The review below appeared in the Albuquerque Journal of February 24, 2002.
Friday evening's New Mexico Symphony Orchsetra concert in Popejoy Hall confounded expectations. A wild and unconventional mass setting by Janacek was rendered tame while the lyrical Grieg Piano Concerto became a passionate testament.
With the highly individual Awadagin Pratt as guest soloist, it should have been anticipated that something out of the ordinary would take place in the Grieg. Pratt's interpretations seldom, if ever, veer into commonly accepted territory. That, of course, is what makes him such a fascinating artist. Marvelously immune to accepted thinking, he rigorously charts out his own relationship to a piece of music. It is a process that can lead to thrilling insights as well as puzzling detours.
In the case of the Grieg, Pratt entered fully into the Nordic sensibility and came up with a brooding meditation, full of lightning flashes and deep stillness. His formidable technique turned virtuosic intricacies into sudden emotional rushes welling up from a deep center, as if the psyche had suddenly burst its bounds. The quieter moments were transformed into monkish reflections so intimate that the listener seemed to be intruding on his privacy.
The first movement cadenza caught both extremes, its initial meditation disbursed with an explosion of power that then subsided into a contemplative close. The second movement offered quiet song in luminous tones that were reinforced by a lovely exchange with horn player Kurt Civilette. The third movement became a playful dance of release.
Guest conductor Kenneth Jean gave consistently sympathetic support to Pratt's interpretation.
In the second half, he and the orchestra and soloists, joined by the NMSO chorus, as always solidly prepared by their director Roger Melone, performed Janacek's Glagolitic Mass. A work of the composer's last years, this mass is an exuberant celebration of Slavic nationalism. The title refers to the Glagolitic script of the text, one of the Old Church Slavonic scripts. Janacek pours all of his dramatic powers, well honed in his operas, into this work, which was never intended for a liturgical setting.
Full credit goes to Jean and all assembled, including the four soloists, particularly the intensely expressive tenor Karl Dent, for the chance to hear this extraordinary work. That said, Jean's interpretation gave it only half life. Rather than framing the work with the Intrada at either end, he opened with the orchestral introduction. Ther is argument for his course, but it failed to arrest, despite soprano Barbara Shirvis's strong projection. Opening with the Intrada gives much more initial momentum. It also makes architectural sense for then two orchestral sections frame the five choral ones in a great arch with the mighty ``Credo'' at its center.
Overall, Jean sought to contain rather than release Janacek's music, bypassing its urgency, downplaying its violent extremes. Organist Todd Wilson from Cleveland added plenty of fire, especially in that final, explosive solo that shatters any comforting religious ideas.