Friday, August 14, 2015

Brott Festival Grand Finale.

I went last night (Thurs. Aug. 14) to hear the National Academy Orchestra, Festival Choir and soloists, all under the baton on Boris Brott and his apprentice conductor Janna Sailor, perform Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms and Carl Orff's Carmina Burana at the McIntyre Theatre at the Fennel Campus of Mohawk College.

It was an impressive performance by any standard. The Orff, however familiar to choral music fans, is a blockbuster piece. Brott was mentored by Bernstein, serving an assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, so he has unique ties to that master and his music.

Maestro Boris Brott
They opened with the Bernstein which is only about twenty minutes in length. This meant that even after Jaqui Templeton-Muir's long introduction the audience were out in the lobby for the intermission only 35 minutes after the lights went down.

I'd never had the opportunity to hear the orchestral version of this piece. Bernstein made a version with a much reduced orchestration so he obviously felt the choral and solo vocal parts were strong enough to stand without a big orchestra. I had, however, heard the Chichester Psalms recently, in a much more modest presentation accompanied by piano and a percussionist.

With the full orchestra we get the full flavour of the Bernstein of the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story and Candide, which is to say lush, full and rhythmic. In this version the instrumentalists are full partners with the choir, not merely an accompaniment. It really is a lovely piece which includes sections which are both very uplifting and meditative as suits the texts of the six Hebrew psalms on which it is based. The orchestra includes two harps which are central to the orchestration.

Stephane Potvin's chorus (an amalgamation of the Arkady Singers and the ad hoc Festival Chorus) were well rehearsed and better than simply competent throughout the concert. The balance between the 75 voices and the orchestra was problematic, though, with the orchestra frequently overwhelming the singers in spite of the improvised sound baffles over their heads. I suspect this had more to do with the acoustics of the stage rather than any lack of volume on their part and that there was nothing that could be done about it and, frankly, there was no room for more choristers even if they had had them. Most of the sopranos straighted out their tone and stood in for the children's choir in the Carmina.

To my surprise, soprano Lesley Fagan sang the 23rd Psalm solo. Bernstein intended it for a treble or a countertenor reasoning that David, the supposed author, was a man, expressing male sentiments. Brott said in the program that if Bernstein had heard Fagan he'd have approved. I never met Berstein, but I'm not so sure.

Lesley Fagan

I wouldn't usually mention concert attire, but she wore a dark ladies' suit, not unisex, but not a gown either. She sang tastefully and restrainedly as the music requires and probably more musically than any child could do. My impression (of course prejudiced by the composer's intentions) was that it was like listening to someone play a piece on one instrument that was intended for another, like a clarinet playing an oboe sonata. It can be beautiful, musical and immaculately interpreted and still not be quite right.

The work ends quietly after a short passage of unaccompanied choral singing and there was an intangible sense of peace in the hall before the applause. Very nice, touching even.

After the break there was more talk as the organizers and Brott presented awards to two of the orchestral apprentices and we finally arrived at the Carmina Burana. For those unaware, the orchestra includes two pianists and a half-dozen percussionists in addition to a full Romantic orchestra, a big chorus (necessary to balance all the sound from the instruments) and solos for soprano, tenor and baritone.

From the powerful opening O Fortuna it was clear that the participants were "all in" and we were to hear an exciting and enthusiastic rendition of the piece.

As much as there is to like about the Carmina Burana, it does have musical limitations. The choral writing is relatively simple with lots of unison singing and no true polyphony to speak of. The texts are strophic (i.e. verses) and there is a great deal of literal repetition, repetition with some orchestral embellishment or repeated statements, louder and more involved each time. That's nothing to do with the performance, that's just the piece Orff wrote.

Apprentice conductor Janna Sailor conducted the first section, ten numbers, and did pretty well except for a passage (repeated, of course) in the Ecce gratum, where she attempted to accelerate and only some of the chorus followed her resulting in a bit of a mess from which they quickly recovered.

Janna Sailor

The soloists were all very good. Baritone Cairan Ryan coped admirably with a part which is sometimes allotted to two different singers  He was expressive when it was called for and did some fine full-throated singing especially at the top of his voice.

Cairan Ryan

We're all spoiled by recordings and I would rather hear a darker, more heroic sound in this baritone part. There can't be many men that can sing it like that and they probably all have international careers.

Bud Roach sang the Roasting Swan and made the most of his short part. Few will be aware that Orff intended the Carmina Burana to be costumed and staged with dancers. It is thus appropriate that Roach acted out the song of a swan, spitted and roasting on an open fire, and not too pleased about it. In a very funny bit of business he carried, not the full piano reduction that the others had, but a tiny black book, to which he occasionally referred although he'd certainly memorized his three stanzas he had to sing. I don't know who Orff wrote this part for but it is very high causing whomever is singing it to exaggerate or strain to reach the top notes. Roach, a very light tenor, moved seamlessly from head voice to reinforced falsetto and came close to what I surmise the composer was after.

Bud Roach

Lesley Fagan had returned in a multi-coloured gown for the Carmina. She's an awfully good concert performer with an international career and demonstrated that in her singing last night.

Most of the soprano part is in the middle voice and is more challenging interpretatively than it is vocally since she is called upon to sing the same music several times. The soloist is judged, however, on a very short, almost unaccompanied passage at the end, the Dulcissime, in which she has to sing a high C# out of nowhere and then sing a passage of high, quiet coloratura. She nailed it.

So the Brott Summer Music Festival is done for another year and I mourn its passing. Tickets are getting more expensive but it is still a deal for exceptionally good music making. The hall was packed last night and the audience seemed to enjoy the show giving it the mandatory Standing O and keeping up the applause for longer than I can remember. Yeah, Boris!

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