Spano, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the ASO chorus, and the soloists, soprano Jessica Rivera and baritone Nmon Ford, were all completely on mark for this evening’s performance. The chorus has been very active this season, but mostly they have been performing works of Christian liturgical music that don’t really have much of a draw for me.
The concert began with the world premiere of Jonathan Leshnoff’s Zohar, a piece in six movements for orchestra, mixed chorus, baritone, and soprano. Much like his Innerspace, which was performed earlier in the season, Leshnoff’s Zohar deals with humankind’s relationship with G-d (Hashem). The chorus sings during the odd numbered movements and the soloists take the even. When the chorus is singing, the subject matter comes from the Zohar and the Sefer Yetzirah and focuses on the mystery and mysticism of Hashem. The soloists, on the other hand, handle the more, as he puts it, ‘down to earth elements of existence.’
The first movement is entitled ‘Zohar’ and is very powerful; I felt chills at times. The second movement, ‘What is Man’, was sung by Rivera and evokes a good sense of mystery but lacks in gravitas. I found it almost more like a showtune that I’d expect Barbara Streisand to record than an aria. It was a bit of a letdown after the strong first movement.
The third movement, ‘Twenty-two letters’ and the fourth movement ‘ו Tifres, “Shepherd Boy”‘, should have been transposed. The fourth, though Nmon Ford’s amazing baritone voice with both beauty and profundity, tells an incredibly moving story from the Chasidic tradition of a young boy who does not know how to pray but who is overcome by an overwhelming drive to do so. After trying unsuccessfully to learn from observing a congregation praying in a shul and then from the advice of sages, he finally goes into a field, distraught, and recites the alefbet (the Hebrew alphabet) and the letters take form and go to heaven where archangels rearrange them into holy words that please Hashem.
The third movement is the chorus singing the alefbet with Ashkenazic pronunciation. A statement is made that these are the building blocks of holy words, but the movement comes across as a dramatically over-achieving educational song for children. The alefbet may contain the building blocks of Biblical Hebrew (and the Aramaic of texts written later), but these letters are also the building blocks of both an ancient and a contemporary language which kids use to tell fart jokes. Had this movement come after the fourth movement, the gravitas of the subject matter would be more apparent, having carried over from the story of the shepherd boy, and I’d not have been suppressing laughter the entire that the chorus sang “Aleph bet gimmel” over and over again.
The fifth movement returned to the chorus and was a variation on the opening movement. Like the first movement, it was entitled ‘Zohar’ and, also like the first movement, chills ran from my scalp to the base of my back and then up again. This lead into Rivera singing the final movement, ‘Higher than High’, which had all of the gravitas that her previous part lacked and then some and also more than its share of beauty. It was incredibly moving. The whole piece was, really. I discussed it with the woman who was sitting next to me and who was a Christian and she said that the whole thing nearly brought her to tears. I would hope that Leshnoff would revisit the second and third movements but, even if he doesn’t, this is a piece that I hope lives in repertoire for a long time to come.
The final piece on the program was Brahms’ German Requiem. It was beautifully performed and I appreciate his neutral, broadly monotheistic approach to creating this requiem. However, even with all of the pretty and beautiful parts in it, I found it a bit tedious to sit through 68 minutes of Brahms. This was, however, more a function of my own tastes than anything to do with the work and I think that everyone involved should be proud of how it came out.