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Soloist takes Bach to peak of intensity

September 30, 2003|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Two years ago in New York, the mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson sang two Bach cantatas about death and the transcendence of the soul in an unforgettably purposeful staging by Peter Sellars that seemed to come as close to capturing the mysteries of life and its leaving as a singer on stage could. Last week, Nonesuch released a CD of Hunt Lieberson performing those cantatas, Nos. 82 and 199, and it contains some of the most intense and moving Bach singing to be found on record.

With that in mind, I figured I was prepared for Hunt Lieberson's solo appearance in the Cantata No. 199 with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra on Sunday night at Royce Hall, UCLA. But the fact is that nothing can prepare you for this riveting singer.

I don't normally believe in channeling, but when the first indescribably physical sounds come out of her mouth, I am ready to believe anything. So strong, so vibrant and so utterly communicative, they are as if tones were made flesh. For half an hour, Royce Hall and all in it were in the thrall of an amazing, hypnotic artist at the absolute peak of her powers.

The Cantata No. 199, for a solo singer, oboe and small string ensemble, is titled "Mein Herze Schwimmt im Blut" (My Heart Swims in Blood). As she moved from the most acute suffering -- a sinner in indescribable spiritual anguish seeks salvation in the wound of Christ -- to intense spiritual joy, Hunt Lieberson was an extravagant figure in the Sellars staging. She used a long blood-red scarf like an actress in Chinese opera and sang lying down as she symbolically entered the wound of Christ. In concert Sunday, she was more restrained, but all the expression was there in her face.

In the excruciatingly tearful first aria, the mezzo reacted to the floating melody of a solo oboe (lovingly played by Allan Vogel) as if it were a redemptive voice from the wilderness. The turning point of the cantata is a short chorale in which there is the first hint of salvation. Accompanied by a solo viola warmly played by Roland Kato, Hunt Lieberson registered a remarkable transformation. As the suffering began to leave her voice, her whole manner changed. Reaching the joyous final aria, she was completely transformed, ready for life.

To all this, Jeffrey Kahane, conducting from a small portable organ, offered acute support. Kahane and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra have just released an outstanding CD on Deutsche Grammophon of Bach violin concertos, in which they ideally match the youthful vigor of soloist Hilary Hahn. With Hunt Lieberson, Kahane proved that he is just as adept at following the mature expressions of a singer investigating the deepest feelings.

Sellars saw Cantata No. 199 as a preparation for death; the cantata that followed, "Ich Habe Genug" (I Have Enough), became then the serene acceptance of the inevitable. But the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra used the happy ending of the earlier cantata to set the mood of the opening program of its season, insipidly titled "Life Is Beautiful."

Bach was introduced by an odd travelogue: first, a pleasant three-minute invocation of festive Brazil in a recent piece, "Forro," by the Boston composer Thomas Oboe Lee, that revealed a debt to Milhaud; next, another recent piece, Bright Sheng's "Postcards," this time evoking China. Each of the latter's four short movements Westernizes a different Chinese folk style with a beautiful seductiveness.

Bach was followed, after intermission, by Haydn's cheerful Symphony No. 101, known as "The Clock." It was cheerfully played. The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra has never sounded better than it does these days, and Kahane exuded enthusiasm. Still, "The Clock" came across as an extravagant afterthought to the evening's pivotal performance. "Mein Herze Schwimmt im Blut," after all, had seemed to stop time. The orchestra plans to pay considerable attention to Bach cantatas over the next several years. What a way to start!

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