Music Review: Collegiate Chorale, With American Symphony, at Carnegie Hall

March 1st, 2013

Richard Termine for The New York Times

The Collegiate Chorale.

The Collegiate Chorale had logical reasons to pair the pieces it performed in its concert at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday evening, Philip Glass’s Symphony No. 7 (“Toltec”) and Osvaldo Golijov’s “Oceana.” Both are substantial statements by well-known, popular living composers. Both deal with Latin American culture, though in disparate ways. And, on the evidence offered here by the chorale with the conductor James Bagwell, the American Symphony Orchestra and other guests, both works recall stronger efforts by these important, distinctive composers.

For those enamored of Mr. Glass’s iconoclastic formative years, and for those who think of him chiefly as a prolific writer of operas, the notion that he now has a historically resonant nine symphonies (and counting) to his credit might seem strange. The point is also easily forgotten, since none of those symphonies have been encountered especially frequently after their initial spurt of performances.

His Seventh — commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra as a 60th-birthday tribute to its music director at the time, Leonard Slatkin, who conducted its premiere in January 2005 — reflects Mr. Glass’s interest in the Toltecs, a Mesoamerican culture that flourished in Mexico between A.D. 700 and 1100. The work’s three movements represent a trinity derived from Toltec beliefs linking man, nature and spirit.

From the subtle, sighing melodic cells and bone-dry percussive rattles that open the first movement, “The Corn,” Mr. Bagwell provided the rhythmic tautness that Mr. Glass’s orchestral music requires, and balanced elegant woodwind and brass exchanges carefully. The chorus, added in the second movement, “The Sacred Root,” provided a voluptuousness akin to that heard in Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloé.”

The finale, “The Blue Deer,” recycles a section of Mr. Glass’s score for the 1988 film “Powaqqatsi,” upholstered with rhythmic choral lines and robust organ climaxes. Taken alone, this was stark, dramatic music, boldly punctuated with long, expressive silences. In context, though, it felt like what it was: a segment composed in an earlier style, awkwardly grafted and anticlimactic.

Mr. Golijov, no stranger to accusations of profligate compositional borrowing, wrote “Oceana” in 1996 for the Oregon Bach Festival. Commissioned to write a work in the spirit of Bach’s cantatas, Mr. Golijov selected texts from Pablo Neruda’s “Cantos Ceremoniales,” setting them in an alternation of harmonically piquant choral passages and freer sections for a jazz vocalist, accompanied by the rhythms and instruments of Latin American popular music.

If that formula sounds familiar, it’s because Mr. Golijov went on to apply much the same to his “Pasión según San Marcos,” the still astonishing St. Mark’s Passion setting he wrote in 2000. (Carnegie Hall will host a performance of that work, including New York student musicians, on March 10, as part of Mr. Golijov’s current residency.)

Though revised by Mr. Golijov in 2004, “Oceana” pales in comparison with its stronger successor, not least in a final chorus that outlasts its efficacy. Still, Mr. Bagwell and his players did well by the piece, with stylish contributions from the solo vocalist, Biella Da Costa, and fine work by the Manhattan Girls Chorus.

The Collegiate Chorale presents its next concert on April 30 at Carnegie Hall; (212) 247-7800, collegiatechorale.org.

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