by Nick Stubblefield
Last weekend, I was privileged to hear Alan Gilbert lead the fine musicians of the New York Philharmonic in a pair of Viennese choral works that, while radically different, shared the same ferocious energy and enthusiasm. Arnold Schoenberg's A Survivor from Warsaw, Op.46 is a brief cantata composed as a tribute to Holocaust victims. The work's narrative depicts a Nazi sergeant as he barks orders at a group of Jewish men in a Warsaw ghetto. The performance commanded attention from the start, as harsh note-clusters (utilizing Schoenberg's signature twelve-tone method) from the horns and woodwinds punctuated moments of lighter instrumental texture. The orchestra took a backseat when soloist Gabriel Ebert took sonic and visual focus as he performed the German text, which is composed in sprechstimme, a vocal style that blurs the line between singing and spoken word. Moments after the solo, the men of the Westminster Symphonic Choir marched down the aisles of the hall, boldly and defiantly responding to their oppressor. An overwhelming crescendo led to a stirring and, for me, haunting conclusion.
Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 - and specifically his “Ode to Joy” theme - is arguably one of the best-known symphonies in the musical canon, so in the hands of a lesser orchestra, the 70 minute symphony might feel to some listeners like having to eat your vegetables before getting your dessert. (Or not, as the Greenwhich Village Orchestra proved in March.) Fortunately, the Philharmonic's careful attention to balance and dynamics made for a highly-rewarding experience throughout the performance. Melodic motifs established in the second movement reappeared in pristine clarity in the last -- a big payoff for those listeners paying close attention. At its climax, the “Ode to Joy” dazzled and delighted. The Westminster Symphonic Choir, along with the brilliant soloists Camilla Tilling, Daniela Mack, Joseph Kaiser, and Eric Owens, sang with exuberance and energy, hitting several shiver-inducing high notes. Overall, it was a thrilling Saturday night in Geffen Hall.