Stephen Paulus: To Be Certain of the Dawnby Osmo Vänskä
American composer Stephen Paulus wrote his oratorio "To Be Certain of the Dawn" on commission from Minneapolis' Basilica of Saint Mary as a gift to Temple Israel Synagogue, so it's appropriate that the first of the three sections of the libretto by Michael Dennis Browne deals with Christian repentance for the church's role in the Holocaust. The second section focuses on the experience of Jews during the Holocaust, and the third on the present time and the vision of true reconciliation and cooperation between people of all faiths. It's not surprising that Paulus, whose extensive catalog of sacred music has fallen largely within the Christian tradition, is moved to produce his most profound and heartfelt music in the first and last sections. The dilemma of any composer (or any artist) trying to depict the Holocaust is that the unimaginable extent of its tragedy tends to render inadequate most attempts to give expression to it, and this is true of Paulus' music, which is warmly lyrical and post-Romantic in its idiom and seems pale in its depiction of the immense suffering described. The first and last sections, though, trigger an intensity and authenticity in his response that give the music real power. The hour-long work receives a fine performance from the Minnesota Orchestra, led by Osmo Vänskä, along with Minnesota Chorale, Minnesota Boychoir, the Basilica Cathedral Choir, and the Cathedral Choristers. Among the soloists, cantor Barry Abelson and soprano Elizabeth Futral are standouts. BIS' sound is adequate, but somewhat remote. Although the oratorio may not fully realize its creators' ambitious intent, it remains a moving and earnest work that should reward fans of new lyrical choral literature.
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