A Singer's Notes by Keith Kibler / Music / Opera

A Singer's Notes, 3: The Slavic Center – of Norman Treigle and The Philadelphia Orchestra

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Norman Treigle as Boris Godunov
Norman Treigle as Boris Godunov

Here I am riding home on a dark, late summer night. The windows are down, crickets are singing. Making this trip is my Russian connection. Rachmaninoff and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Where I just was was where I stood and sang a few feet away from the death throes of Norman Treigle’s Boris. Nobody knows about him now, but he was a singing actor with the singularity of a Chaliapin or a Callas. Or maybe Callas and Chaliapin had the singularity of a Norman Treigle. I cannot be in Saratoga without his memory prompting me. Rachmaninoff once said that early in his career that he composed for the sound of Chaliapin’s voice, and later in his career for the sound of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Each year when I get to SPAC the orchestra seems younger. This was my chance to hear the Symphonic Dances he wrote for them, played by another great collective, three or four generations away now. I have long admired the intention, the glue that makes this darkest of American orchestras show us a macro kind of phrasing, how weight makes a line as effectively as detail. if the weight leans forward beautifully enough. Would they still have the sound, would they even know the sound? Would it matter if they had the sound? Sure would to me. Their sound through the decades has formed my idea of the Slavic center. A dark space, a hut, a cathedral with a sharp edge of flame. Is it a hearth fire or the apocalypse? Listen to the last few bars of Boris’ existence in Stokowski’s version and you will hear it in technicolor, death as a stab of light. The darkness visible depth of the Philadelphia string sound with a chiaroscuro oboe.

They still had it. They still had it! How does a band full of folks, many of whom were in conservatory three years ago, know how to do this? Just this year the eminences writing in Gramophone had dropped the Philadelphia from their select list, called them a past glory. (How these eminences managed to be in ten or fifteen cities long enough to have any real idea what their orchestras were actually like was not explained.) How the sound that Rachmaninoff must have heard was coming out of the cellos of the twenty somethings I don’t know either, but it did. The sound teaches itself to the slowly changing orchestra with infinite patience, like a mother.Here I am riding home on a dark, late summer night. The windows are down, crickets are singing. Making this trip is my Russian connection. Rachmaninoff and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Where I just was was where I stood and sang a few feet away from the death throes of Norman Treigle’s Boris. Nobody knows about him now, but he was a singing actor with the singularity of a Chaliapin or a Callas. Or maybe Callas and Chaliapin had the singularity of a Norman Treigle. I cannot be in Saratoga without his memory prompting me. Rachmaninoff once said that early in his career that he composed for the sound of Chaliapin’s voice, and later in his career for the sound of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Each year when I get to SPAC the orchestra seems younger. This was my chance to hear the Symphonic Dances he wrote for them, played by another great collective, three or four generations away now. I have long admired the intention, the glue that makes this darkest of American orchestras show us a macro kind of phrasing, how weight makes a line as effectively as detail. if the weight leans forward beautifully enough. Would they still have the sound, would they even know the sound? Would it matter if they had the sound? Sure would to me. Their sound through the decades has formed my idea of the Slavic center. A dark space, a hut, a cathedral with a sharp edge of flame. Is it a hearth fire or the apocalypse? Listen to the last few bars of Boris’ existence in Stokowski’s version and you will hear it in technicolor, death as a stab of light. The darkness visible depth of the Philadelphia string sound with a chiaroscuro oboe.

They still had it. They still had it! How does a band full of folks, many of whom were in conservatory three years ago, know how to do this? Just this year the eminences writing in Gramophone had dropped the Philadelphia from their select list, called them a past glory. (How these eminences managed to be in ten or fifteen cities long enough to have any real idea what their orchestras were actually like was not explained.) How the sound that Rachmaninoff must have heard was coming out of the cellos of the twenty somethings I don’t know either, but it did. The sound teaches itself to the slowly changing orchestra with infinite patience, like a mother.

1 thought on “A Singer's Notes, 3: The Slavic Center – of Norman Treigle and The Philadelphia Orchestra

  1. Norman Treigle is well remembered by all those lucky to have seen him at the NYC Opera , as I did from his lithe Figaro in Mozart’s opera to Gounod’s FAUST, Floyd’s SUSANNAH, several dozen times in Boito’s MEFISTOFELE, and his final performance in Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann.

    Treigle had several bouts of ill-health by then, and for some reason I thought I’d never see him again on the stage. That became true as he died a few years later. But he was the most extraordinary performer I have ever seen on the Operatic stage and the blazing memory of his work still haunts me today.

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