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The perfect voice for 'Babi Yar'

Baritone Nmon Ford steps in to breathe life into Shostakovich's take on a Russian tragedy.

January 23, 2006|Adam Baer | Special to The Times

Some of music's greatest debuts have illness to thank. A celebrated artist cancels, and a new young gun steps in at the last minute to win raves. Los Angeles Philharmonic audiences over the weekend enjoyed one such occasion when Panamanian American baritone Nmon Ford substituted for Russian opera specialist Vladimir Ognovenko, who had to cancel his solo performances in Shostakovich's Symphony No. 13, "Babi Yar."

Saturday night, with inspired conductor James Conlon on the podium -- and violinist Hillary Hahn preceding with a stellar, if routine, performance of Sibelius' Violin Concerto -- Ford led with uncommon vocal power and emotional richness a full orchestra and the men of the Pacific Chorale through Shostakovich's most tragic and human work.

"Babi Yar," Conlon said before the performance, is the ultimate example of how Shostakovich turned serious music -- which historically dealt with human emotion, literature, myth and landscape -- into a vehicle to express political strife -- in this case, the experience of being Russian during the Soviet era.

Set to poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko assembled into a cycle by the composer, the symphony begins by relaying accounts of Sept. 29, 1941, when Nazis killed 33,000 Soviet Jews and left them in a ravine -- a massacre the government wouldn't acknowledge.

The 1962 piece, which was played only twice before 20-plus years of silence, implicitly calls the Soviet reaction to Babi Yar an example of the government's program of anti-Semitism. And throughout the five movements -- the jaunty second-movement scherzo celebrates humor, the following lament honors Russia's women, and the symphony comes full circle with a consideration of fear and an uplifting riff on making something of one's life -- a single baritone soloist conveys these texts.

Ford wasn't just up to the challenge. With stentorian tone, intense vibrato, superb diction and a genuinely heartfelt connection to the material, he seemed the only voice fit at the moment to bring these musical poems to life. With Conlon and an orchestra humming on all cylinders too, the performance became one of the most successful of the Philharmonic season.

Conlon, who will assume the music directorship of Los Angeles Opera in the fall and consistently delivers muscular, dramatic musical shapes from his players, delves deeper than most maestros. Under his magnetic direction, this sparse and explosive work emerged with exceptionally expressive and accurate playing -- from a meaty brass section, empathetic strings, eloquent lead horn and wonderfully sarcastic lead bassoonist. To say nothing of the empowered male choir and an overall sense of purpose from every musician.

In short, stay tuned for some world-changing opera.

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