By Leslie Kandell
NEW YORK – No matter what neglected music the conductor Leon Botstein performs with the American Symphony Orchestra, listeners hurry to the front of the Carnegie Hall parquet for his open-seating, pre-concert talk. Having chosen an unfamiliar program, Botstein paces the stage with a microphone, articulately placing the composer and his surroundings in historical and cultural context and including a dollop of the composer’s personal life.
His concert on March 27 zeroed in on Moses, a two-hour sacred oratorio by Max Bruch, who is remembered mainly for his Violin Concerto No. 1 and Scottish Fantasy. But a little nosing around reveals that most of his works featured the voice. “Singing,” said Botstein, “is a triumph of German culture.” Considering Bach and the church tradition, Mozart, Brahms, and Wagner, plus all the others, that sounds about right.
The narrative skips the Passover story and begins when Moses climbs Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments from God, and the people, skeptical about his return, make a golden calf. (In this version – as opposed to the DeMille movie – his brother, Aaron, does not lead them astray, but is pressured by them, which leaves him free to repent quickly.)
After intermission, Moses descends and order is restored, and after a battle with marauders, he is ordained by God to die. His people lament his death and cross into the promised land. This is the more dramatic half, with plummy orchestral sounds, Wagner references in strident brass, and ominous descending passages. The story, composed in a style of flawless, appropriate, generic Romanticism, bears certain parallels to the Passion.
Squarely in the Botstein fach, this behemoth merits a full hearing but displays the reasons for history’s short shrift. First, it was in fast company. When you think about pinnacles of the sacred oratorio repertory – the Brahms and Verdi requiems, Messiah, Elijah – Moses, in spite of its lovely choral and solo moments and respectful writing, lacks their drama and heartrending beauty.
Composed in 1895, after all the great oratorios except Elgar’s 1900 Dream of Gerontius, it shows the long-lived Bruch leading from behind. The piece may not be familiar, but the style is indebted to almost everybody. Bruch accepted 19th-century clichés, worked hard with the tools that he had, and knew what he was doing, which in this case was enough for the sponsors but not for greatness.
Moses was in fact banned during the Nazi era, Botstein noted. Bruch, whose middle name was Christian, was mistakenly thought to be Jewish. He could compose Moses and, for that matter, Kol Nidrei, because he was dispassionate and professional about his work and responsible about fulfilling commissions. He was no more Jew than Scot. Botstein called him “a decent, prejudiced man.”
If the choristers weren’t volunteers, one would say they earned their bread with this huge choral part as the people of Israel. The chorus, being the group for which the oratorio was composed, was at this concert the 100-voice Collegiate Chorale, well prepared by its director, James Bagwell, who, like Botstein, is affiliated with Bard College. The sopranos sounded charmingly girlish, and the piece must be fun to sing.
As Aaron, Kirk Doughterty was a clean, forceful Manrico-type tenor – an association that comes to mind because he sang that role a few weeks ago at Sarasota Opera. His approach matched the operatic style of these solos. He and Moses, the capable Sidney Outlaw in the title role, made a vocally convincing pair. Outlaw, who just won second prize in the Naumburg competition, was generally less flashy than he can be (or than his name suggests), but then, this is not a flashy piece.
Tamara Wilson was the Angel of the Lord. Her medium tone stream was suited to saving the voice and maintaining pleasant accuracy in big arias with eye-opening harmonies toward the end.
The large orchestra had an angelic harp and St. Matthew-like organ for the hero’s moments of human discouragement. The players seem to have reached an understanding with Botstein: They do the best they can, keep their eye on the goal, get through fine, and give the idea of the piece.
Cheers for word sheets that gave the German text opposite the English translation, and extra credit for keeping house lights up a little so words could be perused without difficulty.
The funereal orchestral interlude before the death of Moses is followed by a lament of the people and their gratitude to God for bringing them to the new land. In time for Passover, said the advance press material for the performance. Actually, for Easter, too.
Leslie Kandell has contributed to The New York Times, MusicalAmerica.com, Musical America Directory, and The Daily Gazette.