In a wonderful bit of prescient programming, on January 16-18, Franz Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra performed a program (undoubtedly planned well over a year ago) dealing with the horror of war and death. Little could they have known that we in the U.S. would be staring a war with Iraq in the face. That is, we are if our national leaders have their way. It seems inescapable.
The program began with the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus and soloists Dame Felicity Lott, soprano, and Rodney Gilfrey, baritone, performing Ralph Vaughan Williams anti-war cantata Dona nobis pacem, based on poetry by Walt Whitman and John Bright as well as very diverse passages from the Bible. Each movement is connected to the next by an unaccompanied soprano refrain, “Dona nobis pacem”–Grant us peace. Especially effective was the movement based on Whitman’s poem “Reconciliation”:
Word over all, beautiful as the sky,
Beautiful that war and all its deads of carnage must in time be utterly lost,
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly, softly,
wash again and ever again this soiled world …
The baritone soloist and chorus “wash” over each other in waves of tender sounds, repeating the words like waves lapping at the shore. “Wash again and ever again, this soiled earth.”
The cantata ends with the memorable words from the Gospel of Luke that announce the birth of the Christ Child: “Peace on Earth, good-will toward all men,” and one last quiet plea from the soprano, “Dona nobis pacem.”
The second half of the program was devoted to music by Richard Strauss, his early tone poem Death and Transfiguration and his late Four Last Songs. Felicity Lott was again the soloist in the songs. Someone came up with the masterful idea of connecting the tone poem to the song, and during the conclusion of the orchestral work, the soprano moved slowly to the center of the stage, and the songs began without pause (or applause). It was a breathtaking stroke followed by a wonderful performance.
Felicity Lott perhaps does not have a voice as large and voluptuous as, say, Renée Fleming or Jessye Norman (two other memorable exponents of these songs), but her musicianship and communication of the texts was surpassing. She made these songs live.
It was a memorable evening at Severance Hall.