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The Orchestra Now Psalms at Carnegie Hall

Music Review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Fri May 3rd, 2019

Vadim Repin with violin and The Orchestra Now

On Thursday night The Orchestra Now performed a program of Psalms from four different musical periods and four different nationalities at Stern auditorium in Carnegie Hall. The program was built around Psalm 130, De Profundis. Two of these pieces were written by men and two by women. Two of these pieces were New York City Premieres, the jewel in the program was the NYC Premiere of Soviet-emigre Lera Auerbach’s new concerto.

TŌN opened with Virgil Thomson’s De Profundis from 1951, which provided a short prelude for what followed. Thomson’s clear, simple vocal arrangement in English was conducted with gentle passion by James Bagwell. Thompson’s brevity and concision stood in contrast to the New York City Premiere of Joachim Raff’s De Profundis, Psalm 130, Op. 141 (1868). Bassoonist Adam Romey supplied a comprehensive historical explication of the Raff work and its historical background.

This lengthy Romantic embellishment by one of Franz Liszt’s close colleagues, composed of six movements, opened with swelling waves of a sumptuous harmonic palette accompanied by arresting dynamics. Here was a striking arrangement of orchestral sounds I had never heard before. The chorus under Bagwell arrived to propel the fourth movement and propel the work forward. Soprano Elizabeth de Trejo enlivened the fifth movement with a solo. The climatic sixth movement was most satisfactory as chorus and orchestra melded for a grand finale.

Violinist Drew Youmans, a fan of Ned Rorem’s 1954 Violin Sonata, delivered an eloquent introduction to Auerbach’s masterpiece, De Profundis, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 3. World-renowned violinist Vadim Repin joined TŌN for Auerbach’s new masterpiece which might be described as the portrait of a young female artist imprisoned in a lunatic asylum. Michael Bulgakov’s lunatic asylum in The Master & the Margarita came to my mind. The thin, dissonant, yet minimalist lyric line of Repin’s violin fought the whole orchestra with resourceful purity to create art against the unified oppression of the orchestra, which at times sounded like a musical dungeon with intimidating drums, bullying bells, herding cellos and bass. The violin received some faint lyric support from a piano and two sister harps, yet it remained clear that this was a life-and-death struggle for creative voice amid cruel conformity. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s famous Easter bells were satirized as naïve prelude for a subsequent century of ongoing tyranny.

At times Repin’s violin held on to sanity by the thread of a single, enduring note rebuking the orchestra. As Repin’s masterful performance delivered drama and suspense amid long winding melodies, dignity and hope welled up against the grinding machine of the orchestra. This concerto was all one movement which contributed to the heightened effect of the orchestra’s claustrophobic conformity as against the violin searching for a way out. Lera Auerbach is a Russian émigré living in the United States. This autobiographical work tells of Auerbach’s creativity being nearly drowned out by the madness and inanity of the State. This is the eloquent story of her survival and rebirth as an artist. Repin’s performance was astonishing to hear as he created notes and lines of awesome beauty with incredibly limited lines of haunting pathos and beauty in a manner like the way Kasimir Malevich created great art with limited resources.

Lili Boulanger’s rendering of Psalm 131 was dedicated to the memory of Lili’s father and was composed at the age of 23, just one year before her own death from tuberculosis. Trumpeter Anita Tóth gave a genial and admiring introduction to this choral and orchestral piece in which her horn glowed. I had never heard this work before and was deeply amazed by the intense melding and intertexture of the chorus with orchestra. This was like the weaving of an unusual basket of great monumental beauty and strength as the chorus appears to challenge the usually dominant orchestra. This is a complex work of thundering power. Here Soprano Elizabeth de Trejo held a more vital role in her smooth liquid solo. Bagwell conducted the chorus into a heavenly, emotional shift as Leon Botstein helmed the orchestra. There was deep gratitude for the joy of life in this work by a woman who led a tragically short life. But there was not a trace of self-pity—there was only that resounding gratitude from the depths of her heart. And I felt it like the clap of a thunderstorm drenching new Spring flowers.

I am quite sure that the author of this Psalm, David (the greatest Jewish poet of all times), would approve of this musical dance through time, langage, and continents.