"The Protecting Veil" transforms darkness into light

03.15.09
Joshua Roman
The News Tribune

Dark depression was transformed into heavenly light during the Northwest Sinfonietta's Rialto concert Saturday night.

With the lament of Dmitri Shostakovich's post-war Chamber Symphony before intermission, and John Tavener's cello meditation "The Protecting Veil" afterward, the orchestra with soloist Joshua Roman powerfully demonstrated the way music can move the spirit from death to life.

Shostakovich's "Chamber Symphony" op. 110a is, in fact, his eighth string quartet-written while passing through a heavily bombed Dresden-rearranged for string orchestra. The Sinfonietta played to the strengths of the adaptation: largeness of tone, depth of voice. The opening Largo began turgidly, taking awhile to find director Christophe Chagnard's tempo. Concertmaster Adam LaMotte played the chromatic violin solo intensely and reservedly, but the structure remained bland. With the Allegro's moto perpetuo, a frenzied humming, the energy picked up, and the Allegretto's witchy waltz was enticingly malicious, with an eerie cello solo by Mara Finkelstein. The last two Largos expanded emotionally, bringing out Shostakovich's agonizing pairing of lament for World War II, and the war's own violence.

Turning from the depths of human misery, Chagnard's perfectly chosen program then moved to serenity and hope. "The Protecting Veil" is one of contemporary English composer John Tavener's best-loved works, and one of the hardest: The cello soloist has one hour of continuous playing, all highly emotional, singing the Virgin Mary through her birth, life, death and eternal protection of humankind. If ever a 25-year-old man could convincingly be the mouthpiece of the Mother of God, Joshua Roman is he. The former Seattle Symphony principal, now launched on a solo career, not only showed enormous capability for tone and technique but infused the stage with a halo of perfect calm that lifted it, as the best Tavener can be lifted, into a highly spiritual realm.

Roman's tone Saturday night was nothing short of vocal: As Tavener had intended, the high range of the main themes sang in a liquid, full-throated voice, with relaxed vibrato but intense feeling. Apart from a few Middle-Eastern ornaments that could have been clearer, Roman handled all technical tricks with ease, possessing the piece with a yogic calm that echoed the heavenly stillness of the main melody. Mary's lament for her Son on the cross was breathtaking, Roman's bow dancing over the strings like a swallow through the chromatic Byzantine tonality.

Throughout, Chagnard moved the orchestra unhurriedly through their alternate stillnesses and shifting movement, working in perfect synch with Roman and painting an aural tapestry of gorgeously pealing violins, hushed cello choirs and austere bass drones. And as the solo line ran out to its final, incredibly high vanishing point, the audience sat spellbound.

The next concert by the Northwest Sinfonietta will be "The Hours" with Michael Cunningham on April 25. 253-383-5344, http://www.orchestraexperience.com/.