Requiem: Oratio Spei | Kent Tritle & Oratorio Society of New York
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Requiem: Oratio Spei | Kent Tritle & Oratorio Society of New York

NEW YORK CITY
Carnegie Hall
11/2/15

THE VENERABLE ORATORIO SOCIETY OF NEW YORK opened its 143rd season with music director Kent Tritle leading Juraj Filas’s Requiem: Oratio spei at Carnegie Hall. (The subtitle means “Prayer of Hope.”) The concert did demonstrate why Tritle stands among our leading choral conductors: his command of his large, enthusiastic forces proved consistently impressive as to blending and dynamics. The composition at hand, despite a number of crowd-pleasing melodic passages, eventually taxed the patience with its tendency to contrast swoon and bluster—plus its resolute indifference to the last seventy-five years or so of (extra-cinematic) musical history. Filas’ choice of text settings was in some places novel, but much of the music exuded familiarity. Lighter-scored passages evoked Gabriel Fauré’s wondrously restful Requiem (1888, revised 1900). Nineteenth-century opera lent its devices too. The Otello storm blew through at least twice in textually more dramatic passages, the end of the “Liber Scriptus” and the “Dies irae.” The percussion and celesta players earned their check many times over. The Oratorio Society’s program presented the sadly non-capacity but very enthusiastic crowd with notes terming Filas “one of the most important contemporary composers”—perhaps an overstatement, though on this showing Filas is a talented and certainly earnest craftsman.

Tritle had performed the Requiem before, in its American première, with the same soprano and baritone at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola in 2011. Filas (b. 1955, in Slovakia) trained as a singer: in some ways his lines are very singable, but he has a fondness for altitudinous tessitura that led each of his interpreters here to soar into some decidedly uncomfortable moments. The three vocalists Tritle employed at Carnegie —Susanna Phillips, John Moore and Matthew Plenk—are all gifted artists with Metropolitan Opera associations; in fact, all came to the company as National Council Finalists of the last decade.

Phillips, well known from several starring soprano assignments, has in principle the ideal voice for Filas’s writing, with its high tessitura, often higher attacks and sustained soft lines. Having admirably completed the New York Marathon the day before, she here alternated being tonally radiant and dead-on with passages of alarming derogations from pitch.  Baritone Moore (a Yamadori, Moralès and occasional Papageno) proved highly musicianly and competent, though occasionally plagued by excess vibrato when under duress from orchestral blasts. Plenk, a tenor who’s the Met’s current Lucia Arturo of choice, boasts a fine, somewhat dry but impactful lyric tenor. Of the three, Plenk fared best in negotiating the summits—until, after an admirably fervent account of the Ingemisco, his voice slightly broke in a needlessly impossible phrase. Filas—like Massenet in Marie-Magdalene—risks setting Christ’s words (the repeated promise “Ego sum Alpha et Omega” from Revelations) for a tenor. Plenk struck one as an artist deserving higher profile. 

An essay on the Oratorio Society’s website posited Britten’s War Requiem as the only significant contribution to the genre after 1950. Perhaps future programming might examine the works in this form by John Adams, Henze, Ligeti, Penderecki, Rouse and Schnittke? Not all are masterpieces on the order of Mozart/Berlioz/Verdi/Fauré, but all evoke our time and ethos more than Filas’ synthetic (if well-intentioned) and skillfully orchestrated composition. —David Shengold 

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