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Heras-Casado Leads Orchestra of St. Luke's in Britten and Shostakovich

by Michael Cirigliano II

OSL, Carnegie Hall, October 2013

Photo credit: Ruby Washington, The New York Times

For their first program of the new season at Carnegie Hall, the Orchestra of St. Luke's presented dynamic readings of two World War II-era works separated by only two years' time, Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings and Shostakovich's Symphony No. 9. Led by Principal Conductor Pablo Heras-Casado, the orchestra was set ablaze with a stormy temperament that permeated even the most lighthearted and whimsical moments of the evening.

Britten's song cycle—composed for the composer's longtime partner, the tenor Peter Pears, and hornist Dennis Brain—seamlessly moves between pastoral serenity and wartime anxiety throughout its eight-movement setting of poems ranging from a medieval dirge to a Keats sonnet. Certainly the leading interpreter of Britten's music since Pears himself, Ian Bostridge was a commanding presence as the tenor soloist (and not only because he stood taller than Heras-Casado, even while the latter was on his conductor's podium)—his clear, choir boy-like timbre agile enough to effortlessly float its upper register and menacingly growl down below.

Particularly captivating were the "Elegy"—a brooding showcase for OSL Principal Horn Stewart Rose, whose expressive phrasing and bold articulation were perfectly suited to the movement's broken, heaving phrases—and the "Sonnet," which allowed Bostridge the opportunity to reveal his wide-ranging abilities as he transitioned from an impassioned plea to the staunch acceptance of death over the course of the poem's final line: "Turn the key deftly in the oilèd wards/And seal the hushèd Casket of my Soul."

Shostakovich's third installment in his trilogy of "war" symphonies is often compared to the lighthearted "Classical" Symphony of his fellow Russian, Serge Prokofiev. Written in 1945, after experiencing the incredible successes of the titanic Seventh and Eighth symphonies, Shostakovich pared down the orchestral forces to produce a five-movement set of miniatures that hardly lived up to the triumphal statement expected of the composer after the war's end.

However, as with all of Shostakovich's music, the fury swims beneath the surface, and the underlying menace of the music found below its brassy marches and jaunty piccolo tunes proved to be the focus of Heras-Casado's interpretation. Leading the orchestra at breakneck speeds, the conductor seemed ready to send the group off of the proverbial cliff, but, thankfully, OSL was in top form throughout: balances were in check, even in the most raucous military moments, and solo woodwinds stole the show with their elegant tones, phrasing, and blend.

Clarinetist Mark Nuccio and flutist Elizabeth Mann provided fire and ice, respectively, in the morose second movement, passing each other the sinewy and serpentine main melody that never seemed to find its final respite, and bassoonist Marc Goldberg was particularly moving in the fourth movement's three arias; much like Bostridge in the Britten, Goldberg was able to effortlessly convey both hushed fear and emboldened rage within a single phrase.

Opening the program was the overture to Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream, which found the orchestra in its more familiar territory of the Classical style. The violins were crisp as they navigated Mendelssohn's unforgiving writing, and the recurring woodwind chorales provided just the sense of fairy-tale magic needed for a convincing performance.

The Orchestra of St. Luke's returns to Carnegie Hall on November 21, 2013, for a program of Weiner, Schumann, Bartók, and Mozart, featuring pianist Jonathan Biss and conductor Iván Fischer. Tickets available through the Carnegie Hall box office.