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Monday, March 5, 2012

'Joan of Arc' dazzles Baltimore Symphony Orchestra audience

Hermann Stilke (1803-1860). Joan of Arc's Death at the Stake (1843) Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg/Wikimedia Commons

Powerful, stunning, and intoxicating.
Those are some of the adjectives which come to mind remembering the exceptional concert at Strathmore Saturday played by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in commemoration of its "women who take risks" series and the 600th anniversary of the birth of Joan of Arc born in 1412, perhaps on Epiphany, January 6.
The music for the Voices of Light Baltimore premiere was composed by Richard Einhorn (b. 1952) performed to accompany the screening of Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1928 silent movie, The Passion of Joan of Arc, about Joan's trial and interrogation, her torture, imprisonment, and burning at the stake.
From recorded words in the trial, the judges asked Joan: "Are you in a state of grace?" "Are you Satan's creature?" and, to the guards, "Go, prepare the torture chamber."
The film was released a few years after the Catholic Church, which had ex-communicated Joan as a heretic, canonized her in 1920.
Most negatives and prints of Dreyer's film were lost in two fires, however, a Danish version was discovered in 1981 in a mental hospital in Oslo, Norway. In 1988 composer Einhorn "idly poking around in the film archives of New York's Museum of Modern Art  stumbled upon the movie and after viewing it "walked out...shattered" and immediately began writing his piece about the maiden, according to program notes.
It took Einhorn six years to complete Voices  which includes actual words from the trial, lots of medieval "misogynistic poetry," and her own writings. 

The Baltimore Choral Arts Society under the direction of Tom Hall added immensely to the production which never ceased to be haunting and ominous throughout the 90-minute presentation of 15th century music and frequent Gregorian chants. Church bells tolled intermittently.
Joan of Arc's birth place, now a museum,  Behind the trees is the church where she worshipped/Wikimedia Commons
The program quoted Einhorn who said Joan loved bells whose sounds seemed to speak to her.  The composer traveled to her home village, Domremy, France, where he recorded church bells for use in his score. At the film's end, they ring to toll her burning at the stake, and a man cries out "You have burned a saint!" Police seize weapons to beat unmercifully the hundreds of people who had gathered and wail in anger and sorrow, mourning the loss of an innocent person.
Joan was 19 when she died at the stake on May 30, 1431.  Her remains were burned twice more and then tossed in the Seine.
The entire musical rendition was captivating in its beauty of a tragedy. Renee Jeanne Falconetti starred in the film as Joan, a performance critic Pauline Kael called perhaps "the finest ...ever recorded on film." Ms. Falconetti never acted again.   (Watch the full movie here in French with English sub-titles.)
Soloists on Saturday were expert, and all were making their BSO debut: Julie Bosworth, Janna Critz, Tyler Lee, and David Williams. In the orchestra, drums, flutes, and strings got a heavy and much-appreciated workout.
At the evening's conclusion, the two teen-aged boys who sat beside me and never moved during the show, rose slowly from their seats, smiled softly and said, yes, Joan of Art was a remarkable person.  They were as captivated as the rest of us by the masterpiece they witnessed on the stage.
Six hundred years after Jeanne d'Arc, and we are reminded how little times have changed as we see in the halls of the United States Congress a similar jury of patriarchal white men sitting in judgment over women while Rush Limbaugh attempts to burn with his venom, a Georgetown University law school student.
Bravo to the prescient BSO for choosing risky women to feature this year. What would the judges think of an orchestra headed by the capable and erudite Marin Alsop? Shocked that a large city orchestra is headed by a woman, the first conductor to receive a MacArthur Fellow award and named last year to The Guardian's list of Top 100 Women? Congratulations, Ms. Alsop and the BSO on another stellar production.

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