CSO:  Moses und Aron

CSO achieves "vereinigt mit Gott"

Date: 3/27/99 6:00 PM EST

To quote the uncomposed third act of Arnold Schoenberg's masterpiece Moses und Aron, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus achieved "vereinigt mit Gott" (unity with God) in their presentation of Schoenberg's opera.  There is simply no other way to describe what happened at Orchestra Hall last night.

This concert performance of Moses und Aron had everything going for it from the start, and all elements combined perfectly.  The greater part of the credit must go to conductor Pierre Boulez, who delivered the score and all its enormous demands as if doing so were second-nature.  He was so humble the entire evening, sorting out the innumerable details without overshadowing them by his own personality, as it is possible to do with this score.  The evening was about Schoenberg, and Boulez served as the interpreter of his message, as if composer and conductor were reenacting the Moses-Aron relationship on a small scale.

David Pittman-Jennings' portrayal of Moses was so impressive that it forever knocked the Charleton Heston image of Moses out of my mind.  From now on, I will picture this classy baritone from Oklahoma whenever I think of my favorite Judaic patriarch.  Few singers have ever demonstrated such a perfect mastery of Sprechstimme technique.   Pittman-Jennings matched every vocal gesture with brilliant physical acting, including a heart-stopping entrance midway through Act Two when Moses descends from the mountain and a poignant bashing of the tablets.  His final lament was truly pathetic, bringing this masterful performance to an excellent close.

Something must be in the air right now, assisting singers of all types to come back from rough vocal patches.  Just as Carol Vaness sounded like a different singer between January's Fledermaus and last week's Tosca, the often-bemoaned Chris Merritt sounded incredible (and beautiful) as Aron.  The range of this part is notoriously difficult, but Merritt handled it with much ease. Fabulous vocalism aside, Merritt acted up a storm.  This audience member was reminded of the late Leonie Rysanek's concert performances:  Merritt was completely in character both while singing and while sitting out.  He underlined specific words scrupulously, most notably "schlange."  Loge was listed in the program as one of his new roles, and I'd love to see him in that part, so fine was his acting and singing.

Of the other soloists, Kwanchul Youn as the bass priest sang with a tremendous amount of power, much more than his small frame would suggest.  Carol Höhn was lovely as the young girl and Uta Priew (whom I picked out at Intermission, I'm proud to point out) was quite touching as the sick woman.

Tremendous credit must of course go to the divine Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Under Boulez' excellent direction, both groups worked with their hearts on their sleeves.  The chorus mastered every miniscule detail of the score, particularly the whispering of "Wo ist Moses?" and other such effects.  The orchestra, particularly the brass and percussion sections, played at their highest level, with especially gorgeous violin solos from concertmaster Samuel Magd.  A sense of enjoyment and understanding of the score was clear.

All in all, one of the most important, cathartic, enjoyable performances of my concert-going life.  I thank the gods for Schoenberg, Boulez, Merritt, Pittman-Jennings, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.

Doug the Thrilled

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