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Rousing "1812," "Nevsky" End May Fest on Slavic Note

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: May 28, 2001 - 9:20:47 PM in archives

(first published in The Cincinnati Post May 28, 2001)

The "Hallelujah" chorus has been sung.

With a carnation for each departing listener, the 2001 May Festival is history. Saturday night's finale at Music Hall had a heavy Slavic accent, plus a transposed, pre-Memorial Day patriotism that wowed the crowd of 3,020.

Music director James Conlon led the May Festival Chorus and Youth Chorus, the Children's Choir of Greater Cincinnati and Cincinnati Symphony in a program front-loaded with Russian favorites, including Tchaikovsky's "1812" Overture with chorus. Adding kilotonnage were Prokofiev's "Alexander Nevsky" and scenes from Mussorgsky's "Khovanshchina." Austrian composer Alexander Zemlinsky's Psalms 23 and 83, for chorus and orchestra, offered more reflective moments.

Guest artists John Cheek, bass, and Florence Quivar, mezzo-soprano, could not have been better chosen for their roles, Cheek as the Old Believer Dossifej and Prince Ivan in "Khovanshchina," Ms. Quivar as the young woman searching for her fallen love on the battlefield in "Field of the Dead" in Prokofiev.

Conlon opened with the final portions of acts I, III and V of Mussorgsky's opera about troubles in 17th-century Russia. Cheek's dark bass and dramatic intensity exemplified both Dossifej, the religious dissident who leads his flock to self-immolation, and the political agitator Ivan. The May Festival Chorus, joined by the Youth Chorus, played its role convincingly as their followers. A brass ensemble in the balcony echoed the "trumpets of eternity" in Dossifej's call to martyrdom.

Prokofiev's "Alexander Nevsky," extracted from his score for Sergei Eisenstein's 1930s film, never fails to arouse listeners. (It was meant to: The Soviet-made film, about a 13th-century Russian hero who repelled German invaders, was inspired by anticipation of conflict with Nazi Germany.) The granddaddy of all film composers had a knack for crafting the perfect musical image: wind-swept steppes, the relentless, grinding advance of the invaders, patriotic choruses.

The soft ending of the cataclysmic "Battle on Ice," with its spidery runs in the lower strings, set the stage for Ms. Quivar's eloquent lament. "Alexander's Entry into Pskov," with CSO and chorus unleashed in a shattering ode to Mother Russia, anticipated the "1812" by bringing the audience to its feet.

Conlon slipped in some German with Zemlinsky's Mahleresque Psalms. Differing in mood - one pastoral, the other a cry for vengeance - both received worthy festival debuts.

The "1812" made a grand impression in Music Hall (sans fireworks or mosquitoes). The chorus gave prayerful inflection to the opening hymn, sung a capella in place of the usual violas and cellos, and the Children's Choir lent a silvery edge to the women's voices in the folksong midway. Balcony brasses buttressed CSO and chorus at the end.