On Friday night, the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra joined forces with several college choirs from around the region to present a powerful performance of Stephen Paulus’ holocaust oratorio “To Be Certain of the Dawn.” This large, complex work, with text by Michael Dennis Browne, addresses — in terms both chilling and tender — the xenophobia and religious and racial intolerance that fueled the Holocaust. The sobering timeliness of this presentation amplified the strong message into both a shout of warning and a cry of hope.
Music director and conductor Scott Terrell led the large assembly of musicians in this multilayered work with passion and precision. The Philharmonic played beautifully, evidently committed and connected to this music, with searing woodwinds and scorching brass, and a phalanx of percussion adding color to almost every measure. The strings played with warmth and richness, led as much by Benjamin Karp on the mournful cello as by concertmaster Daniel Mason on the sobbing violin. Karp also began and ended the piece meaningfully with a ceremonial blowing of the shofar, a traditional Jewish instrument.
The large choral forces, comprised of choirs from Asbury University, Berea College, and Centre College, rendered Paulus’ sublime music with fresh voices and intense expression. They were supplemented by the Danville Children’s Chorus, whose pure, angelic voices added heartbreaking pathos to the strong mix of emotions this work evokes. All of these young people were well prepared for this difficult score, and their directors are to be commended for their vital work behind the scenes to ensure this splendid success.
Four young soloists from Kentucky Opera also upheld their parts in bringing individual characters to life throughout the oratorio. Soprano Ashly Neumann, mezzo Clara Nieman, tenor Ryan Connelly, and baritone Conor McDonald all possess lovely light voices and effective stage presence. These emerging talents graced the evening with their artistry and poise.
This concert performance was greatly enhanced by tasteful elements of stage production, rather than the usual stand-and-deliver format. The use of atmospheric stage lighting by Kris Kirkwood, projected photographs and text, and imaginative staging, directed by Fenlon Lamb, added mightily to the frankly overwhelming experience of this oratorio.
One small glitch diminished the event: the auditorium lights had been set on low for most of the performance so that the audience could follow along with the profound text printed in the program. But after one point of darkness in the hall, so that children bearing candles could have optimal impact, the low-light reading levels were not re-established, frustrating any attempt to continue following the libretto. The performers’ adequate diction of the poetic, multi-lingual text was not really enough to communicate the remainder incisively. I had been so into it that this was disappointing.
The concert began with the Philharmonic’s strings performing another work expressing the horrors of and resistance to autocratic oppression, Shostakovich’s “Chamber Symphony, Op. 110A.” This single-movement symphony was one the composer’s several musical responses to the Jewish pogroms under Stalin, and presents a harrowing, sorrowful denunciation. The Philharmonic fields as fine a string section as any regional orchestra in the nation, and it did not disappoint in this featured piece. Mason, Karp and principal second violinist Julie Lastinger all shone in their solos as well as in their sectional leadership, along with principal violist Henry Haffner.
At the end of a week in which a new presidential administration was elected in large part on the message of excluding and belittling numerous racial, religious, and cultural minorities, and even one entire gender, this magnificent and timely concert emphasized just how important art is, for its ability to issue blessing and warning at the same time.
Tedrin Blair Lindsay: firstname.lastname@example.org.