Tom Strini

Mystical Elgar to end the classical season

"Dream of Gerontius," Elgar's crowning achievement, is an article of faith for chorus, soloists and orchestra.

By - Jun 1st, 2013 01:42 am

Edward Elgar, c. 1905. Public domain via Wikipedia Commons.

A spellbinding speculation on death, the afterlife and salvation is bringing the Milwaukee Symphony’s 2012-13 classical season to a close this weekend.

Edo de Waart led the orchestra, the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus, tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, mezzo Tamara Mumford and baritone Luca Pisaroni through The Dream of Gerontius, Edward Elgar’s 1900 setting of Cardinal Newman’s 1865 Catholic-mystic poem. The poem relates the death of an elderly man, his reawakening in the presence of his guardian angel, passage through a gauntlet of taunting devils, judgment at the throne of God and happy consignment to purgatory for the cleansing that will eventually open heaven’s gates.

The 100-minute oratorio flows one episode to the next, with a clean break only between Part 1 (on earth) and Part 2 (the afterlife). De Waart wisely chose to play the piece without intermission, and with just a short breather between the two spheres. The music is very much about a certain state of mind, and the continuous performance made it easy to sustain that meditative spell.

That spell has to do with Victorian piety run to ecstatic riot, delivered as much in charged, hushed tones as in choral-orchestra explosions. The extraordinary ability of the orchestra and Lee Erickson’s MSO Chorus to maintain high energy at low volume made the piece work. Without that, Gerontius would turn tedious and long-winded.

Tamara Mumford

Tamara Mumford

Mumford (Guardian Angel), Griffey (Gerontius and the Soul of same) and, in the lesser roles of The Priest and the Angel of Agony, baritone Luca Pisaroni, likewise worked wonders with yards and yards of declamatory arioso. Elgar isn’t Verdi or Handel; he’s closer to Wagner. You don’t come away from Gerontius humming its tunes. The voices bob along on the orchestral flow, and all three soloists not only held their own against some dense scoring and vigorous playing, but felt the harmonies and rhythms and drew energy and inflection from them. They didn’t compete with the orchestra, they became one with its power and rode the orchestra to our ears. All of them, but Mumford especially, reined in the vibrato and achieved a gleaming, soaring quality that fits this dream-vision poem.

Mumford and Griffey sang from the usual spots on stage. De Waart placed Pisaroni at the prow of the south loge, where this second level meets the Uihlein Hall proscenium. That was dramatically, acoustically and visually smart. As the Priest and the Angel of Agony — a kind of lawyer for the defense in god’s court — Pisaroni has a different relationship with both Gerontius and his Soul. Pisaroni makes pronouncements over him, where the Guardian Angel is more like a guide and confidante. The staging made these relationships clear in one stroke.


Anthony Dean Griffey

The Milwaukee Symphony Chorus excelled at the spectacular, vehement choral parts, but those were the easy parts. The subtle coloration in the quiet bits — some of them almost sotto voce — was surely the greater challenge, and here the singers excelled. The Milwaukee Symphony Chorus shaped vowels and hit consonants in such expressive awareness. To name just one arresting detail among a great many: The opening of the choral Kyrie comes in under the last fading notes of Griffey’s first aria. The chorus entered so quietly behind his voice, like a star just coming into view at the end of a sunset. And like that star, the choral sound soon became the focus of our attention in a miracle of seamless transition.

Luca Pisaroni

Luca Pisaroni

De Waart surely had something to do with this; the orchestra played with precisely the same attention to detail within a ravishing overall flow. At the end of the devils’ taunting, those swirling figures in the orchestra were not just notes, but little flames trailing behind the retreating demons. And when those flames grew into glowing chords, heavenly dawn drove the devils away.

Gerontius, even more than most late Romantic music, turns on the gathering and discharge of great waves of sounds and the eloquence and fullness of countless gestures within those waves. De Waart and his singers and players took command of this score and brought it to full stature.

This program, given at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday, June 1. For tickets, call the Marcus Center box office, 414 273-7206. The MSO season still has one more weekend: The MSO Pops, with guest conductor Steven Reineke and vocalists Hugh Panaro and Janet Dacal will cover the Music of Mad Men June 7-9. Details here.

Categories: Classical, Music

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