By WILLIAM AMORY
For Montclair Local
For its third season’s opening concert, “1001 Nights,” on Sunday, Sept. 22, at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, the Montclair Orchestra played a dramatic voyage through the world in which the stories of “1001 Nights” are set.
Maestro David Chan opened the 1001 Nights concert with Rossini’s overture to his opera “Semiramide,” which Chan said could qualify for inclusion in the Persian framework of the Arabian Nights because the opera’s setting of Babylon was later subsumed into Persia.
The second work on the program was “Songs of Eternity,” a song cycle by the contemporary composer Behzad Ranjbaran on verses from the “Ruba’iyat” of Omar Khayyam. After intermission, Chan led Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade,” bringing us right into that composer’s dramatic symphonic setting of some of the stories the bride Scheherazade told her murderous husband, to pique his interest and keep herself alive.
Rossini’s “Semiramide” overture had a litheness, an attention to detail, and sheerly beautiful phrasing that was stunning in its totality. One of Chan’s gifts is that of meeting composers where they are, taking them seriously and giving his all to communicate their work with us (even when some of their music is recycled from comedic works, as is the case with this overture!). Another of his gifts is his encouragement of his players to phrase beautifully.
Montclair resident Mahtab Foroughi introduced the second big work on the program, Behzad Ranjbaran’s “Songs of Eternity,” with a recitation of its Farsi texts by Omar Khayyam. Foroughi stood in the elevated pulpit behind the orchestra, which gave her otherwise beautiful recitation a slightly distant feel.
The soloist for the piece, soprano Gabriella Reyes, took Foroughi’s place in the pulpit to sing. Reyes is a wonderful singer. She sang with a beautiful, relaxed, yet fervent tone, and with some fine phrasing and variations in color and intensity. Her articulation of the English text was also well done. She is a talent to watch.
On this first hearing, Ranjbaran’s composition was full of beautiful sonorities and dramatic buildups and stunning climaxes. What it lacks, at least in the setting of St. Luke’s, is a sense of release, of lyric quiet. Every verse seems to be dramatized, rather than allowing one entire stanza perhaps to be a quieter, more whispered emanation from the soul. This was particularly evident in the stanza starting, “Get up my sweetest, it is dawn” which is started by the singer on one pitch with a sweet orchestral color supporting her. By the fourth, concluding verse, “And of those gone, none will return,” the crescendo of the orchestra, complete with piercing sound from the horns and brass, completely overwhelms the singer. Reyes’ fine work was not always even heard.
The concluding piece, “Scheherazade,” is at the very core of the story of “1001 Nights,” telling, in four movements, a number of the stories. Chan led a vivid telling: his players entered into a generosity of playing and dramatic spirit, always phrasing very musically while still playing with virtuosity. Time and time again, there were moments amid the repetitions of musical motifs where the phrases just kept on becoming more and more beautiful and full of character.
Andre Weker, founder and president of the Montclair Orchestra, spoke to the audience at intermission about three orchestral fellows, the students who perform with the professionals, who have found jobs in professional orchestras. This is such beautiful proof that the Montclair Orchestra is succeeding in this important part of its mission. Through its diligent mentoring, and its playing concerts at the highest level, the orchestra is succeeding brilliantly.