Political polemics undermine IN Series’ message of hope and healing

Mon Sep 27, 2021 at 11:25 am

Music of Leonard Bernstein was featured at the IN Series concert Sunday afternoon.

The world of classical music is slowly reopening. It is an apt time to reflect on the silence of the last year and a half, when performance became mostly virtual. This was the goal of “A Festival through Grief to Hope,” the four-day series of events presented by IN Series last week. The final concert was heard Sunday afternoon, with a septet of singers accompanied by piano at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue.

Artistic director Timothy Nelson selected mostly excerpts of Jewish and Christian religious music, set to texts embodying grief and hope. The seven singers made an excellent ensemble sound in Mozart’s motet Ave verum corpus, balanced and in tune, even with forces top-heavy toward the treble side. Hui-Chuan Chen accompanied with clarity, mostly careful not to overwhelm the singers with the amplified sound of the grand piano.

Individual vocal contributions were mixed in terms of polish and impact. Elizabeth Mondragon plied her vital, resonant mezzo-soprano to the anguished howls of outrage in the third movement from Leonard Bernstein’s “Jeremiah” Symphony (No. 1). A balance to the Mozart motet pointed toward hope near the end of the program, this trembling expression of grief set Hebrew texts from the Book of Lamentations about Jerusalem emptied of its people and polluted with blood.

Soprano Judy Yannini mastered the wide ambitus of the “Christe” section of the “Kyrie eleison” from Mozart’s Great Mass in C Minor. Introduced by a partial piano arrangement of the opening “Kyrie” music, Yannini displayed a warm, maternal tone at both top and bottom, easily negotiating the distances between them.

Soprano Teresa Ferrara sang “Somewhere” from Bernstein’s West Side Story with radiant simplicity and purity of tone. In “Kaddish,” the first movement from Bernstein’s eponymous Third Symphony, Melissa Wimbish’s soprano voice was tender and sweet, especially in the soft sections answered by the treble voices on “Amen.” Her tense vibrato gave a nervous edge to the louder middle section.

Countertenor Daniel Moody mostly made a boy-like David in “Adonai,” the setting of the Hebrew text of Psalm 23 from Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. As at other points in the program, the high end of the role pushed his voice to the brink. The four women provided a beautiful counterpoint in their duets in the middle section.

Wimbish and Moody combined with baritone Carl DuPont and tenor Robert Chafin to less accomplished effect in the “Recordare” movement from Mozart’s Requiem mass. The text from the “Dies Irae,” sung at funerals, was a poignant addition to the music of remembrance, but the closely enchained contrapuntal lines did not always balance out ideally.

Wimbish’s runs fell short in the “Alleluia” movement from Mozart’s Exsultate Jubilate, even with some adjustment of the initially fast tempo. Chafin struggled with intonation at times in his solo outing, “Sing God a Simple Song,” a charming piece sung by one of the altar servers in Bernstein’s Mass. He had a more satisfactory turn in “Make Our Garden Grow,” from Bernstein’s Candide, paired admirably with Yannini, which concluded the concert.

Given the aim of the concert to focus on healing and hope in the wake of the pandemic, it was a curious gesture to open with a highly politicized recasting of “Deh, conservate, oh Dei,” the quintet that concludes Act I of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito. In this scene, Sesto, spurred on by the jealous Vitellia, has set fire to the Capitolium, meaning the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill, in an attempt to kill the Roman emperor Titus.

A “free poetic translation” by Nick Olcott recast the action as the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, mincing no words about who instigated it. “Outside a man was raving,” sang Moody as Sesto. “His mouth was spewing fire / Flags with his name were waving / All hail the king of liars.” Although “this man so shameless who called for insurrection” is not explicitly named, it was still not clear how this reworking furthered the aim of grieving and turning to hope.

Narrator Noah Mitchel spun the disparate fabric of the concert together with new verses, some short and others long, contributed for this concert by nine poets from around the world. These selections ranged widely in subject matter as well, touching on other seemingly unrelated topics such as exile and immigration. Perhaps it would have been more effective to keep to the theme of mourning and surviving the coronavirus pandemic.

IN Series presents the animated film Bohème in the Heights, a Spanish-language Afro-LatinX reimagining of Puccini’s opera, with live music performed by the original cast October 29 to 31. inseries.org

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