The orchestral score glowed and sparked as the American conductor Marin Alsop led the musical forces into an electrifying conclusion.
The audience erupted in applause after Dett’s oratorio was performed on Saturday night, the second of the 150th Anniversary Season of the May Festival. Dett's oratorio, which combines the biblical Exodus tale with the African American experience, was a stunning success. It deserves to be a part of the standard concert repertoire in America.
Standing ovations were given for the music performed on Alsop’s American program. As soon as she entered the stage to make her Cincinnati May Festival début, cheers began.
Alsop is regarded as one of the first women conductors. However, this fact should not overshadow her artistic ability. She brought out the best in each of her works, including Samuel Barber's Symphony No. Copland’s 'The Promise of Living' and 1 as well as 'Knoxville, Summer of 1915' were also included in her program.
Alsop conducted the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra five times, the most recent being in 2004. Music director laureate for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Now she is the Chief Conductor of Chicago Ravinia Festival and the ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra of Vienna. She recently added the title Principal Guest Conductor of London Philharmonia Orchestra to her resume.
Alsop conducted the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra for Barber's Symphony No. This was the first time that the May Festival had performed 1 in One Movement. Barber, in his early 20s, completed it in 1936. He treated the form like a classical symphony in four movements, all in one continuous movement. In both form and mood, it is often compared with Sibelius' Seventh Symphony in one movement.
Listeners were immediately immersed in an intense and rich soundscape. Alsop, who led the orchestra without a score at all times, inspired an expressive power that was captivating from start to finish.
The four sections of the symphony were in sharp relief. The scherzo was characterized by crisp rhythms, split-second precision and sharp articulation of the winds. The slow movement featured an eloquent Dwight Parry solo, and the conductor brought the orchestra to a rousing climax.
Alsop was a spacious observer, but there was also a sense of momentum. She was a lively, involved presence. The brass was loud, but also well balanced with the strings and winds. Her dynamic direction reminded us that she was Leonard Bernstein's protege. The CSO musicians responded with a performance that was both exciting and precise.
Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha's ravishing voice was introduced by Barber's "Knoxville: Sommer 1915" for orchestra and soprano. The rising star won the Song Prize in the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition 2021.
The performance was breathtaking. Rangwanasha sang clearly and with a fresh spirit. She turned to communicate to every listener. Her thoughtful phrasing attracted you, and her high-pitched notes were strong and pure.
In an interview with The Courier, Alsop stated that James Agee’s poem, on which the song was based, was 'nostalgic of an America of old, where family and friends were valued and came first. There was also a feeling of security and safety.
This performance was filled with nostalgia and warmth. The streetcar verse was full of character, for example. This nostalgic feeling was particularly heartfelt when Rangwanasha sang about family members lying in the grass on quilts during a summer evening. The orchestra beautifully matched the emotion of this moment.
After the intermission, Dett's "The Ordering of Moses" was conducted by Alsop as the May Festival Chorus joined the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. The work is significant in the history of the May Festival, as it was premiered at the 1937 festival under the direction of Eugene Goossens. Thor Johnson, the music director at the time, revived it in 1955. It fell into a state of neglect for many years until James Conlon - now the music director laureate - rediscovered it and brought it to Carnegie Hall.
Dett, a Canadian born composer, studied in France and at Harvard with Nadia Boulanger, a famous American teacher. In his oratorio, Dett weaves together the Exodus tale of Moses leading the Israelites captives out of Egypt and the African American spiritual experience. The spiritual "Go Down, Moses" is a constant theme in his music, even though it is written in the European tradition Dvorak.
Dett gave the role of 'Children of Israel" to the chorus. The chorus, prepared by Robert Porco exclaimed, commented, and added exuberant colors. Rattling chains accompanied the opening chorus, 'By virtue of their bondage'. Sometimes I wanted more clarity when enunciating. The sound of the choir was rich in "Go down, Moses" and the final chorus 'He is King Of Kings' had tremendous energy.
Four opera stars played the parts of biblical drama. Rodrick Dixon, who played Moses, asked God fervently, "Why should I be the leader of Israel?" It was spine-tingling. Dixon's portrayal of Moses was powerful and emotional.
Laquita Mitchell, as Moses' sister Miriam was delightful when she sang the joyful 'Come let us praise Jehovah'. Her silvery soprano sounded mesmerizing against the voices and harp of the women in the chorus.
Briana Hunter, mezzo-soprano, sang with richness and depth in her role as the Voice of Israel. Nicholas Newton, the bass, communicated with authority and clarity as both the voice of God (the Word) as well as narrator.
Cello soloist Ilya finkelshteyn's beautiful performance of this cello was another voice that lent a sense of unity to the drama and provided moments of reflection among the vocal and orchestral splendor.
Every note in the hands of Alsop was meaningful. She guided the orchestral soundscapes of Dett and the great choruses with a sweep, and brought it to a triumphant conclusion.
The evening ended with Copland’s 'The Promise of Living,' from his 1954 opera 'The Tender Land' which was inspired by a documentary on tenant farmers during the Depression. This short piece was filled with warmth from the choral sound. Alsop's balance between orchestra and chorus was impeccable, and each moment was radiant.
James Conlon will conduct Mozart's Requiem at 7:30 pm on May 25, in Music Hall. Tickets: 513-381-3300, mayfestival.com.