Saturday, November 18, 2006

A night at the symphony

Last night I went for the second time to hear the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra at the civic center. The centerpiece of the evening was Mozart's Requiem, performed after intermission by the Syracuse Oratorio Society (Dave, my AJ comrade, is a tenor in the choir).

The first half of the concert consisted of a piece for percussion ensemble, the primal, propulsive Ogoun Badagris (1976) by Christopher Rouse, and Bela Bartok's haunting (and somewhat soporific) Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, from 1937. Both pieces were competently rendered, but packed little punch to keep the audience engaged in the toasty auditorium.

The Bartok fared pretty well, minus a few ensemble issues - I find the SSO is best when they leave out the brass, which, in my experience, has always been the weakest section. This was the case at my first SSO concert - a program with Christopher Theophanidis' lovely Rainbow Body (2000), Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, and Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra (where the deficiencies of the brass section were made painfully clear) - as well as at the Syracuse Opera, where the SSO accompanied.

My biggest issues on the first half were with Maestro Hege, who seems to make very little effort to connect with his musicians while beating away at the patterns - surely the root of the unification problem across the group. Stolid and stiff, his conducting is almost entirely without nuance.

I also noticed, nearly immediately, that Hege's tuxedo seemed to be made for someone a good 3-4 inches taller than he. Either Hege's lost a considerable amount of weight or shrunk a few inches, but his is one of the most ill-fitting tuxes I've seen on a musical director in a while - and there's really just no excuse for that. His tails reached below the backs of his knees, the coat was loose at the waist, and the extra fabric of his pants legs puddled around his ankles. After his conductorial exertions, he turned around to acknowledge the musicians, revealing a shirt that was nearly untucked (from waving his arms, understandable); but the shirt was so large and starchy that it formed a hollow shirt-belly that protruded over his cummerbund. Ever heard of a tailor, maestro? I know Syracuse's is a small symphony in a small city, but we're trying to improve our reputation here, so every chance to maintain an air of professionalism should be taken and taken seriously. If you're trying to win people over, this is not the way to do it.

But enough ranting about fashion (I won't even mention the mezzo soloist's matriarchal concert attire).

On the second half, the Requiem was pretty good. The Syracuse Oratorio Society, comprising more than a hundred students and community members, is an excellent choir to have around, in the absence of a resident SSO Chorus. They handled Mozart's swift melismas and fugal passages deftly, generally speaking, and could deliver a big sound when the time came. However, I found myself wanting a greater contrast in their pianissimo, and more dynamic variation across the board.

The solo quartet left much to be desired. Of the four, baritone Timothy Lefebvre gets my vote for best all-around - his "Tuba Mirum" demonstrated a smooth, lyrical voice well-suited to Mozart's music. Dave had mentioned to me before the performance that the soprano sounded young for her age and the mezzo, conversely, old for her age, which was a good assessment - though, in the end, mezzo Stacy Eckert came out on top for me. Ann Monoyios, a baroque specialist, lent an anemic and, frankly, boring soprano to her solo and quartet passages, which only highlighted the vast difference in the much heavier mezzo timbre Eckert brought. (The problem begins, of course, when you decide to pair a baroque specialist with an opera singer who most recently covered one of Wagner's leading roles for Lyric Opera of Chicago...hmmm.) Tenor William Hite was fine, but unremarkable - his best moment came in one of the final movements, when he was either singing in his glory range or just started to feel more comfortable.

Again though, my big problems with the performance came from the podium. Hege's bombastic motions in no way mirrored what he was getting back from the choir and orchestra - but I don't think it was their problem. Maybe Hege figured that the more people he was in charge of onstage, the larger his gestures must be to communicate...not so much. At any rate, it looked odd from the audience.

There were passages where I felt the rhythm was a bit lazy, such as in the double-dotted rhythms - I think this was in the "Rex Tremendae," but I'm still jumbling the Mozart and Verdi Reqiuems in my head, since I performed the latter most recently.

But Hege's most egregious offense came in the "Lacrimosa," indisputably the most achingly beautiful and heart-wrenching part of the Requiem. My heart jumped in anticipation at the first nanosecond of the first chord of the movement, but that sensation quickly turned to horror as Hege ran away with the tempo, conducting what appeared to be a lively, lilting Viennese waltz - not a lament. The translation in the program goes something like this: "Lamentable is that day on which the guilty man shall arise from the ashes to be judged." Hey, who wants to dance?

I had been looking forward to the "Lacrimosa" all evening, and this gross mishandling made me sort of angry, actually. However, I refrained from passing final judgment on Hege until I could check out the score and confirm my memory that the movement should really be much slower than he conducted it. Sure enough, plain as day: Larghetto. Italian diminutive of largo, or very slow in tempo, and therefore a tempo slightly faster than very slow, according to the Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music. Maybe I'll buy Maestro Hege a copy for Christmas.

For me, the entire program suffered on account of the building. Aesthetics aside - and Lord knows there are troubles on that front - our seats were in the second-to-last row on the main floor, under the massive concrete balcony. It seemed as if the entire concert was being performed behind an invisible curtain that absorbed the core of the sound before it got to us. I'm certain there was more sound coming from the stage in all of the works than made it past the balcony - so that was unfortunate. (Note to self: never sit past row P on the main floor.)

But overall, it was an evening well-spent. The Syracuse Oratorio Society showed that they have a lot to offer, so I'm very much looking forward to their performance of Handel's Messiah on December 10. I'm hoping Hege will have reviewed Handel's score with a bit more care than he did Mozart's on this occasion.

And who knows, maybe he'll have bought himself a new tuxedo at the post-Thanksgiving sales.

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