Music Review: Oratorio Society of New York at Carnegie Hall

March 8th, 2013

On Tuesday evening the Oratorio Society of New York presented a concert of American choral music at Carnegie Hall, built around a new work by Paul Moravec, “The Blizzard Voices.” This oratorio about the “Children’s Blizzard” of 1888 had originally been scheduled to receive its New York premiere last November, but in a case of nature dislodging art imitating nature, that concert was canceled because of Hurricane Sandy.

Mr. Moravec’s oratorio uses texts by the poet laureate Ted Kooser, based on testimonies from survivors of the sudden storm that brought blinding snowfall and a lethal drop in temperatures to swaths of the Great Plains on the afternoon of Jan. 12, 1888. Some of the most affecting stories are those of teenage girls who taught in single-room country schools and suddenly found themselves cut off by the snowstorm. Some led their students to safety, hand gripping hand, perhaps following a row of sunflower stalks for guidance; others got lost and collapsed in a haystack, waking the next morning in a huddle of dead children.

The story has only gained in poignancy since last fall, when the concert was originally scheduled. In my mind, the tale now echoes with more recent tragedies: that of the Staten Island mother who watched her boys swept away by the floods of Hurricane Sandy; the massacre of schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn. But how to make art out of the unbearable?

Mr. Moravec’s response is that of a painter. Scored for six soloists and a large chorus and orchestra, the oratorio becomes a vast canvas filled with vivid depictions of nature, chiaroscuro changes in lighting, and individual characters fixed with quick, confident brush strokes. It begins with wordless vocalizations in the chorus over thin harmonics in the violins that evoke the static electricity filling the air on the morning of the storm.

For the most part the music is tonal, and Mr. Moravec’s writing for the solo singers aims for an unaffected simplicity. Kent Tritle, the Oratorio Society’s music director, who drew an impassioned performance from the chorus and a serviceable one from the society’s orchestra, had assembled a committed cast of soloists in which the women — the sopranos Susanna Phillips and Maeve Höglund and the mezzo Malena Dayen — were outstanding. Among the men, the bass Kevin Deas was in fine voice.

The musical depiction of the outbreak of the storm was nothing short of terrifying. Yet in other parts, the caressing strings and lilting vocal lines, the naïf settings of lullabies and children’s ditties that seemed intended to heighten the pathos also acted as something of an analgesic.

“Do not stand at my grave and weep,” the tenor, John Tiranno, sang at the end.

“So go the old stories, like wind in the grass,” the chorus responds.

The concert had opened with the associate conductor David Rosenmeyer leading selections from Copland’s “Old American Songs” and Ives’s “General William Booth Enters Into Heaven” and “Circus Band”: short choral works that, by turns gossipy, pious and joyous, celebrate the pleasures of conviviality.

It ended with Copland’s “Promise of Living,” a celebration of harvest set in the horn-and-flute-colored American pastoral mode, with its quiet sense of optimism. It even ends with a triumphant cymbal crash.

Like the modern-day commentators who crowd the airwaves after a tragedy with assurances that the community will come out of it strengthened, this bid for sublimation seemed to me both precipitous and a bit glib.

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