David Hayes Conducts New York Choral Society

Carnegie Hall Debut with Higdon and Berlioz

By: - Dec 20, 2012


The New York Choral Society

Conducted by David Hayes

Jennifer Higdon, "O Magnum Mysterium"
Hector Berlioz, "L'Enfance du Christ"
Carnegie Hall
December 18, 2012

The New York Choral Society welcomed their new Music Director David Hayes with an unusual, apt and perfectly programmed evening.  The centuries were bridged by contemporary composer Jennifer Higdon, whose O magnum mysterium has text welcoming in the New Age with harmonic “O’s” sounding like chants followed by Hector Berlioz’s 1854 L’Enfance du Christ.  Yet in the Berlioz, when the chorus as soothsayers warn Herod, they are accompanied by cellos and bassoons, and a brilliantly harsh piccolo in a 7/4 rhythm more like Stravinsky who is still some fifty years in the future.

Berlioz called his tribute to Christ’s birth a 'trilogy.'  This had led musicologists back to Renaissance triptych’s which the composer may have seen hanging in the Louvre.  Does the work reflect paintings of the classic adoration of the shepherds and the family’s stop by an oasis?  In one of many unusual takes, Berlioz has this Christmas donkey drop dead from exhaustion as Mary continues on foot. 

The ever inventive Berlioz remembered his early religious education and gives a nostalgic impression of childhood exposure to the Christmas story.  Berlioz spoke of creating a style suitable to the subject matter. “The subject lent itself to mild and simple music," he wrote. 

Actually, although the trilogy feels very much of a whole, it was composed accidentally, in bits and pieces.  Under pressure to produce for an end of the year concert, Berlioz gave the work its final form.  “Le Repos de la Sainte Famile,” with noels and carols suggested, was the first section composed.

A cellist in the orchestral group that accompanied the chorus and soloists said that Berlioz had marked 'soft,' 'softer,' and 'softest' all over the score.  This quiet served to emphasize the dramatic characterizations of the singers and the numerous roles of the chorus. 

Highly personal, the patterns are ones Berlioz used over a lifetime – overtures, marches, interludes, traditional French music. There is no brass after the mid point of Part I.  Only timpani represent Joseph knocking at the door.

Devotion is a theme in the Bethlehem of Parts I and II, the streets of Jerusalem, the bustling household of Sais, and the desert.  It is a nostalgic vision.   Like Faust it has a revival of religious feeling under the influence of music.

L’Enfance du Christ mixes a narrator, and a choral epilogue with dramatic representation.   Parts of it resemble a sacred opera.   A ‘Marche Nocturne’ is interrupted by a recitative; Herod’s monologue, and his scene with the soothsayer in tone is very much like King Philip’s in Verdi’s Don Carlo in its wrenching drama.  Seldom in the Christmas story is a rounded picture of Herod created, but this Herod in touching as he wishes his job did not demand such brutal acts. A tyrannical Herod is contrasted with an idyllic scene in Bethlehem. 

Herod’s aria was sung beautifully by Richard Bernstein, who humanizes the tyrant without erasing from your memory his murder of his wife.  A play written about the same time also made Herod more complex and real.  Bernstein was dramatic and moving throughout.  We should hear more of him.   

In poignant contrasting scenes, Heather Johnson, who wowed Albuquerque as Rosina in Barber of Seville, and will appear in the new Parsifal at the Met this winter, sang a luscious lullaby.   Alan Held, whose work ranges from the title role in Wozzeck to the touching Oreste in Elektra, had multiple roles which he captured perfectly in a clear, ranging baritone.  The scenes where Mary and Joseph are rejected as they travel were riveting.  The only remaining chamber music composed by Berlioz is a trio for two flutes and harp in the Third Scene, performed with a lovely lightness.

The conclusion is the unaccompanied chorus, joined by the narrator, a tenor with a ringing, bright voice, William Burden.  He is both narrator and preacher as he addresses us to tell of Herod’s crimes.   

David Hayes made a promising debut as Music Director of the New York Choral Society. The soloists were always front and forward.  Both the dramatic and the devotional were honored.  The chorus performed its variety of roles with aplomb.  

L’Enfance du Christ is surely a Christmas celebration for our more secular times, recalling as it does one of our seminal stories.  The New York Choral Society under Hayes gave the perfumed piece a wonderful rendition.