Category Archives: Reviews

Critical Reviews of the Verdi Requiem

As I once wrote elsewhere, compliments from the critics are rarely the external validation our chorus seeks – the applause of the audience is sufficient reward, and in the end we sing to scratch our own creative itches, to know we had a hand in making the music come alive.  That said, I’ve found it helpful to review the reviews and weigh the comments of the critics against my own experiences.  These days we typically get comments from three publications:

Jeremy Eichler of the Globe was unusually complimentary and keenly accurate in his observations, impressed by Gatti’s fluid, poised conducting, and attention to musical details:

From the hushed opening bars, Gatti drew out long singing lines from the orchestra, while also clearly prizing textural and rhythmic clarity. He showed a knack for organic tempo choices and transitions that captured the full drama and, at times, fury of this remarkable score. The same might be said of his conducting of the Tanglewood Chorus, which sang superbly, its performance in the Dies Irae duly terrifying yet free of stridency, its Sanctus measured with a welcome dignified gait[…]  The BSO as a whole seemed alert and highly responsive to Gatti’s direction.

I agree with him calling out the responsiveness of the orchestra to the “organic tempo choices”–I’d call Gatti’s frequent rubato, dramatic fermata, and fluidity the defining factor of his time on the podium.  I love Eichler’s observations on the Sanctus, because it means we delivered on Gatti’s previous direction to sing it “with respect.”  It’s satisfying to get that independent validation of our ability to communicate something so intangible.

Eichler also correctly noted that the quartet was “capable but uneven,” preferring the mezzo’s voice the most, but complimenting the female Agnus Dei duet.  Amusingly, he professed confusion over our leaping to our feet several times for our big forte interruptions–and the next night, we cut one of those leaps to make things a little less frantic.  He wasn’t the only one who saw it as a problem.

Brian Jones wrote up our Friday performance in the Boston Music Intelligencer, and almost loved it:  “In retrospect, this was a performance to admire in so many ways that I wish I could say I was as deeply moved as one hopes to be with this splendid music.”  On top of his praise for the soloists he lobbed fair criticisms about the soprano’s odd vowel modifications and the bass’s lack of power.  And it’s clear he noted the responsiveness in dynamics, tone, and tempo between us and the maestro:

His sensitive reading of the score brought forth many lucid and musical moments, and great credit goes to the Tanglewood Festival Chorus for just the right hushed sound here,  or magnificent triumph there. The utter security of singing from memory makes the chorus’s contribution even more significant. Maestro Gatti also conducted without a score.

[…]The other movements were mostly beautiful, and handled with the appropriate degree of intensity and reflection. Gatti made perfect sense of the famous opening bars, with their legendary, hushed iterations of “Re-qui-em,”, and his use of rubato was appropriate and compelling. (One interesting touch in the second movement was as the chorus actually spoke the words “quantus tremor” (“how great a terror”): I had never heard that effect before, and it worked. The Offertorio, Sanctus and Agnus Dei were given much better tempos, although orchestra, chorus and soloists occasionally threatened to slip off the tracks. Several expressive moments in the Lux Aeterna went by with little recognition, but the final movement (“Libera Me”) was the highlight of the evening, and beautifully conceived.

However, noticing them does not mean approving of them.  Despite his praise above, overall he did not seem to care for Gatti’s frequent tempo shifts:

The famous requiems of Verdi, Mozart, Brahms, Faure and a few others present interesting interpretive challenges: so many musicians and listeners are familiar with them that conductors often feel the need to “leave their mark” in ways which sometimes stretch and even snap the threads of musical line for which these works are justifiably noted. Gatti’s approach was most successful in all the shorter movements, but in the second, long movement his tendency to take extra time with breaks in the music, as well as his tempo in the famous “Dies Irae” music (too slow to achieve the gripping drama of those repeated notes and triplets), made the long second movement seem even longer than should have been the case. Many of the numerous sections of this movement were handsomely dealt with, but the overall architecture and sense of line suffered.

I’ve noticed many reviewers similarly criticize an interpretation of a performance if it didn’t match their own favorite version.  While I understand Jones’s commentary on “activist conductors,” I’m pretty sure Gatti’s extra time was borne not out of an egotistic desire to claim the piece as his own, but rather out of a true love for the music and how he conceives it.  I had never heard the Dies Irae that deliberate myself, but while Jones said it sacrifices the gripping drama, I’d say it’s a welcome trade off that allows the internal lines to sing through–it  creates an overall effect that’s even more terrifying than bulldozing through the whole thing.

Finally, David Wright spoke of our opening night performance at Boston Classical Review.  I hesitate to even include him, given his inexplicably contrarian review of our Brahms Requiem, but he has occasionally given passable commentary.  He continues with his usual questionable, attack-filled observations again, suggesting that we lacked diction and rhythmic drive in the Sanctus, claiming the chorus “sounded more like a crowd scene than a chamber choir,” and later calling us “a firm, unobtrusive presence in its supporting role.”   I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he’s referring to passages where we sing under the soloists.  That said, he did praise our “gusto” for the Dies Irae and the Lacrymosa, and I’d say he was spot on in his observations of the soloists’ strengths and weaknesses individually and as a quartet.  He also wrote well of Gatti’s stewardship:

Throughout the evening, Daniele Gatti’s firm hand could be felt shaping every aspect of the performance, from the almost inaudible opening bars to the soft, measureless chanting of Libera me at the close, and all the high drama in between.

I like the philosophy that “Understanding is a three-edged sword: your side, their side, and the truth.”  The commonalities in all three reviews confirm that this was truly a marvelous performance, distinguished by Gatti’s fluid direction, a challenged but still enjoyable quartet of soloists, and some of the chorus’s most attentive, dedicated singing.  Bravo all, and let’s do it again for Andris Nelsons in the summer!

Critical reviews of the Lobgesang

The two usual commenters on our performance these days are the Boston Globe’s and the Boston Classical Review website.  Both did not disappoint with what I felt were accurate and insightful reviews.  Both caught on to the fact that, while this piece is magnificent in scale, its compositional form limits it.  They both also noted that, while our Chorus performed quite well, we were still missing a certain something.

I will say that our Friday performance exceeded our Thursday one — no doubt because we became yet more comfortable with the technicalities of the music (entrances, dynamics, fugues) so we could throw more weight toward the emotional connection as well as the melodic lines, and not sound quite so harsh.  I bet Saturday’s and Tuesday’s performances are even better!  Assuming anyone comes to them — the hall was half empty again on Friday.

Some of Jeremy Eichler’s comments from the Boston Globe:

Last night Symphony Hall had many empty seats, whether due to the unusual repertoire or the prospect of another substitute conductor. It was a pity because Tovey led a swift and sure-footed performance of the work, largely true to its Romantic heft, but never at risk of collapsing beneath the weight of its own grandiloquence.

There were times one wished he managed transitions with a bit more dramatic flair or harnessed the work’s rhetorical force to greater cumulative effect, but there were pleasures to be found in the constitutive parts.

The Tanglewood Festival Chorus unleashed a robust and joyful noise at its first entrance, and by and large sustained its potent energy.  […]  The work ends without any grand Beethovian apotheosis, but last night the chorus still found plenty to celebrate in the arrival of dawn.

David Wright echoed some of these comments in his Boston Classical Review:

Even a beautifully polished and committed performance by the orchestra, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and three capable vocal soloists under the direction of Bramwell Tovey (substituting for the indisposed Riccardo Chailly) couldn’t quite make the case for this musical miscellany as a coherent symphonic work.

The Tanglewood Festival Chorus sang with its usual precision, but its sound sometimes went uncharacteristically hard and blatant, as if it were trying to kick some life into Mendelssohn’s chronically short, square phrases.

Privately, there seems to be a consensus from choristers and their attending guests that the piece just doesn’t quite hang together, and that our exuberance sometimes toed the line between fortissimo and “shouty.”  With no subtlety or dramatic tension short of the Watchman-to-Dawn transition, there’s not much to hang your hat on besides making sure your sound reaches the back row.   I do feel we’re finding some of those subtleties and will continue to bring them out in the remaining performances.  Assuming we survive — Tovey may kill us all on these fugues, as they’ve gotten a little faster with each performance.

Reviews of Stravinsky and Mozart (and Mahler)

Reviews have trickled in for last weekend’s concert.  They’re not as harsh as I thought they would be, which just goes to show that it’s always easier to be hypercritical of one’s own performance.

Of the Stravinsky, Jeremy Eichler of the Boston Globe writes:

This was a surely paced, elegant performance with fine singing from the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, conveying by turns the restrained serenity and the disquieting mystery at the core of this music.

We’ll take it.  As for the Mozart, he does not criticize the soloists as I did, writing:

Thomas and a keenly responsive chorus brought out the pathos and dark drama of this work, particularly in the “Rex Tremendae,’’ “Confutatis,’’ and “Lacrimosa’’ movements. Soile Isokoski, Kristine Jepson, Russell Thomas, and Jordan Bisch were the capable soloists.

For my wife’s performance of the Mahler 3, he notes that “The American Boychoir and the women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus turned in lively performances,” and offers minor criticism of the players.  (The orchestra on Saturday were Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, not the BSO as on Friday.  My wife thought they played with much more pathos though admittedly less technical merit… most notably when Maestro Thomas had to snap at an oboe player to get him to look up and pay attention to the tempo!)

The New York Times was complimentary but not as kind.  It praised Maestro Thomas for “keeping a firm grip on the young band” to produce “superbly balanced sonorities and stunning climaxes” in the Mahler 3 performance, though the reviewer caught that “Mr. Thomas was reduced at one point to snapping his fingers, evidently in response to a missed entrance in the wind section.”  About the chorus, James R. Oestreich had a lot to say after all:

The Tanglewood Festival Chorus, which John Oliver has developed into one of the nation’s outstanding choirs, and which also performs with the Boston Symphony at its home in Boston, is celebrating its 40th anniversary, and its program here with the orchestra on Friday night, Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms” and Mozart’s Requiem, was particularly apt. […]

It was especially good to hear the 125-strong Tanglewood choir at full voice in the Mozart (with an orchestra about half that size). Now that decorously small, historically sanctioned choruses have become the norm in Mozart, it is good to be reminded of the punch this music can pack in an appropriate setting like the outdoor Shed. (Shaw used a chorus of 200.) And the singing was simply terrific, in moments of meditative quiet as well as at full throttle.

As usual on Mr. Oliver’s tight ship, the chorus performed from memory. Mr. Levine, in his time as the orchestra’s music director, has dispensed with a further trademark: Mr. Oliver’s favored seating plan, a complex interweaving of high and low, male and female, voice types. Now it is the standard left-to-right lineup: sopranos, altos, tenors and basses.

The Stravinsky performance made a listener usually disinclined to second-guess Mr. Oliver wonder too about the wisdom of pointedly performing from memory. In the first two movements, somewhat diffuse in nature, attacks were often tentative, rhythms and pitches imprecise, despite the chorus’s recent experience with the work in Boston.

But by the third and final movement, with its repetitive textual and musical phraseology, the chorus was singing with its customary assurance and flair, with splendid results. Mr. Thomas’s incisive approach ideally suited Stravinsky’s guarded effusions, and the orchestra improbably carried it through on a soggy evening.

Quite a bit there!  I’ve never heard any reviewer point out that we no longer interleave the voices like we used to a few years ago.  I admit I prefer that “hashed chorus” greatly to what we do now, since it lets you hear what else is going on much better.  Supposedly conductors enjoy being able to cue the singers like they cue the cellos or the woodwinds or the brass.  But if we’re waiting for our cue, then we’re already screwed.

This reviewer called out our tentative attacks, and I agree we had some.  I’m betting we didn’t all have this as solidly memorized as we have other concerts.  But there was a curious lack of cues from Maestro Thomas compared to his explicit conducting during the choir and orchestra rehearsals, and I think it threw us a bit.  I also disagree with the reviewer: I think the first movement of the Stravinsky was pretty solid, the second had some flaws (our laudate dominum refrains were not together), and the third was where I felt we were really sort of out there.  Still I wouldn’t castigate the memorization philosophy for these faults.

A third review appeared in the Times Union newspaper, though Priscilla McLean spent a good part of the article discussing  the history of the pieces.  About the performers herself, she mentioned:

Stravinsky’s orchestration excludes violins, violas and clarinets, but is otherwise complete, allowing the upper voices in the chorus to be clearly heard while becoming part of the orchestral palette. This was carried off by the voices and instruments flawlessly.

The “Psalms” seems a more dire, solemn piece than, surprisingly, Mozart’s “Requiem,” and the third movement of the Stravinsky is a hymn of praise, but sounding more dirge-like than joyous. The contrast of the chorus singing long narrow phrases over the busy orchestra, which had more complex contrapuntal and rhythmic lines, made for interesting listening, with excellent tempi and fine balance between the different groups.

[…] The sections that are Mozart’s shine with clarity and variety, and a strange joy. Of the four vocal soloists, the soprano Soile Isokoski had the purest sound[…]

The most poignant and hauntingly powerful section was the Lacrimosa, with the chorus and an ominously beating timpani. […]

Michael Tilson Thomas, the BSO, chorus, and soloists were consistently first-rate. It is a joy to attend Tanglewood and hear such wonderful quality performance.

I’m surprised that the Berkshire Eagle didn’t put out a review or that I didn’t find any more online.  If I do, I’ll add them here.

My review of our Stravinsky and Mozart performance

If you compare last night’s performance to other performances of the Mozart Requiem I’ve been in or listened to, it was top-notch–well, except for that one blemish.  But if you compare it to what our chorus is capable of, I feel that we didn’t reach our potential for artistic excellence in that performance.   It really felt that both the Mozart and the Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms were pieces that we just sort of sleepwalked our way through, relying on our collective musical instincts.

And you know what?  I lay a big part of the blame for this on conductor Michael Tilson Thomas.   Honestly, I think he was sick… or maybe one of his dogs died… or maybe he read the Eagle review from last week criticizing him for being too wild on the podium.  Whatever the reason, the animated, smile-and-a-wink, conductor from our rehearsals–the one who knew exactly what he wanted to get–wasn’t present last night.  The wildly gesticulating, flamboyant crowd pleaser of the Mahler performance last week was subdued and even a little careless.  The result is we weren’t nearly as engaged as a chorus as we could have been.  Oh, there were a few moments where you could see the playful spark come back into his eyes and he started cuing instruments and getting us into it.  We were even starting to get into a rhythm with the Mozart until… it happened.

The Sanctus movement is one of three movements where the singing starts immediately.  No introduction.  No tempo indication to speak of.  Just a big downbeat and boom! we’re in.  We did the Dies Irae fine because we were locked in on him waiting for it.  We started with our Domine Jesu without issue, because he gave us a look and mouthed the word Domine reminding us to come in quietly.  But the Sanctus? He looked at us, smiled a bit, got prepared, and then looked down and gave sort of a quiet half-cue.  The entire chorus (except for two superstar sopanos) collectively went, “Uh, what?”  The timpani came in, and the orchestra strings sort of quickly made it in a bit late.  The rest of us… well… we started singing on the second measure.  Oops.  A slip-up like that really rattles both the conductor and the chorus and I never felt as locked in for the rest of the piece.

Coupled with that, everyone seemed to agree that the soloists were nothing special.  They all did their jobs, and wonderfully so, but there was nothing about their presentation, their singing style, or their interpretation that will leave a lasting impression, and there was nothing noteworthy about their voices.

Lest I sound too negative, I’d like to report that I felt we conveyed a lot of the detailed direction that MTT gave us for both pieces in our extensive rehearsals.  While I don’t have anything with which to compare our Symphony of Psalms performance except our practice recording, I feel we delivered a solid effort and that anyone familiar with the piece would have been pleased with what they heard.  And the Mozart, according to knowledgeable and trustworthy listeners, was a top-tier performance, missed entrance notwithstanding.  Again, I just wish I could have walked off the stage saying “YEAH!  We nailed that!”  Again, sort of like the Mahler last week, which by almost all accounts was a concert both the performers and the audience will remember years from now.

We’ll see what the “real” critics say… after all,  I’m just a bass.

Reviews of Mahler 2nd

The reviews are in!  And they’re pretty darn glowing.  Well, mostly.

Jeremy Eichler of the Boston Globe praised Michael Tilson Thomas for his ability to draw different emotional contexts out of the various movements.  About us, he wrote:

Mahler’s finale is one of the most memorable in his oeuvre, full of hair-raising music depicting the end of days, but also containing some of his most spellbindingly quiet passages, as in the hushed first entrances of the enormous chorus. The TFC here sounded magnificent, as it did singing at full throttle.

Lloyd Schwartz of the Boston Phoenix spent most of his digital ink talking about the intricacies of the performance, with more (well-deserved) praise for Stephanie Blythe’s voice than for the chorus itself.

Clarence Fanto of  Berkshire Living was more effusive, saying it was no surprise that MTT’s interpretation would be a “magnificent, insightful, thoughtful and viscerally thrilling performance.”

Superlatives abound whenever John Oliver’s chorus performs; the singers’ hushed entrance in the final movement (mysterious, very slow and a triple-pianissimo as Mahler instructed) was as delicate yet well-articulated as imaginable. When Tilson Thomas urged them on to sing triple-forte for the final lines of Mahler’s text (“Die shall I in order to live…”), their exclamation of joyous redemption lifted the rafters skyward.

The performance was so tightly focused and unblemished technically — even the off-stage brasses and the distant marching band — that an instant CD or MP3 download could be released with no touchups required. Some of us would gladly pay for the privilege of owning a memento of this memorable event.

Well, then!

Meanwhile, the more austere Berkshire Eagle was very harshly critical, calling the performance a “bumpy ride” and “idiosyncratic.”  The writer acknowledge MTT’s style as closer to Bernstein’s, but derided him for lacking Bernstein’s “structural coherence and molded sound.”  It sounds like Andrew Pincus was lashing out for the absence of James Levine, blaming the performance on “a visiting conductor” and comparing MTT’s “swirling, stabbing demands” unfavorably to “Levine’s more measured, though no less visceral, approach.”  Time to get over it, people!  We may not see James “J.D. Drew” Levine again.  About us, he acknowledged:

From its hushed first entry – one of the most stunning moments in all music – the Tanglewood Festival Chorus rose to almighty thunder in the concluding ode.

And because Tanglewood is regarded as a New York activity as much as a Boston one (you should’ve heard the concert-goer who told me afterwards that the performance was “auw’asum“), the New York Times weighed in too. Anthony Tommasini wrote a lot about the absence of James Levine, but he also delved into the performance.  He praised MTT for bringing “lucid textures and structural coherence” to the otherwise disparate movements of the work.  About us, he gave a passing of-course-they-were-good nod of appreciation:

[MTT] drew brilliant playing from the orchestra, magisterial singing from the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and inspired performances from the two vocal soloists […]  In the “Resurrection” poem by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, with Mahler’s added verses, the always impressive Tanglewood Festival Chorus (directed by John Oliver) sang with robust sound and sensitivity.

A New York Times blog post by Daniel Wakin included snippets of an interview with MTT about how he chose to interpret the piece, but the interesting thing there are the comments by the musical literati.  Some called MTT’s Mahler “the best there is” and others condemned him for making changes to the composer’s notes or called his conducting style superficial and showy.

Quite a roundup.  My thoughts on the performance will follow in the next post.

Reviews of the MacMillan

Last night felt like a pretty successful performance of the piece — all our hard work paid off.  Something I realized, though, as the orchestra tuned up and I looked out at a Hall that was at best about two-thirds full… Holiday Pops performances are for the crowd, but BSO performances are for the music.  They can like it or leave it — and, yes, a few people got up and left in the middle of the piece, and I think some did not return after intermission — but we’re performing it because the music must be performed.

The first review has come in.  Jeremy Eichler of the Boston Globe, known for being a bit curmudgeonly about the Boston music scene, wrote a review briefly praising the performances of the soloist, conductor, and choruses:

The soloist (here the excellent Christopher Maltman)…. The performance under Davis was exemplary, with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus in particular doing superb work with such a demanding score.

He spends most of the review criticizing the piece compositionally,

MacMillan’s work has many fascinating moments and some inspired passages of choral and instrumental writing. But last night the score, to these ears, did not add up to more than the sum of its parts….

But it was hard to discern a unifying compositional voice amidst the deluge of influences (from Bach to Lutoslawski). MacMillan has a knack for theatrical gestures, but the parts I found most compelling were the least pictorial moments, when the composer freed himself from literal representation of the narrative and let his formidable sonic imagination roam, as in the absorbing final movement, full of muscular and expansive orchestral writing. MacMillan generally struggled to draw out the universal tropes from the particulars of this narrative, but when he did, the work blossomed, as in the music written for the poignant meeting of Jesus and his mother.

I will agree on one thing … I don’t think the music has a unifying compositional voice amidst the deluge of influences.. I’m not sure it’s intended to.  MacMillan effectively told us that himself when he sat and spoke with us, that he was influenced from a lot of different musical directions, that this is what happens when liturgical chant and opera (and Scottish traditions) collide.  The difference of course is I think it works, and Eichler does not.

Another article appeared in the Berkshire Review this morning, but it was a preview article.  It reviews the London Symphony Orchestra recording, “whether or not you are going to the BSO performances this week.”  It also had some prophetic words as well:

The first question—unfortunately—even relatively experienced listeners of contemporary music ask is “just who is this guy?” which can be translated as “is he conservative or experimental? Am I going to be able to sit through it?” Last week at Carnegie Hall I saw a few people walk out at the prospect of twelve minutes of Schoenberg. At ninety minutes MacMillan’s Passion will require somewhat more patience, but I can reassure the fearful that anyone who is familiar with Britten will be comfortable with MacMillan, although his style ranges freely from medieval models to the harshly dissonant and the microtonal. I believe the audience will be struck by the Passion as an intense dramatic narrative alternating with the contemplative, which is already inherent in much of the Catholic and Protestant Good Friday liturgies, as well as J. S. Bach’s Lutheran treatments.

Great article about the Passion in today’s Boston Globe

There’s a great write-up about James MacMillan’s St. John’s Passion in the Sunday Boston Globe.  This is a rare treat, as usually coverage of the Symphony is relegated to the Friday paper reviewing the Thursday night opening performance.

Some of my favorite quotes:

Although Davis has since conducted another set of performances with the Concertgebouw, he still finds himself a bit daunted by the piece.

“I open up the score and think, ‘Oh my God, how did I ever do this?’ ’’ says the conductor, now 82, with a tentative laugh. “And you work again at the difficult bits, and you hope that, when you get there, you’ll be able to pull yourself together and do this.’’

It’s nice to know that it’s not just the chorus sometimes asking ourselves how we got into this as we’re drilling ourselves on some of the more intricate passages of the piece.

MacMillan comments on the “halo effect” that  I noted in an earlier post that distinguish every utterance from Jesus:

The writing for the baritone soloist is unusually florid – long, ornate melodies on a single syllable that mark Christ out as different from those who surround him. “I wanted to give Christ’s words a special emphasis that would have a different character from all the other voices,’’ says the composer.

There’s also a deep discussion about how remarkable the close of the second movement is, another point I marveled at earlier while memorizing that part:

One of the most striking of these reflective moments occurs when Peter, having denied three times that he knows Christ, hears the cock crow, just as Jesus had prophesied. As the wrenching moment concludes, MacMillan writes a fulsome chorus on the text “Tu es Petrus”: “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I shall build my church.” It’s a remarkable dichotomy: a disciple’s most pitiable moment juxtaposed with his role as the first shepherd of the church.

“At that moment, he’s being a coward, he’s being a typical human being,” MacMillan explains. “And yet Peter was the one who was chosen as the foundation stone of the whole ecclesial movement that came out of Christ’s life here.

“There is something contradictory about that. But also strangely affirming – the fact that there’s a divine acknowledgement that we are all human, we can all fail, but yet the church’s role is to face up to the dilemmas of our humanity.”

All in all, a very good article that I plan to send along to friends and family interested in what makes this piece tick.