Singers reach the promised land in “Moses,” while ASO wanders in the desert

Fri Mar 28, 2014 at 12:34 pm

Max Bruch's oratorio "Moses" was performed by the American Symphony Orchestra led by Leo Botstein Thursady night at Carnegie Hall. ["Moses" by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1659]

Max Bruch’s oratorio “Moses” was performed by the American Symphony Orchestra led by Leo Botstein Thursday night at Carnegie Hall. [“Moses” by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1659]

Between Bard Summerscape and the American Symphony Orchestra, Leon Botstein has made it his worthy mission to brush the dust off long-forgotten works. Bruch’s 1895 oratorio Moses, in which he led the ASO Thursday night at Carnegie Hall, is just such a piece, one that enjoyed modest success for a few years after its premiere, but was thereafter buried.

In the program note he prepared for the concert, Botstein argues that, for all its stubbornness and adherence to a highly traditional form, Moses is scattered with hints of Wagnerian influence. He was less than convincing in making that case, as the orchestra’s playing, ranging mostly between daintiness and timidity, made the piece sound spectacularly reactionary.

From the very start, the orchestra was muffled, the brass playing with restraint, and the strings using very little bow. There was no definition in their articulation, and little specificity in Botstein’s direction, so that the orchestra was just a sort of haze for the chorus to cut through. The singers of the Collegiate Chorale were as solid as ever, and when they were joined with the orchestra, there was enough sound to achieve the piece’s forceful effect. When the orchestra played by themselves, they were simply not powerful enough to carry the music on their own.

The most color achieved came in the introduction to the Gold Calf episode, where the ensemble played with sorrowful, somber warmth. As the scene progressed however, the “thunder of God’s wrath” on which Moses remarks was conspicuously absent.

Moreover (and perhaps related to the problem of timidity), the orchestra simply sounded underrehearsed. Ensemble problems were relatively infrequent, but where they did occur, as in the trumpet fanfares of the third scene, they were glaring. More pervasive was a feeling of uneasiness, as many fast passages in the strings seemed to be hanging at the end of a thread, preventing the musicians from achieving the grand, sweeping effect that this music often requires.

Fortunately, the performance was buoyed by a thoroughly commendable and often astonishing vocal trio. More on the “commendable” end was the baritone Sidney Outlaw, who made a hard-edged and formidable Moses. He struggled to find a round tone in some of his more lyrical material, but when vigor was called for, as in the searing tirade against the Israelites worshipping the golden calf, his tone was focused and direct.

The star of that golden calf scene, ironically, is Aaron, here portrayed by the tenor Kirk Dougherty. He brought a fiery, pinging tone to the role, nailing a sustained B-natural later in the work and showing impressive definition far below the usual tenor register. Initially refusing to worship the idol, there was both grief and defiance in his aria “Wie sollt’ ich ein so großes Übel tun,” followed by somber resignation as he finally gave into the apostates’ demands.

For pure vocal characterization, one could hardly imagine a more perfect angel than soprano Tamara Wilson. The first of the major characters to enter, she sang with stately ease as she delivered commandments from on high to Moses, with a supple middle voice and meaty lower register. Imposing and aloof when she needed to be, she was most in her element when afflicted by sadness at her charge’s fate. She was heartbreaking in her exit aria, “Höre, Mose,” delivering God’s famously harsh sentence with tender sympathy.

The American Symphony Orchestra will perform Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 April 13 at Peter Norton Symphony Space.

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