Conquering heroes

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  February 29, 2008

At the Cecilia, I arrived just as mezzo-soprano Pamela Dellal was launching into Handel’s great lament from Rinaldo, “Cara sposa” (“Dear wife”), in which the hero desperately searches for his lost wife. Dellal’s voice was ripe with warmth, yet she could also handle the difficult runs. Then soprano Karol Bennett, absent from Boston too long, answered with Almirena’s lament, the aching “Lascia ch’io pianga” (“Let me weep”), and her lavish embellishments intensified the impression of her weeping. Tenor William Hite combined power and agility in a scene from Joseph and His Brethren, and soprano Sharon Baker tossed off brilliant roulades in her aria prophesying victory. Tenor Aaron Sheehan sang Jephtha’s great prayer for the daughter he is about to sacrifice, “Waft her, angels, through the skies,” and Jeffrey Gall, in his last public appearance as a countertenor before he becomes a full-time baritone, sang Cyrus’s heroic defiance of “Destructive war.” Teeters and the chorus closed with the magnificent hymn to Solomon, “From the censor curling rise.”

After the performance, I heard people raving about soprano Nancy Armstrong’s brilliant aria from Semele (she knocked me out when she sang this with Teeters in 1981) and William Hite’s tender “Where’er you walk” (also Semele), the much-missed baritone David Arnold and the happily present Robert Honeysucker, mezzo-soprano Krista River’s Sheba, soprano Jennifer Cooper’s Cleopatra, tenor Charles Blandy’s Judas Maccabæus, and the chorus’s rousing “See, the conquering hero comes” and sublime “Nightingale Chorus” from Solomon. Teeters was the hero. I wish I could have been there for the entire concert.

Levine returned to the BSO for the first time this year with a beautifully proportioned program of smaller orchestral pieces. He started with Mozart’s irresistible Symphony No. 29, in A (K.201), which he led with an urgency that made it sound in the first movement like a harbinger of Don Giovanni, and in the second like an early version of the ironic seduction duet between Guglielmo and Dorabella in Cosí fan tutte. He closed with a tender performance of Brahms’s Serenade No. 2, also in A — a piece without violins, but with the violas adding warmth to the glowing winds.

In between came Alban Berg’s 1925 Chamber Symphony for piano, violin, and 13 winds, in only its second BSO performance. (Seiji Ozawa led the first, 15 years ago.) Levine calls this “the most difficult nut to crack,” with its complex polyphonic parallels (passages imitating others, only upside down, backwards, and both), with his own name and the names of Schoenberg, for whom this was his student’s 50th-birthday present, and his colleague Webern woven into the pattern of notes. Peter Serkin played the disturbed, volatile piano in the first-movement variations (against warm and delicate winds), and German violinist Isabelle Faust, in her BSO debut, made her Stradivarius sound more like a velvety viola in the slowly waltzing second movement. The dancing continues with both players intricately interacting in the extended third movement Rondo ritmico, which picks up pieces of the earlier movements before disappearing part by part.

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