The Old Fight

Canto General, by Mikis Theodorakis, based on the poems by Pablo Neruda. Performed by the S.B. Master Chorale, conducted by Phillip McLendon, with Téka Penteriche, contralto, and Evan Hughes, bass-baritone. At First Presbyterian Church, Saturday, April 1.

Reviewed by Gerald Carpenter

I have heard the Master Chorale perform the Canto General twice before, so you would think that I would be ready for it — but no. For the third time in a row, the piece ran over me like a steamroller. I was crying after about a dozen bars.

Mikis Theodorakis’s music is like no other that I can think of in its emotional force and its ability to rearrange my political sympathies. From the first chord, the Canto pulls me into its exalted sphere where the spirit of “liberty and justice for all” lights up the firmament, where the aspirations and longings of all people fuse and beat like a great heart.

The performance was everything I expected it to be — in a word: magnificent. Maestro McLendon was at the top of his form, as well he might be, since this piece and Orff’s Carmina Burana are more or less his signature. As usual, the instrumental ensemble — an eccentric one, with flutes, guitars, pianos, and a variety of percussion instruments — played with superb skill and cohesion. The marvelous chorus really got into it, many of them swaying to the beat and beaming with joy as they sang their hearts out about United Fruit and Emiliano Zapata.

Téka Penteriche has a gorgeous, husky, cabaret voice (she might have put a little more force behind it). Evan Hughes’s rich, evocative — 100 percent “classical” — bass-baritone made a fascinating counterpoint to Penteriche’s emotional, populist outpourings. (Not that Hughes’s singing lacked emotion — his rendering of Neruda’s personal affirmation of party loyalty, “A Mi Partido,” had cosmic resonance.)

I don’t think it gets us anywhere to bicker about what is and what isn’t “classical music.” If Theodorakis wants to broaden the base exponentially, then what happens next depends on the skill with which he pulls it off. In Canto General, he succeeds brilliantly.

Finally, there will, inevitably, be those who say that politics and serious music don’t mix. They have obviously never heard Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Opus 125 or his opera Fidelio; they were not paying attention when they watched Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, or sat reverently through Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. (“My subject is war, and the pity of war; the poetry is in the pity. All a poet can do is warn.”)

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