We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019


Johanna Rusanen, Maestro Kent Tritle, and Takaoki Onishi

What a well-balanced program we heard last night at Carnegie Hall! The first half was delicate, ethereal and feminine. The second half was powerful, riveting and masculine. The Oratorio Society of New York, with Maestro Kent Tritle at the helm, surely earned the standing ovation and any forthcoming accolades.

The first piece on the program was Part II of Hector Berlioz' Tristia, Op. 18 entitled "La mort d'Ophelie", which was sensitively conducted by Maestro David Rosenmeyer. Berlioz fell in love with the English actress who played Ophelia in Paris in 1827; she became his muse and initiated his life long love of Shakespeare. 

Who cares that they married and split up when we music lovers have reaped the benefits --Roméo et Juliette, Béatrice et Bénédict, and the lovely piece we enjoyed last night. 

Gertrude's lines from Act IV of Hamlet were adapted by Ernest Legouvé and Berlioz set the text as a solo song in 1842; it was arranged for a soprano/alto chorus in 1849. Last night, the female members of the Chorus and the Orchestra of the Oratorio Society of New York distinguished themselves with the clarity and delicacy of their performance. It was ethereal.

Maestro Tritle took over the podium to conduct Part III of Claude Debussy's Nocturnes, entitled "Sirènes". If we didn't know that the word means "mermaid" in English, we would have thought it meant "serene". This piece has nothing to do with an angry sea causing storms and shipwrecking sailors. This is a calm sea, as introduced by some lovely arpeggi on the harp.

In this piece, the all female chorus delivers a filmy tapestry of sound inspiring feelings of peace and calm. There were no words, just a blended vocalise of gorgeous harmonies. This was just what one needed to hear after a stressful day!

The second half of the program was quite different; we would call it exciting and demanding of both the singers and the audience. The sound of the Finnish language is strange to the ear and the text has a music of its own which Jean Sibelius matched and emphasized in his inimitable musical language.

Sibelius grew up in a country that had been ruled by Sweden since the Middle Ages and by Russia from 1809 onward. The time had come for Finland to fight for its independence and for the use of its own (very difficult) language, which is not related to the Scandinavian languages but somewhat related to Estonian.

A friendship with two brothers active in the Finnish nationalist movement, not to mention his romance with their sister, drew him into the movement. Finnish folklorist Elias Lönnrot had published a collection of folk stories in 1835 entitled Kalevala. In 1891, Sibelius returned from musical studies in Berlin and Vienna, determined to compose this five-movement symphonic and choral poem. It would be the first major composition in Finnish.

The Kalevala comprises 50 songs and the part which Sibelius set is called Kullervo Op. 7,  and begins at number 30. (We heard the first song sung by Meghan Kasanders at Alice Tully Hall and loved it.) It tells the story of a most unfortunate young man who endured a tragic childhood and wound up seducing a woman who turned out to be his long lost sister. He comes to a sad end, impaling himself on his own sword.

The role of Kullervo was sung by the brilliant baritone Takaoki Onishi who has made quite a name for himself since his days at Juilliard when we first started praising his thrilling instrument and the artistry with which he employs it. In this case, we can forgive the singer for his use of the music stand. Trying to read the language is sufficient challenge, but singing it???? In spite of the challenge Mr. Onishi sounded wonderful with his expansive round tones filling Carnegie Hall with overtones.

We will heap the same praise on soprano Johanna Rusanen who had the advantages of being a Finnish national and of having performed the work before. She has a sizable instrument that has an exciting ring to it and she sang the parts of the three resistant women Kullervo tries to seduce. As number three, she succumbs to his show of wealth.

The heavy lifting was done by the men of the Oratorio Society, augmented by a male contingent from the Manhattan School of Music Symphonic Chorus who blended in seamlessly. It falls to the chorus to tell the story. The text makes use of repetition reminding us that these stories were told and told again.

The introduction was symphonic, as was the event of the consummation of Kullervo's lust, and also the music for the battle. The music was varied but thematically connected, giving the work a feeling of unity. Sibelius' orchestration was inordinately colorful. Thrumming strings underscored the scene in which Kullervo and his sister tell of their origins and timpani revealed the portent of his discovery and his shame.

We wouldn't hesitate to hear more works like this. We cannot stop thinking about all the folk stories involving unrecognized family members. The Greeks had their Oedipus and the Norse had their Wälsung twins. 

We would also like to hear the other parts of the Berlioz and the Debussy. Perhaps the Oratorio Society of New York, now in their 146th year (!) could be persuaded to give us the "full Monty" next year!

(c) meche kroop

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