Not long ago I waxed enthusiastic about an all-Ginastera programme by the Sinfónica Juvenil Nacional José de San Martín led by Mario Benzecry. Now I welcome a splendid combination of two scores by these forces at the Blue Whale: that surprising cantata by Mendelssohn, "The First Night of Walpurgis"; and one of the greatest symphonic challenges, Gustav Holst´s magisterial "The Planets".
The cantata has been heard in recent years and I´m glad that it no longer is a rarity, for I find it the most dynamic and dramatic work of choir and orchestra from this fundamental Romantic composer, only comparable to some bits of the great oratorio "Elijah" though very different. Although I´ve written before about this "Walpurgis" (on Goethe´s text) it´s worth remembering the main facts (unfortunately those that went to the concert got no help at all: neither comments nor texts).
It starts with a long and tumultuous Overture called "Das schlechte Wetter" ("Bad weather"). And then, the cantata recounting a reunion of pagans and druids to celebrate the feast of the first Night of Walpurgis; they disguise themselves as demons to rout intruding Christians. A tenor recitative with chorus celebrates the coming of Spring; an old woman warns about the chastisements they might suffer if discovered by Christians. A Druid Priest wants to prepare a sacrifice; a choir of Druid Guards tells that they will protect the attenders; a Druid Guard calls for disguise. A rhythmic, ominous Choir "Come with points and pitchforks" gets more and more intense, until the final words, "owls and ravens, howl with us, and scare the cravens".
Now the Druid Priest leads the celebration, and shortly after the Christians think they see Demons and run away. The final music is majestic: "Unclouded now, the flame is bright!".
This half hour of fantasmagory is a masterpìece, and it had a `performance to remember. Benzecry gave to each number the exact weight and dramatic sense, the orchestra played beautifully, and the Coro Lagun Onak, 50-strong, led by Rubén Pesce, was in very good form. Of the soloists I was particularly impressed by Alejandro Meerapfel whose powerful voice and command of style were ideal. Tenor Ricardo González Dorrego and mezzosoprano Victoria Correa Dupuy are very experienced artists who gave their best.
In Great Britain Holst´s "The Planets" was always considered an amazing feat of imagination and orchestration, but it was only in the Long Play era that the score came into its own with dozens of recordings by British and foreign conductors. It was Eduardo Mata that revealed the work to our concert audiences; I believe it was in 1974. Since then it has been done several times, but not quite enough: perhaps because Holst incorporates a small treble choir in the final three minutes (that may also be the reason that foreign orchestras have never played it here).
The suite is in seven contrasting parts each with its character. "Mars, the bringr of War" has tremendous impact. "Venus, the bringer of Peace" is serene. "Mercury, the Winged Messager" is, well, mercurial..."Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity", is a splendid concatenation of melodies in different speeds. "Saturn, the bringer of Old Age", is appropriately mournful. "Uranus, the Magician", after its forceful beginning, a scherzo full of surprises. And "Neptune, the Mystic" is slow and metaphysic, ending with just the voices.
Benzecry showed the confidence he has in his young charges, for only quality orchestras can do justice to such a creation. But the conductor seems to be going through an Indian Summer, for at 79, spry and communicative, he didn´t put a foot wrong: everything was played according to Holst´s indications. And the orchestra responded with admirable solidity, with never a moment of hesitation, and with high technical ability.
On this showing, the Juvenil San Martín is clearly our best Youth Orchestra and can play as well as the B.A.Phil or the National Symphony. The feminine sector of the Coro Polifónico Nacional de Ciegos (Osvaldo Manzanelli) sang nicely.
A final phrase: how incredibly modern is this 1916 score coming from what was musically a very conservative country. So, we commemorate its centenary.
For Buenos Aires Herald