A triumphant lesson in acoustics at the Basilica
MSO assistant conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong programs to honor the space of the Basilica of St. Josaphat.
Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra assistant conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong confronted the cavernous acoustics of the Basilica of St. Josaphat and carefully selected works that would fit the space. Lecce-Chong shaped a theme – Transformations – that created a dramatic context for each piece in this weekend’s program. He even wrote the program notes (download them here) to make his intent clear.
In the past, I have braced myself for Basilica concerts, because the room is so difficult to work with. Many elegant works have been ruined by the extra player that lives in its walls. The walls hold the sound, create echoes and muddle phrases. Attention must be paid.
Lecce-Chong did pay attention and programs two works written for cathedral spaces by composers who knew them well. Contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt has often drawn on the Russian Orthodox tradition. Trisagion is based upon prayers frequently recited at the opening of church services. The phrase “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us,” repeated several times, sets the pattern for a chant-like pacing as a string orchestra “recites” the prayer. The work is slow and deliberative. The string choir sounds blend well. Marked pauses allow the sound to settle between segments. Pärt controls dynamics more by reducing the number of players for quiet passages than by asking everyone to play quietly. The sound is quiet, but somehow reaches the listener. The work has a calming effect, with a strong under-girding of faith.
Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev’s choral work, Song of Ascent, premiered Friday. Alfeyev, a bishop in the Russian Orthodox Church, fashioned it as a traditional choral work meant to fill a cathedral. Through a series of psalms, the choir shifts from expressions of faith and doubt to expressions of joy. The deliberate pacing, controlled swells and simple lines keep the sound from turning muddy or going out of sync.
Fugal passages include measures at different speeds, so that instruments and voices deliberately out of sync create fresh echos in the hall. Strong bass passages underlie the melodic phrases and give the impression of organ sound. Only the final psalm seemed awkward – extensive Russian text led the choir to a recitative mode at odds with the exuberance of the text – “Praise him from the heavens .. with trumpet sound .. let everything that breathes praise the Lord!” Alfeyev’s simples phrases, including the closing Alleluia, were more effective. The Milwaukee Symphony Chorus effectively captured the mood of each section.
The second half featured music loaded with orchestral color. In Maurice Ravel’s Mother Goose suite (Ma mère l’oye), the winds told stories, usually in solo turns. The woodwinds sat in front of the altar, exposed to the audience. Sparingly applied brass and percussion pushed the climax of each of the stories – Sleeping Beauty, Tom Thumb, Empress of the Pagoda and Beauty and the Beast. Highs and lows were clearest – the solo turns of flute and oboe, the low grumble of the contrabassoon. In a concert hall, the individual elements would have been clearer, but the overall impression came across very well. Lecce-Chong’s choice of this work fit the “transformation” theme, but less well than the transcendental works.
Death and Transfiguration fit the venue well. Both the piece and Lecce-Chong were unhurried. Drama rose not through pace but dynamic swells. The dramatic peaks overloaded the basilica with sound, but the ringing in the ears seemed appropriate to the theme. Lecce-Chong brought the work to a triumphant conclusion and a standing ovation.
The concert will be repeated at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 17. Note the unusual start time. The Basilica of St. Josaphat is at 2333 S. 6th St., at Lincoln Ave. Arrive early to for the best of the open seating (in pews). Call the MSO ticket line, 414 291-7605; tickets are $40 (main floor) or $30 (balcony).