Two U.S. Orchestras Get a Rare Chance at Carnegie Two U.S. Orchestras Get a Rare Chance at Carnegie BY JAMES R. OESTREICH
APRIL 23, 2018
Two U.S. Orchestras Get a Rare Chance at Carnegie Two U.S. Orchestras Get a Rare Chance at Carnegie BY JAMES R. OESTREICH
APRIL 23, 2018
It felt almost like a momentary return of Spring for Music, the defunct festival of North American orchestras at Carnegie Hall designed to give exposure to regional ensembles and encourage adventurous programming. The actual return of Spring for Music — or its much-revised and renamed successor, Shift, at the Kennedy Center in Washington — happened the week before, April 9-15.

But there at Carnegie, by happenstance, were two regional orchestras — the Grand Rapids Symphony, Michigan, on Friday; and the Pacific Symphony, Orange County, Calif., on Saturday — with distinctive programs. Also by happenstance, the music directors of both orchestras were once assistant conductors of the Boston Symphony Orchestra: Marcelo Lehninger in Grand Rapids and Carl St. Clair in Orange County.

Both sizable audiences seemed rich with home-state boosters, especially Michiganders on Friday. But there the similarities mostly ended.

Spring for Music, in its day, defrayed some of the expenses and helped with the logistics of a New York appearance. The Grand Rapids ensemble, which celebrated its 75th anniversary with its Carnegie debut in 2005, returned, with its chorus of 140, again at its own expense (some $700,000). A campaign to finance the trip came “within a stone’s throw” of its $1 million goal, according to Diane Lobbestael, the orchestra’s vice president for development, and the remainder “will drop to the bottom line.”

The Pacific Symphony, making its Carnegie debut, had the good fortune to be presented by the hall itself, as part of a season-long series of concerts centering on Philip Glass, who currently occupies Carnegie’s composer’s chair. The main event was the New York premiere of Mr. Glass’s oratorio “The Passion of Ramakrishna,” a Pacific Symphony commission (with the Nashville Symphony) first performed by the orchestra and the Pacific Chorale in 2006.

It is a big, beautiful piece, written more or less in the style of Mr. Glass’s Gandhi opera “Satyagraha” (1980), Mr. Glass at his best.

“Gandhi wouldn’t have been Gandhi if it hadn’t been for Ramakrishna,” Mr. Glass said of the 19th-century Hindu mystic in a brief preliminary conversation on stage with Mr. St. Clair. The “Passion” text presents some of Ramakrishna’s thoughts and tells of his death in touching fashion.

In the earlier parts, Mr. Glass wields his sustained, seamless arpeggiations to produce a timeless, subdued sort of rocking lullaby. He breaks into uncharacteristically wild expressionism in the death scene, then finds his way to gorgeous tranquillity in an epilogue.

The performance was excellent, with the orchestra sounding like a major ensemble; excellent singing the chorus; and fine work by the baritone Christòpheren Nomura and the soprano Elissa Johnston, especially lovely as the Mother of the Universe.

The ambitious program opened with Mr. Glass’s “Meetings Along the Edge,” a movement “Passages” (1990), a major work he wrote in collaboration with the Indian sitarist and composer Ravi Shankar. And it included Shankar’s own Sitar Concerto No. 3 (2009), with his daughter, Anoushka Shankar, as commanding soloist.

The idea behind the Grand Rapids Symphony’s return to Carnegie, Ms. Lobbestael said, was to reintroduce the orchestra, with the Brazilian-born Mr. Lehninger, in his second season as music director, to the national stage and celebrate his early achievements. So the program included works by the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos along with Falla’s familiar “Nights in the Gardens of Spain” and Ravel’s overfamiliar “Boléro.”

Villa-Lobos’s seemingly untranslatable “Momoprecoce” is a 1929 reworking of his set of piano pieces “Carnival for Brazilian Children.” Like Falla’s “Nights,” it is a concerto-like work, and the eminent Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire, on hand for both, presumably made the best possible case for it. Still, for all its local color and a semi-jazzy, semi-spiky style wavering some between Gershwin and Stravinsky, it proved rather bland in the end.

Villa-Lobos’s “Chôros No. 10,” a setting of Catulo da Paixão Cearense’s poem “It Tears Your Heart,” was altogether more compelling, and the Grand Rapids forces delivered it handsomely. It seemed a bit extravagant to have brought a large chorus to New York to sing four minutes of a 12-minute piece, but the decision was further justified by the encore, Fauré’s “Pavane,” in its melting choral version.

The Grand Rapids forces performed it well, as they did the entire concert but for a raw brass solo or two.

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