The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s 2011-12 concert season celebrating women focuses not on women composers but on a female icon: Joan of Arc, who was born 600 years ago. The season began in November with Arthur Honegger’s “Joan of Arc at the Stake” and continued Friday in Baltimore (repeated Saturday at Strathmore) with “Voices of Light,” which combines Richard Einhorn’s score for soloists, chorus and orchestra with Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 silent film, “The Passion of Joan of Arc.”
Dreyer’s film served as both backdrop and inspiration, playing on the big screen above the orchestra. The film was thought to be lost to fire until 1981, when an almost-complete print of the original was found in the recesses of an Oslo mental institution. The film constantly rivets viewers with new first-person vantage points: We’re an onlooker behind the bald pates of condemning priests; we’re Joan, and even God.
Einhorn honors Dreyer’s “Passion” with an oratorio that does more than flesh out the drama. The composer chose Old French, Italian and Latin for the singers because he wanted the audience to get the feeling of the words but not immediate understanding.
Peabody Institute soprano Julie Bosworth and mezzo-soprano Janna Critz joined as one voice to sing Joan for their BSO debuts. Tenor Tyler Lee and baritone David Williams completed the vocal quartet, but mikes robbed magic from Einhorn’s renaissance incantations. The Baltimore Choral Arts Society gave sufficient roar to medieval slurs and raised good glorification (although one wishes the group would sit and rise quietly).
The symphony’s low strings never sounded larger. Principal cellist Dariusz Skoraczewski shone in leading many a tonal line. He, his associate principal and principal bass and viola crowned the moment before Joan takes her last sacrament with grace. Oboe and flute threaded their way throughout the choral work, creating the delicacy and constancy we witness in the Joan on-screen. The relentless violin figures awakened in us the terror of the nail-studded wheel upon which she will be draped.
Williams tolled bell-like “Depone animos” (“Renounce your purpose”) as the soprano and alto darted silver shafts that struck the heart. Concertmaster Jonathan Carney’s raw violin work captured the ribald sword-swallowers entertaining the masses at the execution.
Einhorn knows when to model on Bach and when to channel “Carmina Burana.” The greater test of his oratorio would be to dare it to resound alone in a cold stone church.
Buker is a freelance writer.