Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Horn Ruled The Evening

Of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s season opening concert in Carnegie Hall Wednesday October 23rd, the most anticipated piece on the program was Britten’s Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. Ian Bostridge was the big name draw, having the reputation as the greatest English tenor recitalist today. The undisputed hero of the evening, though, was French horn player Stewart Rose, St. Luke’s solo horn. With a deep sensitivity to the ambiguities of the music and its far ranging texts, Mr. Rose’s seemingly instinctive commitment and vivid volatility put Mr. Bostridge’s pat professionalism to shame. The solo horn call in tones of natural harmonics harken to prehistory. Somber here, Mr. Rose’s most subtle tempering made this savory to the modern ear. Mr. Bostridge, a lovely long-limbed lad, lithe of voice and shape, has a naturally pure and clear voice that hangs well on high; his pitch is pristine, and his legato lightly honey-hued. A glaring technical defect, however, is his diction, crisp as overcooked alphabet soup. Perhaps this is fashionable. One of the tenor’s memorable moments came in the second song, Tennyson’s Nocturne, at the lines:

               “Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
               “Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, answer, dying, dying, dying.”

To hear comprehensible words, and beautiful ones, was like the opening of a window in an airless room, and thrilling was the tumbling of voice and horn.

   Always light, Mr. Bostridge affected variety by singing Ben Johnson’s Hymn even lighter, and though the tenor’s roulades were fluidly maneuvered, Mr. Rose’s quicksilver pattering was so skippingly tra-la-la! In the Dirge (Anon. 14th century) it was a disappointment to hear the singer ignore the horn player’s majestic and severe introduction above the strings’ slow unsettled rhythm, like a smothered heart. The tenor merely sang less prettily. The horn’s sforzando stopped notes were chilling and unearthly. The Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado, providing unobtrusive support and ideal balance, drew warmly pliant and pulsing playing from the strings. The shifting ascending bi-tonal harmonies of the last song, Keats' Sonnet, were particularly gorgeous, and Mr. Bostridge was here at his most genuine. The moving tone painting of the last line of the Sonnet

                   “And seal the hushed Casket of my Soul.”

and the final descending 10th of the solo offstage horn was made divine by Mr. Rose’s diminuendo, eternal, that rose to the heavens.

   For globetrotters, many are works whose interpretations travel well in checked bags. The elusive moodiness and fundamental gloom in Britten’s Serenade command that little be taken for granted. At times sounding canned and mannered, perhaps our tenor’s simplest solution would be to pack a vial of valve oil. And consonants, preferably of bone. It is regrettable that what could have been truly great was instead stitches of great moments. Mr. Bostridge did not earn his fee.

   Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado’s sharp gestures drew a splendid reading from the Orchestra of St. Luke’s in Shostakovitch’s 9tth Symphony, a lesser-known work concise in length and form. The music of the odd-numbered fast movements, carnivalesque and dementedly gay, sandwich a terse elegy (Moderato) and a long bassoon solo (Largo,) played broodingly by Marc Goldberg, well mused. Riotous, even raw, the solo interjections at the end of the first movement from the expert concertmaster Ms. Naoko Tanaka, were simultaneously ironic, sardonic and acidulous. The finale movement had the impetus of an out of control train, and in the coda, the roar of the orchestra, impassioned of brass, was matched by the roar of the audience in a joyous catharsis. It is great to bear witness to a palpably exciting relationship between conductor and band.
   Mr. Heras-Casado chose to open this evening with Mendelssohn’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and his angular jabbing motions seemed to contribute to imprecise strokes in the strings and ragged attacks in the winds.


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