By Heidi Waleson
NEW YORK – This week marks the fourth “Spring for Music” festival at Carnegie Hall, an ambitious undertaking that prizes adventurousness and democracy. North American orchestras, chosen for the creativity of their programs rather than their celebrity, play New York, all tickets cost $25, and fans from the ensembles’ home bases – Alabama, Oregon, Edmonton, and more – come along to cheer their bands on. Sadly, the project has proved financially unsustainable, and this year’s outing will be its last.
The New York Philharmonic and conductor Alan Gilbert did not have far to travel, but they brought a weighty work – the New York premiere of Christopher Rouse’s Requiem – to start off the festival on Monday. Rouse, currently the orchestra’s composer-in residence, is known for big orchestral statements, and his 90-minute Requiem was even bigger than usual, incorporating lots of extra percussion, the Westminster Symphonic Choir, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and baritone soloist Jacques Imbrailo.
Written to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Hector Berlioz’s birth, the work references the French composer’s 1837 Requiem setting by using his version of the Latin text and alternates Latin mass texts with other poetry in the manner of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem of 1962.
It began promisingly, with Imbrailo singing a chant-like, a cappella setting of Seamus Heaney’s poem “Mid-Term Break,” a boy’s rather shell-shocked account of the funeral of his younger brother, followed by the chorus with a hushed, hazy, “Requiem aeternam,” also unaccompanied.
But having the orchestra make its first entrance with a sudden percussion explosion at the start of the “Dies irae” felt like an obvious choice, and from there, the piece never really moved forward. Text settings, even the baritone solos, which were poems that spoke of personal losses (a father, a son, a wife), meandered and had little to do with the words; they and the Latin choruses sounded equally mumbled. The orchestral writing was noisy, with little color variety. Finally, after about 80 minutes of chaos and confusion, Rouse introduced a 19th-century hymn and the children’s chorus singing the carol “Es ist ein’ Ros’ entsprungen.” It may have expressed a hope for rebirth out of darkness, but the consolation felt unearned.
The Seattle Symphony and its music director, Ludovic Morlot, got a nice boost for their Tuesday concert: the opening work, John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean, which the SSO commissioned and premiered last June, had just won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music.
Become Ocean is a deeply compelling work that one feels more than hears. It starts with a low-pitched groan, like the opening of Das Rheingold, and never stops, gathering and releasing sound, with long, undulating notes creating a surface that slowly heaves as though waves are pushing through it from below. Sometimes brass or winds get the upper hand for moment, or a xylophone stands out, but it is the continuity that gives this 40-minute score its visceral, hypnotic power. One need not even read the latest reports on climate change to get the point. In the composer’s words: “Life on this earth emerged from the sea. As the polar ice melts and the sea rises, we humans face the prospect that once again we may quite literally become ocean.” The orchestra’s recording of the work, made last fall, will be released in September.
The companion works supplied intriguing contrast. Edgard Varèse’s Déserts for winds, brass, piano and percussion, was all about brightness and separated fragments, with motives passed, say, from trombone to woodblock, examined, and then passed to someone else. Next was Debussy’s La Mer – and what a different ocean that was from Adams’s version – pictorial rather than elemental. The SSO gave it a robust reading, missing the subtleties of its more shimmery moments but going all out on the playfulness and the violence. With Become Ocean still resonating, La Mer took on a different hue than usual. Debussy’s storms are the threats of an earlier age, suggesting shipwreck – at worst, rather than apocalypse.
Heidi Waleson is the opera critic for The Wall Street Journal and writes about the performing arts for a variety of U.S. and international publications.