I will arouse the dawn!”) and ebullient 7/4 meter dance that followed on “Hari’u l’Adonai kol ha’arets” (“Make a joyful noise unto the Lord all ye lands.”) immediately reinforced the promise of the conceptually brilliant program. The movement was a bit fast, but was sung well by the Chorus.
The second movement encountered multiple problems. First of all, I do prefer in principle that the treble solo representing the young King David be sung by a countertenor rather than a boy treble with unchanged voice. That said, the voice of countertenor Daniel Moody unfortunately came across as very glassy and pinched in tone, sounding somewhat stressed in the higher parts. That is not a necessary or normal attribute of a countertenor, as witnessed by the performance of countertenor Nathan Medley with the Atlanta Baroque orchestra last month, or that of David Daniels with the ASO in their 2017 performances of Orfeo, subsequently made into a CD.
Likewise disappointing were some moments of synchronization problems between sopranos and altos of the chorus, and between them both with the orchestra, which seem to fall into the hands of Søndergård as did the goosed-up tempo of the men’s chorus in the emotionally contrasting “Lamah rag’shu goyim” (“Why do the nations rage?”) making the already-rapid Hebrew words more difficult to sing.
The broadly-bowed sound of the strings that opened the final movement was movingly full in their color, but Søndergård evidently missed the point of how that music follows the final bass drum strokes of the second movement. Marked chiaro, it should be absolutely heart-stopping, but was only a punctuation of modest weight in Thursday’s performance.
Following that, the introduction to the last movement should convey a great anxiety at the beginning of their interlude, gradually winding down the emotion to the entrance of the chorus singing Psalm 131, which begins “Adonai, Adonai, lo gavah libi” (“Lord, Lord, my heart is not haughty”) and, as the composer indicates, should be “peacefully flowing.” Yet again, it felt too fast, like it was pushing forward instead.
Thankfully, the closing chorale, a setting of the first verse of Psalm 133, “Hineh mah tov” (“Behold how good”), set things aright for the work’s final few bars, leaving a good taste lingering on the aural palette.
One would imagine that the problems encountered in Chichester Psalms would not foreshadow similar for Beethoven’s Ninth. However, they did,. And to a greater extent. Tempos, especially in the second and final movements, were absurdly fast – so fast that you can’t blame this one on Beethoven’s malfunctioning metronome.
There were also orchestral balance issues that simply should not have existed, a smattering of synchronization problems withing the ensemble as a whole, an what felt like occasional abandonment of musical concerns (like phrasing) just to “get the notes” at such a fast clip. It was almost like a game of “first one to the end of the Beethoven wins.”
Tenor Thomas Cooley, especially, deserves a Bronze Star combat medal for enduring the outrageous tempo of the “Alla marcia” passage imposed by Søndergård, which made the 6/8 march for tenor solo and the men of the chorus rather cartoonish thanks to its sheer velocity. The rest of the choral finale was similarly plagued, if not to quite the same extreme. The Chorus managed very well, as did Rivera and Lauricella, while Mastroni encountered a few less-than-assured moments in the overall sprint.
All of which is too bad. Sheer velocity alone can make for a pseudo-excitement, but is a shallow visceral thrill. That’s especially true with very familiar great repertoire. In such excess it only interferes with music-making, rather than enhancing it.
That’s sad. More so because Søndergård is scheduled to return to the ASO podium not once but twice in the upcoming 2019-20 season, in a pair of concerts featuring music by Nordic composers. One can only hope that the kinds of problems present in Thursday’s concert were an anomaly and won’t return with him. ■