April 16, 2017 (Easter Sunday)
The Church of St. James the Less, Scarsdale, New York
The Canadian Chamber Orchestra of New York City
Beethoven – Symphony No. 7
Justin Bischof, Conductor
Overture (Figaro) by Mozart
Let the Bright Seraphim (Samson) by Handel
Sull’ Aria Che soave zeffiretto (Figaro) by Mozart
This Little Light of mine by Loes
Beethoven Symphony No. 9
Amy Shoremount-Obra, Soprano
Sahoko Sato Timpone, Mezzo-Soprano
Noah Baetge, Tenor (Metropolitan Opera)
Hans Tashjian, Baritone
Jill Abramson, Senior Cantor, WRT
Amanda Kleinman, Assistant Cantor, WRT
The Edward Williams School Choir St. James the Less Parish & Youth Choirs
Christ Church Choir, Rye, NY
Irvington Presbyterian Chancel Choir
Trinity Church Parish Choir, Ossining, NY
The Canadian Chamber Orchestra of New York City CCO/NYC
Justin Bischof, Conductor
Justin Bischof, who has built a reputation, both as a brilliant church and concert organist and choral conductor with an international concertizing career and as an orchestral conductor. His orchestral work in fact has taken him all over the world, including Australia, Canada, Russia, Oman, and Haiti, and he has found characteristically ingenious ways to integrate the latter, his deepest passion, with his duties as Director of Music at The Church of St. James the Less in Scarsdale as well as an admirable local charity, the “Transforming the Lives of Children through Music” Benefit, netting over $400,000—and growing—which has enabled over 425 at-risk inner-city children to attend a life-altering summer camp in recent years. The latter benefit concert is traditionally The Canadian Chamber Orchestra of New York City’s (CCO/NYC) seasonal culmination. Bischof founded the orchestra to enhance the presence of his fellow Canadian musicians in the New York Area. Through these ambitious enterprises, he has enriched the musical life at his church beyond any reasonable expectation for a suburban parish and served an admirable program for enhancing the lives of underprivileged children. And Bischof is as passionate about the charity as about the great music he conducts to further the cause. The powerful performance of Beethoven’s Ninth we heard was deeply moving, as it should be, but I was even more moved by the fine young people who gathered before that to sing simple choruses.
At St. James the Less, Dr. Bischof has made it a tradition to perform Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony as a prelude to the Easter Services, both the eleven o’clock and the early service. One of Justin Bischof’s chief traits as a conductor is his rock-steady pace—a sine qua non to my mind in performing the Seventh. The ostinati can urge the conductor and the musicians forward, tempt them to rush, and to launch into a hyperactive frenzy in which the bar divisions are over-ridden in the stampede. Even some of the great conductors have fallen into this trap. Otto Klemperer is one of the old greats who understood how important it is to hold a steady course in the Seventh. There are several concert and studio recordings that show this. It’s especially important for the conductor to keep a strong rein on things in the Finale, but it is equally applicable in the Scherzo and the first movement. The meter and rhythms of the slow introduction, the transition to the exposition, and what follows is subtle, and steadiness allows the conductor to make the most of this. Avoiding a Klempererian weightiness, Bischof led his chamber-sized orchestra in a performance that was both grounded on a solid foundation, light in texture, and lyrical in phrasing, when called for. The excellent players of the Canadian Chamber Orchestra of New York City could sing in the most appealing way. The small forces and the intimate venue also gave the winds a strong and clear presence. The wind band had an integrity of its own and could dialogue with the strings as a unit. All played with color and elegant phrasing, including the horns, which are so important in this score. A Major can be a very bright key, and Beethoven countered it with strong lines in the bass and the mid-range. Bischof did well to give the horns (and violas) some prominence, providing a warm and detailed middle. For the Allegretto he adopted a tempo that was very slightly on the broad side—a true Allegretto, in fact—which gave us a chance to sink into the music, and to allow the more elaborate details which emerge later in the movement to speak, without having to slow the tempo down, as the variations spin. The Allegretto is among Beethoven’s greatest movements, but even some of the most prominent conductors skim through it and make it sound routine. This was by no means the case here. Every bar sang true. The Scherzo and the Finale felt just right, were full of detail without any affected pointing at inessential details, and conveyed the sense of structure and harmonic direction established in the first movement. And there were opportunities for the horns to sing out! This was a richly satisfying reading of one of Beethoven’s trickiest scores.
A few weeks later the The Canadian Chamber Orchestra of New York City reconvened in the Recital Hall of SUNY Purchase to play the festive concert organized for “Transforming the Lives of Children through Music,” which Dr. Bischof and civic leader Dorothy Yewer have held for some years now, enabling children to attend a rural summer camp each summer. The classical nature of this event was asserted at the very beginning with the sempiternal curtain-raiser one doesn’t hear so often nowadays, as symphony concert programs have gotten shorter, Mozart’s Overture to The Marriage of Figaro. The CCO/NYC played it to perfection, with nicely judged balances, rich and warm in the middle, clear, precise ensemble, and felicitous intonation. No matter how great a conductor Justin Bischof might be, he couldn’t bring this out from the musicians unless they were really able to achieve it, and of course they were. There followed spirited performances of an aria—with a brilliant trumpet obbligato—from Handel’s Samson, and the famous letter duet from the Marriage of Figaro.
There followed two choruses by local children’s groups. Not only were these sung well, with impressive ensemble, intonation, and diction, they were sung with a sincerity which I found deeply moving. The children were obviously looking forward to performing—not without some trepidation—but with pride in the hard work they’ve put into the preparation, as well as the simple joy of singing—and the results were gratifying. Everyone associated with this program can be proud.
Bischof’s predilection for a steady beat and slightly slower than usual tempi served Beethoven’s Ninth as well as the Seventh, but in a different way. Even the Scherzo with its dominant ostinato, doesn’t tend to run away with itself like the last two movements of the Seventh, except in a short passage where Beethoven indicates it in the score. Rather, the steadiness and the breadth both allowed the inner details of the score to open up, to breathe, and provided a solid foundation for the architecture of the work as a whole to reveal itself. This, to my mind, is more important than any emotive gestures or mystical sfumato a conductor might indulge in. The Recital Hall at SUNY Purchase is not enormous, and it is quite clear, without being actually dry. This enhanced the welcome clarity of the CCO/NYC’s playing and Bischof’s honest, straightforward view of the score. The orchestra, in fact, played beautifully—strings, woodwinds, and brass alike. Subtly prominent horn parts warmed the midrange and provided some strong accents off the beat. In general the wind band was strong and stood out with its own integrity, rarely masked by the strings. This resembled the effect of some period instrument performances. The timpanist played with precision, clarity, and a concern for varied color, which was evident in the ten or more pairs of sticks he brought along. I could hear the difference, but it was subtle.
In the first movement, Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso, Bischof avoided any exaggerated sense of the misterioso, and began with a solid pp to p, which connected with the introduction of the theme which followed. The drama in Beethoven’s score arose from the contrasts of thematic material and keys. (It is well-known that Beethoven’s progressions jolt us in certain places.) It was especially welcome to be able to listen to the appearance of the various motifs and their interaction, and to be able to appreciate the surprises in Beethoven’s writing, rather than in the mannerisms of the conductor. Bischof’s approach showed the best traits of the most cogent performances I’ve heard in recent years—for example, Frühbeck de Burgos and Blomstedt at Tanglewood. Sadly, the Ninth is performed too often nowadays, and the less than successful performances suffer from routine laxity rather than excess of expression. The superhuman dialogue of the development continued up to a climax, and the music of the recapitulation and coda flowed inexorably to the lapidary final statement with muscularity, centeredness, and logic.
The Scherzo benefitted equally from the same qualities. It was satisfying to hear it without a rush and to be able to hear a bit of air between the inner voices and the space around them. Here the warm, beautifully played horns added much. The shifting syncopations of the Trio were stated with confidence and strength. The slow movement was all the more moving for its discipline and definition. There is rational argument here, as well as supreme beauty, and Justin Bischof maintained his focus on the structure of the movement, without which the noble outbursts at the climax (120) lose much of their impact.
The great explosion that opens the fourth movement was tempered and clear in texture. Passion was balanced with grandeur, and the detail in the winds was welcome in itself. The sense of dialogue, both as conversation and as philosophical argument, which seems an integral part of Justin Bischof’s musicianship, made the reprises of themes from the first three movements less of a grandiloquent stress on the music’s importance than a true exchange, full of rhetorical and structural significance. The emergence of the Finale’s own main subject in cellos and double basses was handsomely balanced in tone and phrased with both spirit and poise, but not lacking the requisite growl.
Justin Bischof managed to assemble an impressive vocal quartet, one of the better I’ve heard, in Amy Shoremount-Obra, soprano, Sahoko Sato Timpone, mezzo-soprano, Noah Baetge, tenor (Metropolitan Opera), and Hans Tashjian, bass. In singing the opening stanza, Mr. Tashjian brought a characteristically vocal quality to the theme, reiterated from the low strings, crystal-clear in diction, phrased according to Schiller’s verse as well as the music, and expressively declaimed. He was not ashamed to invest the word “Freude” with the joyous electricity it deserves. His resonant bass is invested with attractive baritonal overtones. Amy Shoremount-Obra’s rich, buttery soprano soared in the quartets without her screeching or even seeming to make an effort to cut through Beethoven’s thick textures. She carried her melodic lines with a fine sense of their arching reach. Sahoko Sato Timpone’s rich, glowing mezzo similarly shone forth without seeming effort, and she, too, shaped her phrases with elegance and expression. Noah Baetge did not sound like a Heldentenor, but his gleaming voice had a similar strength and body. One doesn’t often hear such a satisfying, handsome voice in the March. There was not a hint of the self-strangulation that sometimes comes to mind. Baetge also understood the spirit of the music. Drunk or sober, his marching “hero” skirted the line of excess in military spirit, as often happens at patriotic gatherings.
He and the others were helped by Bischof’s discreetly broad tempi, his highly developed skill in letting his singers phrase and breathe, and his spot-on identification with Beethoven’s music. This made the March and the Fugue especially gratifying, with resplendent string sound in the latter. The choral statements of the main theme were clear and full of energy and high spirits. “Seid umschlungen, Millionen” was just right in phrasing, dynamics, and tempo in relation to the other sections, and the final parts built up to the final rush—which was not rushed—with progressive logic and force. Again Bischof’s control of his forces, steady pace, rightly judged tempi and dynamics gave this just the right cumulative drive to an end. Throughout the movement I found I could dwell in each part with absorption and sense the shape and dimensions of the edifice around me. The Ninth doesn’t get much better than that. And this was Justin Bischof’s first Ninth!