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Review: ISO features Protestant music

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Guest conductor Christoph Altstaedt
  • Guest conductor Christoph Altstaedt

Saturday's religion-themed ISO concert at the Circle Theatre, following a reportedly poorly attended Friday one at the Carmel Palladium, hosted a hall at least two-thirds filled.  German guest conductor Christoph Altstaedt presided over a mostly German program which caught on after the first piece, Wagner's Prelude to his final opera Parsifal

This slow, solemn work, with its pregnant pauses and its periodic intoning of the five-note ascending "Dresden Amen" cadence, blending with the four-note descending "Holy Grail" motive, seemed to move in fits and starts. Differences in phrasing among the players accounted for most of the issue.   In other words, they played together but did not phrase together.

After Altstaedt conducted two interim works, he returned to Parsifal for Act 3's "Good Friday Spell," an excerpt often joined with the Prelude in concert.  Herein the conductor's forces jelled to near perfection and communicated Wagner's unique late style in orchestration to a farthing.

Between the two Parsifals came a contemporary work which had its performance debut last year, Stephen Bachicha's (b. 1980) ten-minute Allusions, Illusions & Delusions, a title at least as interesting as the music.  It began loudly but slowly with continuously overlapping phrases, an occasional "slapstick," followed by more rapid passage work and good solo trumpeting by ISO principal Robert Wood -- a cacophony of contemporary conjuring.  I at first thought it made allusions to other contemporary fare, but perhaps I was hearing illusions, which inevitably led me to having delusions.

Bach's "Ricercar in six Voices" from A Musical Offering, BWV 1079,  as arranged for modern orchestra by Anton Webern, came next.  I have never been a fan of this piece.  Bach's thick-textured fugal writing submerges Webern's orchestral colors, rendering them unable to stand out in bold relief.  Webern's heavy use of brass seems inappropriate for this music.   Bach's late work is better heard on the keyboards or strings existing during his lifetime.

The program's second half was devoted to Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 5 in D Minor/Major, Op. 107 ("Reformation") -- an excellent reading throughout.  Once again we hear the "Dresden Amen" three times in the first movement (the cadence used in the Dresden church which the composer attended), creating an apropos "allusion" to the earlier-heard Wagner excerpts.  And a solo flute, nicely played by ISO principal Karen Moratz, introduces the Finale with the well known chorale seen in Protestant hymnals, "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott" (A Mighty Fortress is our God), which then dominates the movement.  April 18; Hilbert Circle Theatre    

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