March 2011

Operaticus: Aquavit for the Soul

by Georges Briscot

It is surely one of the delights of life in New York City that one can wander into a little church on a stormy night and be treated to a concert of exceptional quality by lesser-known performers. The unorthodox One World Symphony, now in its tenth year under founder-conductor Sung Jin Hong, offered in its Nordic Lights program an evening remarkable for its conviction, elegance, and big-hearted lushness.

The odd choice was made to have a different soprano sing each of the four songs on the program, which I did not hate, as it enabled one to consider the individual character of each selection. It did, however, leave me wanting to hear more, especially from two of the ladies, Mechelle Tippets and Sonya Headlam. Ms. Tippets’ Sibelius was deeply felt and beautifully phrased, her young dramatic voice possessing a top range that gleams like white gold. Ms. Headlam was the most communicative performer of the four sopranos, and seemingly the most at ease with the challenge of singing in Swedish.

Maestro Hong created his own, very effective orchestral arrangements of the Sibelius songs, expanding the scope of their inherent sensual longing. One had the feeling of a period landscape painting, hanging on the parlour wall, become a living panorama.

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s orchestral work, “Foreign Bodies” (2002), was an exuberant pagan romp and an exciting showcase both for the well-rehearsed orchestra and its Maestro, who steered with an unwavering pulse and economical, but nonetheless expressive gesture.

Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho was sadly only represented by one brief song on the program, the shimmeringly beautiful “Parfum de l’instant” (2002). Evoking Debussy, its appropriately disembodied aura (“You are the perfume of the moment... and already the stuff of memory”) provided a contrast to the voluptuousness of the Sibelius and aggressiveness of the Salonen.

Also on the program was the classic Grieg Piano Concerto in A minor (yes, that one), valiantly performed by Christopher Johnson on a heartbreakingly out-of-tune church clunker. Although I admired his bravado, I did feel that Mr. Johnson sacrificed some of Grieg’s crystalline colour with his often heavy touch, perhaps in a vain effort to pound more sound out of the woebegone instrument.

Both Mr. Johnson and Mr. Hong led the orchestra in the concerto with firm hands and a wonderfully synergized rubato. And it was this sense above all — of people making exciting music together that elevated the evening into the realm of the truly inspired. As in Sibelius’s song “First Kiss,”

“The angels of light look toward the earth
and see their own bliss reflected back.”

Bottom line: Skål! to One World Symphony.

Photo by Jaka Vinšek