Crossing Brooklyn Ferry: Thursday
Das Rheingold Tonight at the Met

Robert Spano Conducts the Juilliard Orchestra

by Michael Cirigliano II

Robert Spano, Juilliard Orchestra, Alice Tully Hall
Photo credit: J.D. Scott

For their final concert of the season at Alice Tully Hall, the Juilliard Orchestra presented a remarkable program of Sibelius, Bartók, and Claude Vivier. Under the direction of Atlanta Symphony Music Director Robert Spano, the orchestra easily transcended their “student” status, creating sounds that would put many a professional ensemble to shame.

Although a highly regarded Canadian composer during his lifetime, Vivier’s untimely murder (at the age of 34) has all but swept most of his music under the carpet of time. Bucking that trend, Spano’s programming of two of his most accomplished works, Orion and Lonely Child, made for a stunning portrait of the composer. Composed within a year of each other, the two works show Vivier’s musical language as it alternates between primitive and ethereal. Orion begins with an amorphous trumpet line calling to mind Ives’ The Unanswered Question—a motive that eventually develops into a grand theme for tutti orchestra and tolling bells; a cosmic organ of sound that slowly evaporates into the expanse of time.

Lonely Child, however, makes fantastic use of limited resources. Scored for solo soprano and a smaller orchestra, Vivier makes great use of the individual bodies of the orchestra—pairing the soprano with the strings for long, sculpted phrases before plunging into angular and chromatic, Messian-like stretches while accompanied by the woodwinds and gamelan-esque percussion. Soprano Devon Guthrie was in full control of the score throughout, calmly jumping between florid altissimo lines and avant-garde vocal effects.

Rounding out the program was Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony and the suite from Bartók’s ballet, The Miraculous Mandarin. The Sibelius gave room for the string body to show their finest tones—especially in the gorgeous chorale that takes minutes to build near the end of the introduction; their sound was beautifully glossy and rich. As Spano weaved between the numerous tempo changes in the one-movement work, the Juilliard players made glorious work of the composer’s final thoughts, with some heartbreaking phrasing and strong intonation from the woodwind and horn choirs.

Perhaps even more riotous than the infamous Rite of Spring, Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin—based on a setting of fellow Hungarian Menhét Lengyel—is a tale of lust, violence, and ghoulish horror. A prostitute, forced by two goons, sings a siren song out her window (played with dexterous virtuosity by clarinetists Anton Rist and Liam Burke) in order to lure men into her room to be robbed. After two men prove penniless, the prostitute calls a wealthy Chinese man in, only to have him fall in love with the woman. After the thugs chase the Mandarin and kill him, his body refuses to die until the woman bestows a kiss on his lips as a sign of her devotion.

The suite—which consists of roughly 23 minutes of the 35-minute ballet—portrays the three seductions and the chase scene, utilizing Bartók’s feverish sense of rhythmic drive. The orchestra’s precision in this regard was top notch, especially in the percussion section’s performance. The final chase scene went at breakneck speeds, never once sacrificing quality for pacing. Setting apart the student ensemble even more was their vitality in attacking the material; with the freshness of youth certainly comes an insatiable energy that helped the orchestra to conquer the material. Endearing the players even more to the audience was the fact that numerous smiles were seen on the string players as they easily maneuvered through Bartók’s titanic score.