Dec. 1 2010 12:00 AM

LSO guest plays ‘conduit between man and God’



Baritone David Small likes to study opera scores while watching University of Texas football, “with the silly announcers turned on mute.”

The common theme is tragedy.

Small is turned on by almost anything life has to offer.

After a day of teaching opera at Austin, the guest soloist in the Lansing Symphony’s upcoming choral concert might drive home with Pink Floyd blasting from his car stereo.

“I tend to be rather eclectic in all parts of my life,” he declared.

An expansive soul with a big voice, Small is well suited for the strenuous role that awaits him Saturday.

Backed by the symphony, the Choral Union and Michigan State University Chorale, Small will climb the crags of the Old Testament to assume the cantorlike solo role in “Avodath Hakodesh,” an epic 1933 setting of the Jewish morning Sabbath service by American composer Ernst Bloch.

Small grew up Christian and goes to an Episcopal church, but his eclectic spirit extends to worship.

“I look at a God that created millions of different types of insects, and I can’t understand him liking to be worshiped in only one way,” he said. “I’ve never quite understood the idea that there is one path.”

Small sang in several reformed Jewish temples in the New York area before moving to Austin. “I heard some of the great cantors,” he said.

That experience will come in handy. For almost an hour, Small will thunder, keen, pray to God for mercy and plead with the audience for a new dawn of peace and brotherhood, in both Hebrew and English.

“The music is big, serious, brooding and triumphant,” said David Rayl, Saturday’s conductor and MSU choral director. “It’s one of the great choral/orchestral works of the 20th century, and it’s too often overlooked.”

Small called his unusual role “a conduit between God and the audience.” It’s a dramatic role, almost to extremes, but not a character in an opera, like Figaro.

Still, Small used the pronoun “he,” as if to distance the lofty rabbinical voice he’ll assume Saturday from the Texas dude who goes in for Longhorn football and Pink Floyd.

“He doesn’t sing all of the time but he probably sings at least half the time, and pretty big, dramatic stuff,” Small said.

The symphony and chorus will surround Small in turbulent, lush sounds that fall somewhere between 20th-century outcries like Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem” and classic Hollywood scores like “Ben Hur” and “The Ten Commandments.”

“Sacred Service” is part of a winter concert that includes “Winter” from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” with LSO concertmaster Seunghee Lee on violin, and “When Icicles Hang,” a set of songs by latter-day carol composer John Rutter.

But the big statement Saturday is the rarely performed opus by Bloch.

“It’s the Hebraic version of [Handel’s] ‘Messiah,’ Bach’s Mass in B Minor, or the Passions — any number of pieces that come out of a worship service but are concert pieces.” Small said.

Rayl’s big challenge is to keep a twisting arc of highly expressive music, with few repeated gestures or phrases, in the air for 50-odd minutes.

“In every three or four measures, there’s some major change, and that puts a lot of responsibility on the conductor,” Rayl said.

It’s tempting to milk the most drama out of each moment. Rayl said, but that’s a mistake.

“You lose the big picture,” he said. “It becomes about these individual moments rather than about the sum of the piece.”

Although the music is steeped in Jewish culture, Small predicted that listeners of all faiths will find a profound meaning.

“It’s a supplication for peace, for understanding, trying to understand why we have suffering,” Small said. “These are universal, human questions.”

“Avodath Hakodesh” will come on strong amid the usual December rattle of nutcrackers and sleigh bells.

Put the Christ back in Christmas? Why not go one further and roll out Jehovah?

“It is an antidote to the shallow superficiality that can happen at this time of year,” Rayl said.

Small praised Rayl and the Lansing Symphony for offering such substantial fare in a winter concert.

“It’s quite obvious we still haven’t learned to live peacefully with each other,” he said.

“A lot of this work is a supplication to God and to humanity to strive for that respect. That’s one of the reason I’m thrilled you guys are doing it.”

Lansing Symphony Orchestra ‘Songs of Winter’

Small, baritone MSU Choral Union and Chorale David Rayl, conductor 8
p.m. Saturday, Dec. 4 Wharton Center Cobb Great Hall (517) 487-5001