Dec. 8 2010 12:00 AM

Concert hits extreme highs and lows

The Lansing Symphony and massed choral legions from Michigan State University and the Choral Union moved a mountain Saturday with a noble reading of Ernst Bloch’s “Avodath Hakodesh,” a rarely performed, full-on concert piece based on the Jewish Sabbath morning service.

The night was marred by some awful preliminaries, but out of respect for a bold reading of a rarely performed masterpiece, let’s start our survey at the peak.

The 50-minute climb to the top of Mt. Sinai started at the foothills, with murmuring cellos and double basses. The sound accumulated, like ancient strata of rock, into a mountainous Old Testament landscape, severe and forbidding, a place of deep contemplation and purification.

Everyone involved in the performance seemed grateful at the chance to bring this great music to life, and the care was evident in every note.

Conductor David Rayl unrolled Bloch’s scroll of life at the timeless tempo of prayer and reflection. One of Bloch’s favorite devices is the fugue, in which various sections of the orchestra and choir pick up the same melody and gradually build the sound up to the skies. Rayl kept each layer in sharp focus, but never lost sight of the mountain.

I keep mentioning mountains, but it’s hard not to — this was an elemental experience. When the chorus sang in unison, they were solid rock; when they broke into harmony, they poured down like rain from the book of Genesis.

A multitude of tiny touches, lovingly applied, tempered the grandeur with human tenderness. Sweet woodwind solos threaded through the soundscape like shepherds and sheep in a dusty Bible tableau.

The weight of the occasion became palpable when the guest soloist, baritone David Small, stepped forth to assume his rabbi-like solo role, wrapped in a nimbus of horns.

It was a different experience from a Bach mass or a Handel oratorio. The big choral works coming out of the Christian tradition put the pathos of Christ’s life front and center.

The Hebraic texts unfold a sterner, more abstract, even a more terrifying world. There are words of consolation in the text, but the deep unease that underlies the fraught covenant between the Jews and their God was never far from the surface in Rayl’s darkly rolling interpretation.

Small was the fulcrum of the music in more ways than one. He had to mediate between the turbulence and mystery of the universe, played out in the orchestra, and the earthly struggles of mankind, voiced by the chorus.

Small was consistent and steadfast, like a sea captain fighting the spray — no small feat in such a demanding marathon role — but his classical-music stiffness made him the least compelling thing on the stage.

It would be interesting to hear what a genuine cantor, crossing over into classical world, would have done with the same part. I wanted a twisted, gnarled, magnificent tree of life to rise over this stern Old Testament tableau, but Small was more of a marble pillar. He held his end up, all right, but didn’t touch my soul.

As it happened, the missing human touch came from an astonishing young soprano, Hannah Busch, who made a disproportionately deep impression in a few small solo bits. Whenever she sidestepped from her spot in the choral mob at the very back of the stage, her voice streamed to the outer reaches of the hall like sweet cream butter shot from a riot hose. And she’s only a sophomore at MSU.

With a triumph this substantial to savor, one hesitates to even mention the first part of Saturday’s program.

But I have to, so let’s make it quick. Somebody must have thought it would be a good idea to balance the heavy Bloch piece with a set of treacly carols written in 1973 by John Rutter, the Thomas Kinkade of modern choral music.

Wrong. There are only two reasons these anodyne, deracinated echoes of lovely English carols exist, and that’s to make John Rutter rich and give choral teachers, students and their parents a fresh gumdrop to gnaw on. It was unconscionable to make a professional orchestra and adult chorus stoop to their level, or to force a captive subscription-series audience to sit through them.

Someone also must have thought it would be a good idea to begin a winter concert with “Winter” from Antonio Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.” And it was — in theory.

This music is actually better and more innovative than its radio ubiquity makes it seem. But this time, the performers, and not the music, went seriously haywire. Concertmaster Suenghee Lee, taking a solo turn, couldn’t seem to find the spirit of the music, or even the right pitch or tempo, and the little string orchestra surrounding her had a hard time getting its bearings.

The result was the most unpleasant and embarrassing seven minutes of a Lansing Symphony Orchestra subscription concert in many a year.

Thankfully, everybody shook this unpleasantness off at intermission and came back to touch the face of God by evening’s end. It made for a bizarrely lopsided evening, but a memorable one.