BSO event memorable,but marred by flaws

Posted April 27, 2009, at 7:11 p.m.

There were many wonderful things about Sunday afternoon’s Bangor Symphony Orchestra concert, in which the BSO performed “Marie-Magdaleine,” Jules Massenet’s rarely heard oratorio, with the UMaine Oratorio Society, the University Singers and four soloists. Unfortunately, the many flaws in the concert at times overshadowed the successes.

Both singing groups, which combined made up a chorus of around 100 voices, were in fine form. Conductor Lud Hallman had obviously worked very hard to shape those voices into a warm, expressive, wonderful thing —the tenor male voices in particular were quite eloquent.

There’s a taboo in music about using a microphone for operatic voices — that a singer’s vocal power alone is enough amplification. Often, that works just fine, but in the case of Sunday’s concert, none of the soloists was truly loud enough for anyone to really hear the singing clearly. Whether that is the fault of the chorus and orchestra being too loud, or the troublesome acoustics of the Collins Center for the Arts itself, is not known. Regardless, large portions of the performance were unintelligible, whether you understand French or not.

Which is a shame, as all four soloists have wonderful voices. Nancy Ellen Ogle’s articulate soprano suited the role of Mary Magdalene, whose passion and grief for Jesus are the centerpiece of the oratorio. John Grover has a beautiful tenor, but in the role of Jesus was simply not loud enough to be heard over everyone else. Marcia Gronewold Sly has a deliciously expressive mezzo-soprano, but was only in the second act. Bass and Bangor High School graduate Seth Grondin, who sang the role of Judas, had the most vocal power of any of the singers, and he was appropriately menacing.

In fact, Grondin and Sly were the only soloists to show any kind of dramatic intention with their performances — most of the concert was relatively static and sluggish, emotionally. With the notable exception of the final act, it did not seem that there was any dynamic difference between the scenes. “Marie-Magdaleine” is not a true opera, and Sunday’s concert did not call for true “acting,” but some kind of physical movement besides standing still, in one place, would have contributed greatly to the emotional immediacy of the performance.

The orchestra itself seemed uninspired, and even slightly bored. The usual dynamism of the BSO seemed tamped down, as they fought for aural space with the chorus, but tried not to drown out the soloists.

It was only with the third and final act that the BSO seemed to “come alive” and show some zip — starting with the lovely, moving strings of the first scene, and ending with the exciting organ flourishes of the second scene.

The cascading vocals of the chorus, erupting into peals of spiritual joy, melded together with the orchestra mightily, to end the proceedings with a bang. Overall, however, the concert was uneven, with some very memorable high notes, but too many stretches of draggy, muddy tediousness.

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