Review: Valdés heads demanding, sound performance

Review by Anthony Bannon

Matt Burkhartt | Staff Photographer
Maximiano Valdés, guest conductor and music director candidate, leads the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra in performing an exerpt from Manuel de Falla’s La Vida Breve Tuesday in the Amphitheater.

There will be no scorecard here.

The harps were terrific. The bassoons excellent.

It was all a gift. That is the take-away.

The Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra again played a mighty range — perhaps more rangy than many Tuesday evenings. The orchestra was impressive.

Maximiano Valdés, an old friend to western New York and the sixth conductor of the summer, asked a lot of the CSO. He asked for the heartfelt Spanish opera, followed by a six-song cycle from the remarkable poetry of N. Scott Momaday set to a narrow cast of postmodern, quiet musical textures by Roberto Sierra, a contemporary master (who was in attendance) and then asked the orchestra to conclude with the anchor store of Johannes Brahms — loaded up with paradigm quotations from other 19th-century masters.

That kind of performance challenge is like working championship games of lacrosse, cricket and basketball with the same team during the same day. Different rules, different traditions, play the game.

The orchestra’s edge is that they get to stick to the same instrument, like playing each game with the same ball. A bit of an advantage is granted in the analogy, but the point is made.

Anyway, working with Maestro Valdés, they created a wonderful evening — solid; a presence to be reckoned: Manuel de Falla’s sensuous and conclusive excerpt from La vida breve, a presence to be present in the Sierra/Momaday “Beyond the Silence of Sorrow” and finally being Brahms in Symphony No. 3, Op. 90 in F major — and not being Beethoven.

Valdés is sound, pun intended. He is a citizen of the world who brings to Chautauqua both previous experience here with the CSO and a lengthy and successful tenure with the Buffalo Philharmonic. His manner is to find the core and articulate it with integrity. Without flourish. Solid. He works for the orchestra, finding how it may sound its best. He was successful Tuesday evening in the Amphitheater.

Matt Burkhartt | Staff Photographer
Leela Subramaniam, soprano soloist, performs Roberto Sierra’s “Beyond the Silence of Sorrow” with the CSO.

The diverse evening also featured a celebrated return of Leela Subramaniam, a former Chautauqua Voice Program student (2010 to 2013) and recently a much-decorated soprano on the national and international levels. Hers is the dynamic role in the Sierra arrangement of the poems — really chant poems — written with a melody of repetition for performance against a fairly minimal backdrop from a full orchestra.

Called “Beyond the Silence of Sorrow,” the piece is a prayer to the land and for love upon it; for the birth that it becomes and for the counter-weighing sorrow — the deep despair — that inevitably ensues, like rain, like shadow, like the emptiness — unknowable — of which the poetic title speaks. In spite of the promise of the land, and the love that could fulfill upon it, there remains this finally unspeakable sorrow, a sorrow that is “beyond” all knowing.

What a bravery to confront such realities — and for Subramaniam to perform these mysteries in the name of the women who bear children and conjoin such enterprise with the land “that my words may rise to harvest” and are then forgotten.

Her voice in the large outdoor space, could only stand for the words, which thankfully were distributed with the programs. But even without using the text, the artist’s deep sense of drama and deep purity of voice, even with words lost into the great space achieved that presence which all sought. Her voice did rise to the statement of harvests, standing for all mothers and the forgotten.

Subramaniam accented with a modest though affecting performance, and with the orchestra at its most piquant, the notion of wrenching hope for voice of the child — against the better evidence of global emptiness — was made clear. With the orchestra at its most silent, just a presence in cellos and bass, the idea was sealed.

More than 1,000 people shared a cool evening space in the Amphitheater and were touched by the divining rod of simultaneous hope and despair that only can be carried into beauty by art. It’s that kind of moment that makes foolish any warranty of performance fulfillment. It was fine and adequate. Subramaniam, Valdés and the CSO made meaning of Sierra and Momaday’s efforts to unearth wisdom and hope against better evidence.

Unnecessary was any flaunting gesturing from Sierra, the Cornell University music composition professor who is an island treasure of Puerto Rico, where Valdés is music director and principal conductor of the symphony. Nor from Momaday, the Pulitzer Prize- and National Arts Award-winning writer from the Kiowa Nation. Nor from the rapture of Subramaniam’s aura, all the more memorable against its collapse in the poem’s final phrase, wondering where is now the woman who walked in the land, lived in that decayed house and cradled that child?

In an odd way, a spirit of “The Silence of Sorrow” was foretold by Manuel de Falla’s dance from his two-act opera about the estranged lover who performs a gypsy revel to her death at the feet of her ex-lover. The CSO delivered the romance, the dance and the drama as if it was the festival orchestra in Madrid, where La vida breve won a 1905 competition but never performed the piece for some reason. It was not presented until 1912 in Nice, France, and thereupon in Paris.

Meantime, Brahms, whose Symphony concluded the evening, was no stranger to gypsy airs. Though this work, in his 50th year, heralds his gratitude not for the common folk of his era, but for the work of concert music colleagues in the romance of late 19th-century Germany. The Symphony is a culture of quotations and arcane references, but it more profoundly is a paean to the life of music — the great sweeps of reverence to lost associates and loves and to place, and to the river that runs through life — in Brahms’ case, the Rhine. The graceful, lyric, melodies, the tempered yet passionate build and decline in each of the four movements, has earned the symphony its place in hearts of generations, and decade after decade, the world of music returns to its enduring excellence, each movement famously ending slowly and quietly, and listeners contemplatively discover again its Symphony’s reverence and wonder with life that provides foundation to sustain forthcoming work, like Sierra’s.

Anthony Bannon is the executive director of the Burchfield Penney Art Center at SUNY Buffalo State and a research professor at the college. Previously, he was an arts writer and an editor for The Buffalo News and the longtime director of George Eastman House, in Rochester, New York.