Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center Review: ‘Seven Last Words’

A Profound And Moving Program

By Nicole Kuchta

On Sunday, Mar. 31, 2019, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center presented “Seven Last Words” at Alice Tully Hall, featuring bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green, who has graced the stages of the Metropolitan Opera and Vienna State Opera, along with the Orion String Quartet.

The Chamber Music Society aims to share great chamber music with audiences across the globe, performing repertoire of varying styles and historical periods both at home and abroad. It aspires to instill an appreciation for chamber music in all age groups through a variety of education programs, including school-based programs, family concerts, master classes, pre-concert chats, and lectures (one of which preceded this concert, led by Michael Parloff).

Green Performs Bach’s Cantata

Chamber Music Society Co-Artistic Directors David Finckel and Wu Han noted in the concert program that the two works, J.S. Bach’s Cantata “Ich habe genug,” BWV 82 and Haydn’s “The Seven Last Words of Our Savior on the Cross,” Op. 51, are “focused on one of life’s most intimate and trying chapters: in the case of Bach’s Cantata, it’s the end of life for everyman, and in the Haydn, the voice is of Jesus, questioning, preaching, and narrating during his final moments on the cross.” Expressing the end of life can certainly be a challenge for artists, as very few of us have experiential knowledge of approaching death. Green, however, was able to earnestly convey the profound emotions behind the words and music of Bach’s Cantata.

As he took to the stage, the Virginia native wielded a commanding presence, owing not only to his great height but to his intense focus. He was joined by harpsichordist Paolo Bordignon, double bassist Timothy Cobb, and oboist Stephen Taylor. The intimate performance began with the Cantata’s first Aria “Ich habe genug” (“It is enough”). Green’s voice revealed itself as full-bodied yet soothing, expressing both firm acceptance of imminent death as well as a yearning for the experience of what lies beyond (“I have seen him, My faith has drawn Jesus to my heart, Now, even today, I would joyfully depart this world”). The Recitative which followed saw Green pleading, with gentle command, for the Lord to recognize his readiness to move on from “the prison of this body” toward the afterlife.

The first stanza of the second Aria, “Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen” (“Slumber now, you weary eyes”) served to highlight Green’s warm, robust sustained low notes. The third stanza, “Here I must endure misery, But there, there I shall find Sweet peace, quiet rest,” was particularly colorful, with Green using dynamics and emotion to contrast his earthly anguish against his anticipation of the splendor of the next world. The second Recitative, “My God! when shall that beautiful moment come,” was performed more softly than the first, yet he delivered the final line with a particular fervor, “My farewells are finished, World, good night!”

The final Aria began with high energy as Green sang of soon departing into peace, showcasing his smooth vocal agility in the first line “Ich freue mich auf meinen Tod” (“I greet my death with joy”). His elation at the thought of death, however, succumbed to frustration by the final line, “That ties me to this world,” with the sobering truth that he, despite his pleading, will remain in the mortal world until it is his time.

Green recently appeared on CBS 60 minutes to tell the story of his journey from juvenile delinquent to opera star. He has also shared his story as the subject of Daniel Bergner’s biography, “Sing for Your Life: A Story of Race, Music, and Family.” Based upon the intensity and sincerity of his performance, I imagine that Green was able to connect to the text by drawing upon his own experience of blissfully departing one place for another – going not from life on Earth to some greater paradise, as is described in the texts, but from a life of struggle to one of success and flourishing.

Orion String Quartet Performs Haydn’s ‘Seven Last Words’

Following the intermission, during which Green and author Bergner signed copies of “Sing for Your Life,” the Orion String Quartet, featuring violinists Daniel Phillips and Todd Phillips, violist Steven Tenenbom, and cellist Timothy Eddy, performed one of Haydn’s most beloved works, “The Seven Last Words of Our Savior on the Cross,” Op. 51. According to the program, Haydn himself “frequently declared it to be the finest of his compositions, and, on Dec. 26, 1803 in the Redoutensaal in Vienna, he made it the subject of the last performance he conducted in public.” The work consists of seven movements, all slow and in sonata form, bookended by an introduction and a conclusion. As the title suggests, each movement uses devices to paint a picture of one of Christ’s seven final phrases – for example, Sonata No. 3 in E-major (“Mother, behold thy son; and thou, behold the mother”), “is based on a theme of small falling intervals, a kind of musical teardrop used to portray grief since the time of the Renaissance.”

The Orion String Quartet was successful in communicating the solemn mood and powerful emotion of Christ’s words through their music. The group functioned as a whole, as if they themselves were the witnesses, one audience, reacting to the events as they occurred with sympathy, grief, pain, and finally, in the concluding “Earthquake,” shock and outrage. However, with seven consecutive slow movements over the course of an hour, the musicians were faced with the task of keeping the audience engaged. I found it beneficial that the programs included a brief overview of the work and succinct descriptions of the theme of each movement and how those themes would be presented musically. Without a guide I feel that, despite the stellar and impassioned playing of the Quartet, it may have been difficult for audience members, particularly those not “used to” classical or non-vocal music, to remain absorbed in the music throughout the duration of the work.

All in all, the performances of Ryan Speedo Green and the Orion String Quartet can both be summed up as technically skilled, passionate, and sincere.


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