The Modus Opera Orchestra, Artistic Director and Conductor, Justin Bischof, after a Brilliant Debut, Carries On with Great Choral Works of the Renaissance

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Justin Bischof, Artistic Director and Conductor of The Modus Opera Orchestra

Justin Bischof, Artistic Director and Conductor of The Modus Opera Orchestra

Modus Opera Orchestra Singers
Justin Bischof, Artistic Director and Conductor
Saturday February 1st at 7:30pm
St. Mary’s Church, Long Island City

William Byrd – Mass for Four Voices
Palestrina – Missa Papae Marcelli
Justin Bischof –  Sanctify Them (New York City premiere)
To See Your Face (New York City premiere)
Mary Motets I. Ave Maria (world premiere: in honor of Father Turczanys installation as Pastor of St. Mary’s Church)

The Modus Opera Orchestra, St. Mary’s Church Long Island City
“Modus at Mary’s” Inaugural Concert
Saturday November 23rd 2019, 7:30 pm
The Modus Opera Orchestra
Elyse Kakacek, soprano
Brian Holman, Associate Conductor
Justin Bischof, Artistic Director & Conductor

Rossini – Overture to William Tell
Beethoven – Symphony No. 5
Barber – Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Op. 24
Mozart – Alleluia (Exsultate Jubilate Deo) K. 165
Wagner – Overture to Tannhäuser

Following the brilliant success of their inaugural concert on November 23rd of last year, the Modus Opera Orchestra, Justin Bischof, Artistic Director and Conductor, will present a choral concert including two classics of the Mass literature, Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli and Byrd’s Mass in Four Voices, along with premieres of three works by Mr. Bischof on February 1, 2020 at 7:30pm. This makes this group rather unique in New York, in that it offers a cappella chorus performances by its 16-person choir in addition to orchestral concerts and works for chorus and orchestra. This concert was an inauguration of an organization formed by the merger of two pre-existing groups, the Modus Opera and the Canadian Chamber Orchestra of New York City. The inaugural concert was important both as the “debut” of a renamed first-rate ensemble in New York and as a new resource for an attractive neighborhood in Long Island City, which is vigorously rising in amenities and the quality of life in general. With St. Mary’s Catholic Church conveniently located just one stop on the 7 line into Queens, the neighborhood is full of appealing restaurants and bars. Manhattanites will not feel deprived in venturing across the East River. The enthusiastic audience that packed the church close to capacity seemed to consist of a pretty broad range of music lovers, parish members, including families, and other local residents. This outreach to the immediate community makes the Modus Opera Orchestra an especially vital asset for the city, and I’m now looking forward to more visits to the area to enjoy their outstanding music-making.

Mr. Bischof designed a program ideally suited to introduce a diverse audience to classical music and to freshen up the familiar among long-time concert-goers.

St. Mary’s has very pleasing acoustics. The orchestra spread into the side aisles. I was seated in the center in the second or third row, but I could hear the blend of the entire orchestra, both strings and winds. The overall sound was present and clear, but glowing with a resonant bloom. The clarity of the sound gave the musicians nowhere to hide, not that they needed that in the slightest. Mr. Bischof has assembled a crack team of freelancers and people in distinguished orchestras around the city, and together and in solo work they are impressive.

The concert began with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, his most famous work, which belongs to the same creative phase which the Egmont overture brought to completion. The Fifth is often considered Beethoven’s most perfect work, the culmination of a musical tradition emerging from the Baroque and culminating in it, in which music and cultivated human speech—eloquence—intertwined. Classical rhetoric exerted a formative influence on musical expression which was independent of words. We relate to the phrases, melodies, and larger periodic structures of this quintessentially absolute music as wordless eloquence. I stress this aspect of the classical style, because Mr. Bischof proved so effective at projecting it in his performance. The entire symphony and its four movements were firmly supported by a strong foundation, and so were the themes and the phrases of which they were made. The clarity with which Bischof divided the beginning and closing parts of musical phrases elicited their power and expression and prevented the music from running away in a rush towards the closest cadence, as well as the big one at the end. This performance was not one of those Toscaninian thunderbolts. Bischof also allowed the musicians—especially the soloists—plenty of room to breathe and to let the full beauty of their instruments flow forth. There was something both for the connoisseur and the newcomer in this powerful, but sophisticated performance, and the audience loved it.

There followed another old friend, Rossini’s “William Tell” Overture (1829). I am a devoted admirer of the opera, especially in its original French version, and outstanding performances have become more frequent and closer to home—not to mention several excellent recordings of both the French and Italian versions. A few evenings with this magnificent opera helps to pry the overture loose from its pop-cultural associations and makes it easier to take it on its own terms. If one should associate it with anything, let it be Beethoven’s “Egmont” Overture (1809-10), on which Rossini based the overture to his own drama of revolt and freedom. There is an outstanding performance of Beethoven’s overture by the Modus Orchestra under Maestro Bischof on YouTube.

The performance, first and foremost, was marked by Bischof’s solid sense of structure and a steady build from the lyrical introduction up to the exciting final section. The strings had a strong, cohesive texture and they articulated the demanding fast sections with clarity and control. The winds played eloquently as soloists and an ensemble with playing from horns and trumpets that was both rich in tone and accurate in ensemble.

Elyse Kakacek, Soprano

Elyse Kakacek, Soprano

Maestro Bischof introduced each work with a genial, audience-friendly talk. His discussion of Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, a setting of a prose poem by James Agee, was basically reassuring his audience that they needn’t be afraid of 20th century music. They would hear no dissonant screeching or violent banging in this piece, but a lyrical evocation of a typical American experience: a summer evening in a middle-class residential neighborhood in a small Southern city…as perceived by a six-year-old boy—Agee himself during the last summer before the death of his father in a car accident radically changed his family’s life.1 The program printed the excerpted text as Barber set it, and Mr. Bischof encouraged the audience to follow along—a salutary notion, as clear as Elyse Kakacek’s diction was. What was truly remarkable was the depth of her identification with the place and the experience, and she is not a Southerner!2 Her crystalline soprano, beautifully produced with well-centered pitch, was ideal for the shapes of the musical phrases and the feelings they evoked. Barber brought us into the marrow of the experience and Ms. Kakacek and Mr. Bischof guided us gently along, although with a firm narrative hand. They both obviously love the piece, and conveyed it, hearfelt, to the rest of us. 

Associate Conductor Brian Holman led the orchestra for Kakacek’s lively and beautifully phrased rendition of Mozart’s early Exsultate Jubilate. Both amply deserved the warm reception the audience afforded  the short piece, and both are young artists to watch.

It was something of a masterstroke to end the concert with Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture (1842), and Maestro Bischof conducted the work with noble breadth and a sense of its organic shape. The orchestra executed to perfection the Romantic textures and long phrases of the young Wagner’s overture to his opera about the conflict of religious devotion and human sensuality. Their outstanding wind playing and the clarity of the acoustics made exhibits of the writing for winds by Beethoven, Rossini, and Wagner and how different their approaches to it were, as much as they descend from a common tradition. Wagner extracted his own youthful Symphony from Beethoven’s Seventh and other pieces, and he actively involved himself in the Beethoven memorial celebrations, conducting performances of the Ninth Symphony, partly to cultivate his own public persona. Otherwise, the work is far further into the Romantic than either Beethoven’s Fifth or the “William Tell” Overture, although the ensuing opera is considerably more Romantic in its atmospheric scene-setting.

With such outstanding musical values, insightful but tasteful interpretation, and congenial and clever programing the Modus Opera Orchestra is a valuable new musical resource in Queens and New York City as a whole. Tickets may well prove hard to get.

  1. “We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child.”
  2. Unlike Eleanor Steber, who commissioned and premiered the work: ‘That was exactly my childhood in Wheeling, West Virginia.’ Leontyne Price, a later champion of the work, found a similar local identification in it: ‘As a Southerner, it expresses everything I know about my roots and about my mama and father … my home town. … You can smell the South in it.’ Neither was Barber from the South.
About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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