Stop Luke and Listen
Alexander Zemlinsky: Psalms 23 and 13
W. A. Mozart: Requiem
Dominique Labelle (soprano), Margaret Lattimore (mezzo), Stanford Olsen (tenor), Nathan Berg (bass)
Carnegie Hall Workshop Chorus
Norman MacKenzie (chorus master)
Orchestra of St. Luke's
James Conlon (conductor)
No one man dominated his chosen area of conducting over the last fifty years more than Robert Shaw whose name became synonymous with the art of choral performance. Not that Shaw couldn't conduct an orchestra without singers and in fact led the Atlanta Symphony into the ranks of the first class, but his special love was always the full-scale works for large choir and orchestra. In 1990 he began to share this love with a lucky hundred students each year in the Carnegie Hall Choral Workshop, an opportunity for professional choral directors and amateurs of the highest quality to congregate and sing communally at the highest level of performance and to learn much in their week in New York. The glue of these sessions has always been the fine ensemble named for a church here in Greenwich Village where the original St. Luke's Chamber Ensemble celebrated its nativity. Last evening was the first annual concert since the death of Shaw and was brilliantly led by James Conlon, the principal at the Paris Opera who pops across the pond occasionally to remember his roots in the US, and prepared by Shaw's own assistant Norman MacKenzie.
Conlon is a big advocate for the music of Zemlinsky, one of those shadow figures in twentieth century music who touched the lives of many but who is now virtually forgotten. The Viennese pedagogue was good friends with Mahler since his prized student and probable lover, Alma Schindler, married the mercurial conductor of the Vienna Opera. Zemlinsky's own sister Mathilde married Arnold Schoenberg, thus insuring her brother's musical association, for better and worse, with the Second Viennese School. Conlon has resurrected the Zemlinsky opera oeuvre, conducting a memorable Der Zwerg in Paris in 1998. The two psalms performed last night are so rare that the second, written in 1935 and darkly warning of the onslaught of the Nazis, was given its New York premiere as a result of this workshop. Coupled with the gently pastoral #23, it provided a balanced introduction for the main course of the evening.
Each of the participants in the workshop obviously does so as a labor of intense love and each was undoubtedly the star of their local high school or church choir in the not too distant past. The trick is to both educate and balance them in one advanced week to produce a fine overall sound. This year's group was very powerful and blended very well with their young, dedicated psychic doppelgangers in the orchestra. You just can't beat enthusiasm and the Orchestra of St. Luke's puts their overpaid brethren up the street at Lincoln Center to shame. Their sound is superior to that of the New York Philharmonic, although there were spots in the Mozart where some had trouble keeping up with Conlon's aggressive tempi.
There are of course other requiems, some of which are amazingly intense (the Berlioz really does it for me), but when you hear the Mozart the sensation is that this is the Agnus Dei or the Dies Irae, while the others are simply composer's interpretations of the Benedictus or Tuba Mirum. Even a devout atheist takes pause at the fear and trembling expressed here and I defy anyone to find a passage in all of music that is a more perfectly blended whole of text and tone than the Lacrimosa. The chorus last night was very sharp in its attacks and suitably broad in its lyricism. The soloists were adequate with special praise due to Ms. Labelle, who projected a genuine sense of transportation in her passages. The edition was the new Levin one, meant to correct the sins of Sussmayr, but ultimately not particularly discernable from its famous predecessor. The crowd, mostly relatives of the performers, was warmly enthusiastic but in this case their bias was eminently justified. Robert Shaw may be gone but his memory is well preserved in evenings as satisfying as this one.
Frederick L. Kirshnit