Thursday, May 14, 2020

The DSO Replay of Vivaldi’s RV 589 Gloria

Nicholas McGegan (on podium) taking a bow with soloists Sara Hershkowitz, Sherezade Panthaki, and Meg Bragle in front of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (with reduced string section) and the Audivi choir (screen shot from the video being discussed)

I decided that I would use today to follow up on another portion of a concert by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) conducted by Nicholas McGegan on April 27, 2019. Readers may recall that, almost exactly a month ago, I wrote about that date’s performance of Anna Clyne’s three-movement concerto for mandolin and string orchestra entitled “Three Sisters.” On that occasion I observed that McGegan had coupled this concerto with Antonio Vivaldi’s RV 425 concerto for mandolin and strings in C major. However, I neglected to mention that the second half of the concert program returned to Vivaldi with a performance of the RV 589 setting of the Gloria portion of the Latin Mass text, which is also available for viewing and listening through the DSO Replay Web site.

This was a video document with a few annoyances and considerable satisfaction. The greatest annoyance was the URL superimposed at the bottom of the screen given as a source of the sung texts and translations. This turned out to be a pointer to the Web site for the online version of the latest program book, meaning that the URL may have been valid when the video was created but is no longer so. A similar problem arose with the projection of the wrong titles of a few of the movements, but it was corrected relatively quickly. Beyond those glitches and one shot of the trumpeter sitting with his instrument in his lap, the video account of this performance was reasonably satisfying, maintaining excellent balance between conductor and performers.

McGegan’s name was not the only one familiar to me and many other San Francisco concert-goers. Both soprano Sherezade Panthaki and mezzo Meg Bragle have become familiar faces among those following historically-informed performances in the Bay Area. For the soprano duet setting of “Laudamus te,” Panthaki was joined by soprano Sara Hershkowitz. The choral resources were provided by Audivi, the professional vocal ensemble based in Detroit directed by Noah Horn.

I suspect that I am far from the only one of my generation that first became familiar with the Latin Mass text through Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 232 setting. However, it was only much later in life that I learned that Bach was not only aware of Vivaldi but also had rearranged some of his secular music for other instrumental resources. RV 589 was probably composed in 1715, which is most likely about ten years earlier than anything Bach wrote for the Latin Mass. As a result, the attentive listener will probably catch not only a passage or two that might have found its way into Bach compositions but also a shared approach to how the Gloria text should be segmented and arranged. For that matter there are signs that Vivaldi’s approach to sacred music often reflected earlier secular compositions. As a result, those encountering RV 589 for the first time are likely to find comforting sources of familiarity that are both before and after the fact!

McGegan’s blend of reduced instrumental resources with a relatively full-sized chorus made for rich sonorities supporting an overall stimulating listening experience. From a personal point of view, I particularly enjoyed camera angles that basically reproduced the sight-line experienced by the members of the chorus. I came away with a sense that McGegan was sensitive to the phrasing of the Latin text as a guide to both vocal and instrumental phrasing. I suspect that most of us have experienced musical deliveries that treat Latin syllables only as hooks from which the notes may hang. While I would not suggest that this was a “religiously devout” performance, McGegan’s approach to phrasing definitely seemed to have more to do with semantics than with phonemics.

On the visual side I suspect the most important impact involved those movements in which accompaniment was reduced to a continuo of solo cello and an organ of modest size (roughly that of a celesta). There was also a generous share of camera angles to guide the listener through the polyphonic passages sung by the chorus. The cameras did not necessarily capture every instance of an imitated motif, but the viewer could easily grasp how the overall fabric was being woven.

Taken as a whole, this video experience provided a generous share of insights into a composition that deserves recognition for playing a significant role in the development of musical settings of sacred texts.

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