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Sacred and Profane at the Cincinnati May Festival

Music Hall
05/27/2011 -  
Franz Joseph Haydn: Mass in B-flat Major, H. XXII:10, Heiligmesse (Missa Sancti Bernardi de Offida)
Gustav Mahler: Das klagende Lied

Keri Alkema (soprano), Hana Park (soprano), Ekaterina Semenchuk (mezzo-soprano), John Aler (tenor), Rodrick Dixon (tenor), William McGraw (bass), Yohan Yi (bass)
May Festival Chorus, Robert Porco (director), Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, James Conlon (conductor)

E. Semenchuk (© Sheila Rock/Courtesy of May Festival)

The second weekend of the 2011 Cincinnati May Festival (read reviews of the first weekend’s concerts here and here) opened with a Mass and a fairy tale. The former, Haydn’s Mass in B-flat Major, known as St. Bernardi, had, inexplicably, never been performed at the 138-year-old May Festival. Mahler’s youthful Klagende Lied was introduced to the festival by James Conlon in his first season as music director in 1979.

Conlon returned to the Mahler with relish. A three-part cantata with a storied history – it was rejected in a competition juried by among others, Johannes Brahms – it is in effect, Mahler’s Symphony Null, said Conlon, in remarks from the podium (compare Bruckner’s Symphony No. 0). As such, it contains abundant material utilized in his later, numbered symphonies. Soloists Keri Alkema (soprano), Ekaterina Semenchuk (mezzo-soprano), Rodrick Dixon (tenor) and William McGraw (bass) joined the 132-voice chorus and the CSO in a performance right out of the storybooks.

Part one, Waldmärchen (“Forest Legend”), rose from the depths of mystery in the horns and continued as compellingly as a page-turner. There was the proud queen, the good knight and his evil brother, a blood-red flower (to win the queen’s hand) and bones that literally speak of fratricide. The soloists and chorus told the good knight’s “tale of woe” with Technicolor support by the CSO. Semenchuk’s creamy voice mirrored the tears of the flowers at the crime committed in their midst.

You could hear hints of the “Resurrection March” from Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in part two, Der Spielmann (“The Minstrel”), where a wandering minstrel comes across the good knight’s bones and carves a flute from one of them. What a surprise – vividly conveyed in this performance – to hear it testify to his murder. There was a loud icy sting by the orchestra signaling the ghostly event, and Dixon and Semenchuk related the knight’s tale with subtlety and expression (and some lovely accompaniment by solo violins).

In part three, Hochzeitsstück, the minstrel goes to the queen’s castle as the wedding feast is being celebrated. The CSO brasses (a standout all evening) sounded the pageantry of the occasion, which fell silent on a last Heiah! Freude! (“Hurrah! Joy!”) by the chorus as the minstrel stands at the door. Soprano Alkema sang the accusation that brings the house down (as at Belshazzar’s Feast, said Conlon) and sang the last, forlorn Ach Leide! (“Ah, sorrow”). In a premonition of the Sixth Symphony, there was a single, sharp fortissimo crack at the end, which startled many in the audience.

Haydn’s Mass, which opened the concert, contrasted the sacred with the profane (Mahler). The six soloists – sopranos Alkema and Hana Park, mezzo Semenchuk, tenor John Aler and basses William McGraw and Yohan Yi – made a beautiful blend, and the reduced chorus (about 65 singers) sang with great clarity and expression. Some of the loveliest moments came during the Et incarnatus est where the three women’s voices were followed by Dixon, McGraw and Yi on the suddenly darker Crucifixus etiam pro nobis. Trumpets, drums and chorus sounded the final Dona nobis pacem, bringing the Mass to an exuberant end.

The May Festival concludes May 28 at Music Hall with Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah.

Mary Ellyn Hutton



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