O Captain! My Captain our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting.
—Walt Whitman, 1819-91
America’s best-loved poet unknowingly provided the text for both works of this remarkable program. Both composers cherry-picked from Whitman’s magnificent oeuvre and produced, at least on the surface, two very different results.
In With Music Strong, Dale Adelmann took on the huge challenge of lifting this magnificent, minimalist urban landscape off the page and demonstrated to the disappointingly small turnout that their journey through the—at times stark, bleak—cacophonic canvas would reward their attention.
The performance was mixed. Adelmann’s near-excessively clear beat kept the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra's musicians on track as they traversed wave after wave after wave of Lukas Foss’ relentless chord of the ninth. But the music failed to go beyond its timely delivery; we listened and observed, rather than falling under the hypnotic trance that a freer rein might have allowed.
Initially using the chorus as an orchestral colour with their seated “wah’s” was, simultaneously, a stunning surprise, transition and relief to the dozen minutes that preceded it. Then, the “whoosh” as they stood (although not quite as one) added a theatrical element to the set-up for the first choral utterance from this excellent ensemble.
From there forward, the work recaptured our interest as Whitman’s lines were treated in so many compelling ways. “Sounds of the city and sounds out of the city,” was the thematic “payoff” for the ostinato mania of the opening. Book-ending the women around the men (rather than the more traditional seating) allowed the “s’s” to swirl in fantastic stereo throughout Kleinhans Music Hall. The effect was unforgettable.
Still, this dense, complex score is better than we heard. The brass were called upon to improvise at certain times; Adelmann chose to stand still, letting them bleat away. But the tension collapsed as he failed to “play it with them” using a clenched hand rather than an equally free arm to inspire their creativity and provide plenty of warning for freedom’s end. Instead of frenzied ideas, we received confusion and not a couple of squeals that, more appropriately belonged in a dance band solo.
The first tolling of the chimes (which couldn’t help but look forward to the symphony to come) also signalled the unravelling of the precarious thread that holds this score together. Once again, much more left-hand sculpturing was needed to weave all of the disparate parts together and successfully navigate through the dangerous rhythmic/tonal shoals.
As time went on, Foss added touches of multiculturalism (e.g., Asian harmonies on the xylophone) and saved some jazzy interjections for the final pages of this fantastic crafting of timeless words over a cornucopia of colour.
Following the performance, the well-loved composer took to the stage, receiving the hearty applause of audience and performers alike. It was a privilege to be among their number.
More familiar waters for both chorus and orchestra was Vaughan William’s First Symphony. In one of life’s coincidences, it was my second serving that day having tuned in earlier to the Hamilton Philharmonic’s lively reading of the London Symphony (No. 2) (cross-reference below).
Throughout this wonderful score, Adelmann displayed his chorus mastery with compelling results. Once the initial leaps to the stratosphere had passed (“Behold the sea itself”), the sopranos settled down and let the top appear rather than be pushed. The altos shone from shore to shore and balanced their colleagues well (“covered all over …”). The basses kept the few a cappella moments tonally anchored (“singing his songs,” being a memorable example), but it was the marvellous tenors who most-consistently rendered their pitch, tone and diction with care and finesse. But none of that can happen without skill and experience on the podium.
Not surprisingly, then, the highlight of this performance was the “Scherzo”—“The Waves,” where the music soared and ebbed, allowing a heady spray of art to fill the room.
The soloists were not as secure their colleagues. Baritone Brian Zunner seemed to fade as time went on. He lacked the power to rise above Vaughan William’s often thick accompaniments and—too many times for comfort—was unable to focus his pitch. Tami Petty had a more flexible approach but tended to tighten through the top rather than float.
The members of the orchestra provided competent support, but Adelmann would do well to engage these fine players more directly. Cues and phrase endings should not be reserved just for the singers; Concertmaster Charles Haupt, whose solo offerings in “The Explorers” were exquisite, peered in vain for direction and, on more than one occasion, was forced to take on the assistant conductor’s role himself.
Adelmann has such solid musical instincts and exceptional outlets for them, that he should now strive for the next level and (as Karl Ančerl once cajoled me, eyes beaming following a riveting performance of The Rite of Spring) “forget about the beat—find the music!”
Whitman’s text concluded with the same notion: “O farther, farther, farther sail!” JWR