New York got a little taste of the Peach State on October 27, 2012 when the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra conducted by Robert Spano played Carnegie Hall for a concert of mostly American music (with the exception of the final piece which was composed by British born William Walton). The evening certainly had a biblical feel as both choral pieces centered around texts taken from the Old and New Testament.
The orchestra began with Aaron Coplands Appalachian Spring Suite. The familiar “Simple Gifts” can be heard in the seventh movement. He took this melody from an old Shaker song. Those who know American Art Songs will know this melody very well as many have either sung this piece in chorus, or as a solo.
Up next on the bill was Leonard Bernsteins Chichester Psalms. This piece, sung entirely in Hebrew, was composed while the Mr. Bernstein was on sabbatical in 1965 for Walter Hussey, the Dean of the Chichester Cathedral in Sussex, England, for his summer music festival. Each movement in the piece includes at least one full psalm with one or more verses from other psalms that either contrast or compliment each other. When our chorus began, I could not help but be taken by their size, and yet at the same time, I was under-whelmed by their volume. But more on that later.
Our soloist in this piece was the phenomenal countertenor John Holiday who made his Carnegie Hall debut with this concert. This is a countertenor for our generation. He possessed a large voice (rare for his fach) that flowed out into the house like liquid gold. Mr. Holiday sang with smooth poetry that almost brought one to tears with his interpretation. It is no wonder he will be covering at the Met later this season, though I am quite confident he is poised to take the music world by storm!
The final piece was William Waltons Belshazzar’s Feast. It was in this piece where the chorus really shined through. With crisp, clear english diction, and extremely fine musicianship, it is difficult to realize this is a chorus of volunteers. A few standouts were the soloist from this group; soprano Anne-Marie Spalinger, alto Katherine Murray, tenor Grant Harville, and bass Stephen Ozcomert. Their voices were beautiful brilliant gems in this complex and grand majestic piece.
It is such a wonderful occurrence when a great orchestra meets a great chorus with a great soloist. And that is exactly what happened when our baritone soloist Brett Polegato took the stage. He sang with such full, rich, depth of tone from top to bottom, and recanted the text with great drama. His interpretation of the text made the stories jump from page to reality. Mr. Polegato, simply put, was a musical poet, and had colors akin to Sir Thomas Allen.
One other element of greatness was our conductor maestro Robert Spano. Great because he does not just lead his orchestra, he is a part of it. He will occasionally use broad musical brush strokes, but for the most part, one does not realize he is there. Leaving one to focus on the music itself. That, to this examiner, is the mark of a true musician.
On a final note: Unless you are at the stand, leave the conducting for the man with the baton. And that’s all I’ll say about that.
For more information on the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, click here.
For more information about concerts at Carnegie Hall, click here.