Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents The Glory to Freedom: A Concert to Honor Our Veterans
Rochester Philharmonic Youth Orchestra
Distinguished Concerts Orchestra, Distinguished Concerts Singers International
Erin Freeman, DCINY debut conductor, Lee Nelson, guest conductor
Suzanne Karpov, soprano
Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
February 19, 2017
On an unusually warm February day, with temperatures in the mid-60’s, and pitchers and catchers reporting to Spring Training to kick off the baseball season, I was reminded of the legendary Ernie Banks. “Mr. Cub” never lost his zest for the game. “Let’s play two,” was his motto. So why not have two concerts on the same day? Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) served up just such a doubleheader. The first (and the subject of this review) was entitled The Glory of Freedom: A Concert to Honor Our Veterans. It featured the talents of the Rochester Philharmonic Youth Orchestra and the Distinguished Concerts Orchestra and Singers International. Chorus members were from Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, Virginia, the United Kingdom, and individual singers from around the globe.
The Rochester Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, led by Dr. James Mick, took the stage to open the afternoon. Established in 1970, this group offers talented young players the opportunity to come together both to further their development and to enjoy the enriching experience of making music. I was immediately intrigued by their unusual seating scheme, a double-pyramid, with the upper pyramid inverted, with the brass players and double reeds on risers that are normally used for singing ensembles. I’m sure that Dr. Mick had a specific purpose in mind, but I can’t say that it enhanced or detracted from the overall sound.
Opening with Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, the young players had a slightly nervous start, with some “push-pull” tempo issues at the onset, but the attentive Dr. Mick got things back on track without any difficulty. I would like to see a more consistent approach, especially in the brass sections. When they were good, they were very good, but at other moments, the playing was tentative, with the expected results. Boldness, especially in this work, is always called for, regardless of the dynamic marking. To be fair, these issues are quite common for the developing players, and should not be considered a stinging criticism. All in all, these issues aside, the playing was commendable. It was bright and cleanly articulated, with good intonation throughout.
The all-around good start had me anticipating an upward arc of excellence, and I was not disappointed. The third movement of Gustav Mahler’s 1st Symphony (often referred to as the “Funeral March”) was played with a maturity beyond the ages of the players. Too often, Mahler’s sometimes ironic approach is rendered with exaggerated effects that can become almost cartoonish. There was none of that in this performance. It was far and away the highlight of their selections to this listener. Closing with Danzón No. 2 by Arturo Marquez (made popular by the early advocacy of Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela), the ensemble offered a vibrant reading of this work. The watchword was “fun.” I particularly admired the principled restraint and build-up, which I have missed in other performances of this piece. The audience loved it and rewarded the players with a nice ovation.
After intermission, DCINY debut conductor Erin Freeman took the podium to lead Francis Poulenc’s Gloria. As Ms. Freeman writes in her excellent program notes, Gloria is a twenty-five minute, six-movement work that is a musical depiction of the composer’s life story. Complete with tribute to Stravinsky, reminiscences of Les Six, and his religious feelings, Gloria is the culmination of Poulenc’s mastery.
Ms. Freeman was well-prepared and energetic in her conducting. She led the large forces with meticulous detail to the many challenges of this work. The chorus sang with excellent balance and clear diction, not always a given with such large forces. The star of the performance was soprano Suzanne Karpov, whose angelic voice filled the hall. The audience was so moved that they broke convention and applauded enthusiastically between each movement, offering a standing ovation at the end.
After a brief pause, guest conductor Lee Nelson took the stage to conduct Randall Thompson’s choral work, The Testament of Freedom. Written in 1943 to celebrate the bicentennial of Thomas Jefferson’s birth, The Testament of Freedom uses text from Jefferson’s writing. With its dramatic setting of Jefferson’s powerful prose, this work has become a staple of the male chorus repertoire. Regardless of contemporary assessments of Jefferson the man, the power of his words is undeniable, and the truths he stated in 1775 are every bit as powerful in 2017. Some cynics have dismissed this work as jingoistic and musically reactionary, pronouncements for which this listener has no patience. I am always pleased to hear this work, and today’s performance was especially fine. The all-male chorus, with forces so large as to spill out onto the sides of the stage, was first-rate, and Mr. Nelson proved to be an able leader. The audience gave the performers a long, enthusiastic standing ovation.
Congratulations to all. Stay tuned for part two of this doubleheader of music!