Pirates of the Cherubini
Programming less well-known repertoire (or new music) can be a tricky matter. If a selection is not truly meritorious, for example, it can give the impression that it was chosen simply to be different. For me, it is imperative that there be some kind of organic connection between all the pieces on a program in addition to “checking” whatever “boxes” one wishes to fulfill with that particular event. I am always looking for that unifying undercurrent, and find programs that merely check the boxes unsatisfying.
The most salient point of Camerata’s impressive artwork (after my unforgettable hairstyle, of course) is that these pieces by Cherubini, Martucci, and Mendelssohn are truly gems, giving us a rare program of all undervalued masterpieces. My original plan was to do an abbreviated concert version of Verdi’s La traviata with Hyesang Park. I ultimately had to abandon that idea as it wasn’t possible to assemble an entire cast for the date in question, but the underlying theme of song (with Hyesang’s wonderful lyric soprano voice) remained.
The ostensibly all-Italian first half has strong ties to both French and German traditions. Luigi Cherubini, regarded by Beethoven as the greatest of his contemporaries, assimilated completely into Parisian culture and Médée (perhaps his best-known work thanks to Maria Callas’s unforgettable portrayal of the title role) is a product of French grand opera tradition. Giuseppe Martucci sparked a revival of instrumental music in Italy at a time when the country’s musical preoccupations were entirely with opera and Verdi. Although little known today, he had a lasting influence on succeeding generations of composers (Respighi was one of his pupils) by championing Wagner’s operas and the Brahms symphonies within Italy. From a historical standpoint, his gloriously beautiful La canzone dei ricordi (The Song of Memories) is remarkable for being a song-cycle with orchestra (a particularly German aesthetic) from a 19th-century Italian composer who wrote no operas.
The final piece on the program is Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” Symphony — certainly not an obscure work, and yet we hear it performed so much less frequently than either the “Scottish” or “Italian” symphonies. It was Mendelssohn’s first truly large-scale symphonic work (the numbering is misleading because it was not published until 21 years after the composer’s death), and its stirring string passagework and majestic chorales can sweep the listener away. With its quotations of the “Dresden Amen” and Martin Luther’s famous chorale “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (A Mighty Fortress is Our God), the symphony also maintains the vocal theme established in the first half of the program.
If you’re in the area, don’t miss the chance to attend this evening of underperformed rarities! It’s at the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew at 263 W. 86 St. in New York on Saturday, February 23 at 8:00 pm.