The Orchestra of St. Luke’s, with their principal conductor Pablo Heras-Casado, presented a refreshingly unusual program spanning three centuries of well-known composers’ more peripheral works, united by literary themes, in Carnegie Hall on November 6th.
The most polished and refined performance was Dallapiccola’s Piccola musica notturna, inspired by a poem of Antonio Machado’s, which opened the second half. This night music with a still sense of foreboding was an ideal showcase for one of Mr. Heras-Casado’s greatest strengths: his transparent lyricism. Flickered with many fine solos, one can up the ante, and principal horn Stewart Rose’s shapely contribution inspired his colleagues to this evening’s expressive heights, including the outstanding pliancy of clarinetist Bil Jackson.
Tchaikovsky’s poem on Shakespeare’s The Tempest provided this night’s most thrilling music, and the solo horn richly deserved his solo bow in this veritable concertante part, where he intoned Prospero’s voice with a mature masculine wisdom, endless in breath and width of range. Caliban’s music was appropriately boorish, but Miranda and Ferdinand’s love seemed more tentative than filled with ardour, and never quite blossomed.Another of the conductor’s strengths is his ability to manage dense textures and cohere disparate elements, well applied to the controlled chaos of the storm music. Ariel’s scherzo sparkled with grace. Less controlled, perhaps by micromanagement, was this concert’s last and biggest work, Die erste Walpurgisnacht, a musical envisioning by Mendelssohn for three vocal soloists, large chorus and orchestra with a text from Goethe.
In the Ouvertüre it was unnerving to see the red-faced conductor insisting on rhythmic details the band apparently could not execute. The stormy winter winds were Wagnerian. Excellent was the mezzo Elizabeth DeShong, with a voice colored so darkly as to sound like a man. Tenor and bass-baritone Joseph Kaiser and Luca Pisaroni had necessary heft, but less handsome was the Italian at the extremities of his registers. Musica Sacra under Kent Tritle was generally very good, occasionally clouded in pitch by the higher voices.
If this witch’s night left a bloated impression (the favorite bits were the ones felt via the floor), the concert’s opener, a suite from Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, loosely based on A Midsummer’s Night Dream (called thus in this program), was blistered by untenably vigorous tempi. Solid string tone graced the music only at the downbeats, and, in a seeming bow to performance practice, without the right equipment, the sonority had the coloring of faint turpentine, if one may allow the mixed metaphor. The conductor attended to and shaped the bass lines at the expense of the melodies. Bassoonist Marc Goldberg turned in a brilliantly fiery solo here, and cranked and wailed in the Tchaikovsky. At the bottom of the orchestra admirable too was principal bassist John Feeney; fortuitous was his conspicuous muscularity.
Muscular might describe to a questionable extent the style of Mr. Pablo Heras-Casado. From his core, sumptuous is the legato he can command from his forces, but the gymnastics and acrobatics that come from his neck and head are jagged. Marking the beats by pumping himself through his toes seems an oddly stylized way to embody the tempo. What this observer would like to keep is his singing qualities and adventurous acuity, but his charisma, when forced, is unappealing.