High Drama to Honor an End and a Beginning

by Anne Midgette, , The New York Times, March 17, 2005.

Inaugurating a new concert series in New York City is no small feat. Not, at least, as it was done at the Central Synagogue on Sunday night.
There was a thundering organ processional (Walton’s “Crown Imperial”). There were speeches. There was a world premiere. There was music from all over the map, stylistically and geographically.
Even the occasion was double-barreled: a commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II on the one hand, the start of Prism Concerts, a new series at the Central Synagogue, on the other.
It all sounds a little over the top, and it was, but in a good way. This was an Event, and it felt like one. The music was dramatic and had meaning.
For Shostakovich’s Eighth Quartet, for example, the houselights were turned off so that the Chiara Quartet was illuminated only by the lights on the music stands, creating the chiaroscuro of a Rembrandt painting. This piece is a de profundis, a cry from the depths, and the darkness helped focus attention on the music””and on the fact that the Chiara played it very well, soft edges not muting its pained intensity.
And for anyone who bridled at the prospect of hearing yet another setting of Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing,” Nico Muhly’s “Expecting the Main Things From You,” for string quartet, organ, percussion and chorus, was a tonic antidote. Mr. Muhly’s episodic writing bears traces of Philip Glass (with whom he works) in its repeated figures and sustained chords. But his textures are anything but minimal: this was active, refreshing, original music, engaging in its timbres, and penetrating far beyond mere text setting or tone painting to stand up to its poetry.
Judith Clurman, Prism Concerts’ artistic director, conducted rather bombastically, but she should be commended for her role in a nice program. The Central Synagogue’s mammoth three-year-old organ rang out under the hands and feet of Martin Ennis and Keith S. Toth, and the Festival Singers and Juilliard Choral Union joined in a processional finale, moving down the aisles as they sang the epilogue from Mr. Glass’s “White Raven,” surrounding the audience with sound. As a signal for the direction the series will take, the concert didn’t seem quite sure where it wanted to go, but one would certainly be happy to hear more of it.
And for anyone who bridled at the prospect of hearing yet another setting of Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing,” Nico Muhly’s “Expecting the Main Things From You,” for string quartet, organ, percussion and chorus, was a tonic antidote. Mr. Muhly’s episodic writing bears traces of Philip Glass (with whom he works) in its repeated figures and sustained chords. But his textures are anything but minimal: this was active, refreshing, original music, engaging in its timbres, and penetrating far beyond mere text setting or tone painting to stand up to its poetry.
Judith Clurman, Prism Concerts’ artistic director, conducted rather bombastically, but she should be commended for her role in a nice program. The Central Synagogue’s mammoth three-year-old organ rang out under the hands and feet of Martin Ennis and Keith S. Toth, and the Festival Singers and Juilliard Choral Union joined in a processional finale, moving down the aisles as they sang the epilogue from Mr. Glass’s “White Raven,” surrounding the audience with sound. As a signal for the direction the series will take, the concert didn’t seem quite sure where it wanted to go, but one would certainly be happy to hear more of it.

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