Sacred Sounds at SummerFest

08.17.09
Miro Quartet
SanDiego.com

By Kenneth Herman

For the most part, the worlds of sacred music and chamber music are quite separate. Although the concert hall—and even on occasion the opera house—have adopted sacred oratorios as well as many of the larger musical works of churchly origin, e.g. the Passions, Masses and Requiems, chamber music remains a decidedly secular arena.

SummerFest’s Sunday (August 16) concert “Poetry and Divinity,” then, promised unusual fare and certainly delivered. The program’s largest work, Franz Joseph Haydn’s “The Seven Last Words of Christ” arranged by the composer for string quartet, is not entirely unknown, although you would more likely encounter it in a large urban church during Holy Week than on a string quartet concert.

Ottorino Respighi’s “Il Tramonto” for mezzo-soprano and string quartet, is, however, a rare bird indeed. Its dazzling performance by the Miró Quartet and mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke opened the concert with a startling revelation. How could such a finely-crafted and emotionally rich score have languished on library shelves all these years? Completed in 1917 and based on a hyper-Romantic, slightly pantheistic poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley, "Il Tramonto" ("The Sunset") paints a vivid fresco of tragic young love and the gradual fading of the survivor.

Respighi, the Italian composer who is remembered mainly for his swashbuckling orchestral tone poems (he also wrote half a dozen operas), surprises the ear with deft, almost impressionistic harmonies from the strings, yet a bold, dramatic line for the singer. Cooke's powerful voice displays the bright edge of a dramatic soprano, yet tempered with the clarity and warmth of a mezzo. A young singer, she made an impressive Met debut last fall as Kitty Oppenheimer in John Adams' "Doctor Atomic," and her voice commanded the modest confines of Sherwood Auditorium. She opened with apparent ease the emotional floodgates the poet scattered across his so-happy-to-be-sad topography.

The Miró Quartet (Daniel Ching and Tereza Stanislav, violins; John Largess, viola; and Joshua Gindele, cello) brought highly-disciplined unity and a rich, vibrant sonority that retained this character even in the quietest moments of the writing. I particularly enjoyed Ching's solo lines, refined and muscular at the same time, always firmly balanced by Gindele's assertive and attractive cello timbre.

The daunting part of Haydn's "The Seven Last Words" is maintaining the listener's concentration throughout the string of seven consecutive slow movements, an unusual structure to say the least. Each movement is constructed to serve as a devotional mediation on one of the seven phrases the various Gospel accounts attribute to Jesus during his crucifixion. In lieu of these usual "Last Words" from the New Testament, the Rev. Eleanor Ellsworth read stanzas from "Poem After the Seven Last Words" by the admiredNorth American writer Mark Strand.

The Miró Quartet kept its part of the bargain, finding and communicating Haydn's deep faith in radiant, arching phrases, and making the most of the composer's calculated changes from minor to major mode. And their vigor in the concluding movement, the one depicting the earthquake mentioned only in the Gospel of Matthew, crowned the long work with too-long suppressed exhilaration. The Rev. Ellsworth's decision to read Strand's poetry in an uninflected, liturgical cadence was, I believe a miscalculation. This objective tone works well recounting prolix stories from the Book of Deuteronomy or reciting Jesus' parables that exalt crafty and unscrupulous accountants. But Strand's image-filled and slightly ironic text was robbed of much of its impact by this neutrality.

It was hard to see how Gunther Schuller's new work "Quintet for Horn and Strings" fit the concert's theme. A 20-minute, complex and dense (to use the composer's own descriptive terms) single-movement work with a prominent solo for horn, it follows the quintessential objective, secular mode of traditional chamber music. That said, it was pleasant to hear a new work (a joint commission by two other chamber music festivals and the International Horn Society) of such refined craft and bold scope. Julie Landsman crisply delineated her extensive solo, but her basic tone lacked rich upper development. No doubt she has developed a sound that will penetrate the largest string sound that Wagner or Strauss can hurl at her (she is Principal Horn of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra). But the allure of Michael Todd's rich and pliant sound has biased my ear.