The hardy Brooklyn Philharmonic, long an invaluable part of the New York City music scene, ushered in a new era on Saturday night with its inaugural concert under the direction of its recently appointed music director, the fresh-faced Michael Christie. Something of an antithesis to the New York Philharmonic -- where tonight, former BP music director Robert Spano once again guested with the program described yesterday -- the Brooklyn ensemble typically concentrates on new music, unusual repertoire and offbeat treatment of standard classics. Christie's bold debut incorporated all three elements.
Following an boisterous greeting from borough president Marty Markowitz (who alluded to the new conductor's relatively tender age, as we are all likely wont to do), Christie mounted the podium for a new, untitled welcoming fanfare by John Corigliano. Facing the brass players assembled onstage, at the downbeat Christie swiveled to direct choral groups located along the sides of the house, who gamely blew antiphonal riffs seemingly borrowed from the theme to TV western Bonanza on kazoos. The brass players joined them in the final bars, combining in a playfully irreverent manner that seemed entirely well suited to the Brooklyn ethos, not to mention the ritualistic fare on offer tonight.
Winds joined brass onstage for an introverted rendition of Stravinsky's austere, elusive Symphonies of Wind Instruments. Christie expertly balanced the ensemble's tones and timbres at a relatively low dynamic, compelling listeners to lean in close. Violas, cellos and basses replaced most of the wind complement in the "Hymn to Aten" from the opera Akhnaten, an aria that is arguably Philip Glass's loveliest creation. The celebrated Candian countertenor Daniel Taylor offered a gorgeous, rounded sound; still, reading from a score, he seldom seemed entirely comfortable. His performance was creditable, as was that of the orchestra, but his body language afterward suggested that even Taylor wasn't entirely happy with his performance. Even so, Glass's radiant paean came across well, the offstage chorus at the conclusion especially effective.
Following the break came the red meat of the program: Orff's Carmina burana, presented -- according to the composer's original conception -- as a multimedia theater piece with dancers and suggestive lighting. The combined forces of the New York Virtuoso Singers, the University at Buffalo Chorus and Choir, the Canticum Novum Singers and the Westchester Oratorio Society filled risers at the rear of the stage, with pianists and percussion arrayed before them; the rest of the orchestra filled the pit beneath the stage, affording ample room onstage for the graceful movements of choreographer Nicholas Leichter's company, nicholasleichterdance. The three vocalists -- Taylor, soprano Hannan Alattar and baritone Stephen Powell -- took the stage from the wings for their solo spots, Allatar accompanied by Dianne Berkun's well-drilled Brooklyn Youth Chorus.
Since dance is in no way my metier, I will for the most part leave analysis of the company's contributions to others. I initially felt some slight annoyance that the house lights were extinguished to the point that there was no possibility of following the libretto, and therefore no way to judge any relationship between lyrics and motion. It was probably an unwarranted reaction: In the program notes, Leichter states that he interpreted the work's themes of "earthly love, student life and ribald frivolity" only loosely. His brightly clad company provided a colorful deluge of motion that mostly seemed to gel with Orff's primal rhythms and sing-song melodies; Leichter's own solo during "Ego sum abbas" was a brilliant wedding of modernist gestures with locks and pops familiar from Michael Jackson videos.
Of the vocalists, Powell gave the most commanding performance, presenting a rich, ripe voice that remained secure in the trying falsetto stretches of "Dies, nox et omnia," and bringing a boldly dramatic flair to his every entrance -- right down to the nauseous swoon of "Ego sum abbas," which ended in a slapstick heaving dash from the stage. Taylor brought a similarly actorly quality to the lurching "Cignus ustus cantat." Allatar, reading from a score, didn't hold the stage as securely as had the other soloists, but sang "Stetit puella" with a bright, pealing tone and considerable agility. Her glorious "In trutina" was a show stopper, and she rendered the extremely high lines at the end of "Dulcissime" beautifully and securely.
Considering the obvious difficulty of steering a performance with performers so widely dispersed, Christie balanced his forces masterfully; despite the odd brass clam or insecure choral line, the massed ensemble performed admirably. Spoiled by lease-breaker Telarc recordings directed by Robert Shaw and Donald Runnicles, one might have wished for a bit more abandon in both the opening and closing "O Fortuna." But on the whole, tonight's concert was a remarkable achievement, and one that suggested Michael Christie's tenure with the Brooklyn Philharmonic will be one well worth watching.
Mark Adamo - Lysistrata - Houston Grand Opera/Patrick Summers (CD-R demo)
Philip Glass - "Hymn to Aten" from Akhnaten - Paul Esswood, Stuttgart State Opera/Dennis Russell Davies (CBS Masterworks)
Carl Orff - Carmina burana - Hei-Kyung Hong, Stanford Olsen, Earle Patriarco, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus / Donald Runnicles (Telarc)