Monday, April 5, 2010

Voice of the prophet

The BSO - and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus - raised Elijah from the dead last weekend.

Incredibly, this weekend's BSO performances of Mendelssohn's Elijah (above) marked only the third time the orchestra has mounted the work. Actually, maybe that's not so incredible: it's a huge undertaking - and not nearly as interesting as, say, The Trojans or Moses and Aaron, no? (Har de har, that was just my little philistine joke.) What's more, even these performances almost didn't happen: first James Levine was sidelined by ongoing back problems, then tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko withdrew due to a throat infection. But in a pair of miracles that would have done the prophet himself proud, the BSO came up with worthy replacements in both cases: the much-loved Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos picked up Levine's baton, and the Grammy-winning Anthony Dean Griffey stepped into the roles of Obadiah and Ahab.

So the show went on, and proved to be, well, if not revelatory, then still pretty terrific in a satisfyingly old-fashioned way. Needless to say, if Elijah has been neglected over the years by the BSO, it's still utterly familiar (in piecemeal fashion) to anyone who cares about choral music, or, for that matter, most anyone who goes to church: several of its ravishing numbers are staples of the Sunday morning repertoire. Still, it's rare that one gets a chance to hear Mendelssohn's grand tribute to Bach (and great precursor to Wagner, ironically enough) at full size, as it were. Chorally speaking, I'm kind of a secret size queen, I admit, and as the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (all 150 of them) filed onto the Symphony Hall stage, I felt myself getting - well, a little excited. And I wasn't alone (I find again and again that most straight people are secret size queens, too). Not that I don't adore our smaller, professional chorales, like the brilliantly nimble Boston Baroque and Handel and Haydn choruses. But ya know, they're kind of - well, not small or anything, but . . . well . . . hmmmm. Maybe I should stop there.

Anyway, what's wonderful about huge choruses isn't really the size of their sound but its depth. This is a hard quality to explain in the abstract, but as they say, you know it when you hear it. Of course the trouble with such choruses is that to get that depth, you often have to sacrifice clarity - the voices in large groups aren't always uniform in quality, and their diction can get blurry, and even the singing itself can be a little ragged around the edges. (Just you try to get 150 people to start and stop on a dime.) The BSO's secret weapon, however, is John Oliver, founder and long-time director of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, who sculpted the chorale's gigantic sound with nearly unbelievable precision. Even though they were singing from memory. In German. We were impressed.

Given the virtuosity of the chorale, the rest of the performance sometimes seemed like almost an afterthought. But it must be said that Frühbeck de Burgos demonstrated once again why he's the BSO's go-to-man in times of crisis - he seems to be able to pull most of the Western repertoire out of his hat at short notice. His Elijah boasted no deep insights or sense of new conception, it's true - but then, you don't really go to the BSO to hear musical ideas; even James Levine doesn't really have any original ideas. You go to the BSO to hear a top-drawer rendition of the conventional wisdom about this or that piece, and in the case of Elijah, that's probably enough. Frühbeck de Burgos clearly knows and understands the work, somehow conveyed a sense of its structure, and drew both sensitive playing from the orchestra as well as palpable dramatic attack throughout the oratorio's two-hour-plus playing time. And simply watching him throw himself into the musical climaxes, sawing the air and literally leaping against the podium, was like watching a maestro capably ride a colossal tiger.

What he didn't get, however, was a similar sense of drama from his soloists, although musically, soprano Christine Brewer and mezzo Stephanie Blythe were exquisite - and actually both were fine dramatically in their stand-alone moments (Brewer made a very moving Widow, and Blythe soared as the Angel). Tenor Anthony Dean Griffey was almost in their league, but not quite - perhaps because he was a last-minute draft, as it were. Griffey certainly has a gorgeously rich timbre, and sang with fluidity and grace - but he wobbled here and there in his sustained notes, and didn't really have the same general sense of clarity that the women displayed. There was lovely work from the secondary soloists, who joined the group for some beautifully blended quartets, and a charming turn from young treble Ryan Williams (last seen in The Turn of the Screw) in the famous "rain" recitative that closes Part I. The only real gap in the performance, however, came, unfortunately, in the role of Elijah himself. Bass-baritone Shenyang certainly had the pipes for the part, but he was stiff and dramatically unconvincing, and seemed to imagine that he was singing - and emoting - all by himself. It's a tribute to the rest of the many moving parts of this performance that a gap in the lead role hardly seemed to slow it down.

Which leads me to return to a point that infuriated a lot of BSO fans when I brought it up the first time - the disparities in pay that are evident on the Symphony Hall stage. The star of Elijah was clearly the Tanglewood Festival Chorus - only its members were paid not a dime for their efforts. Local blogger Matthew Guerreri once scoffed at my raising the question of why BSO unionized players were paid so much more than session players (and, well, just about any other performer of classical music in Boston). In Guerrieri's circular logic (and to be fair, in the opinion of many others), BSO players were hardly overpaid at all, because players in other metropolitan areas were overpaid at precisely the same level. I wonder, though, whether the fact that the instrumentalists onstage at Elijah were looking at salaries of, say, from $130,000-$200,000 a year, while the singers were looking at annual incomes of - well, ZERO - gives him any pause. Of course perhaps the symphony choruses in Chicago and L.A. are likewise expected to donate their time - but is that as it should be? Does Guerrieri agree that their artistry is, at least in the coin of the realm, literally worthless?