Patriotism and the arts are often connected — what American soul isn't lifted by hearing "The Stars and Stripes Forever," after all? — but music trumped politics Sunday afternoon in the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park's last concert of the season.
The concert's original title and theme, "Victory and Triumph," was derailed by tensions in Ukraine after performers expressed concerns about a pro-Russian piece on the program. Retooled and renamed "Nationalism and Music," the show went on.
And music lovers of all political opinions are fortunate that it did.
The "Alexander Nevsky Suite," the pro-Russian work, was the finale to the program, performed in Knowles Chapel at Rollins College. Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev wrote the music for a 1938 film about a medieval Russian hero's triumph over Germanic invaders.
Demonstrating the connection between art and politics, the movie was shelved when Stalinist Russia cozied up to Nazi Germany. But when the Nazis turned on their one-time ally, the film was rereleased to great acclaim.
Listening to the Bach society musicians, it was easy to picture the film. A heavy-sounding introductory movement gave way to a straightforward melody with some tricky rhythms well-managed by conductor John Sinclair, followed by a smooth transition to an anthemic chorus as the singers exhorted "Rise against the foe, Russian land arise!"
The singers' sharp accents on their words built a sense of drama. By the time of the "Battle on the Ice" movement, you could hear the enemy horses approaching, faster and faster, in the clip-clop of the percussion.
The theatricality continued with the effectively somber entrance of soloist Margaret Lattimore, who silently took the stage and lamented Russia's fallen. She sang simply and touchingly with a clear understanding no flourishes were needed to convey the emotion of "Field of the Dead."
The "Nevsky Suite" wasn't the society's only triumph, however, Just as stirring — in a different way — were selections from "Frescoes of the St. Sophia Cathedral of Kiev" by Ukrainian composer Valeri Kikta. The reverential opening strains, dynamically led by harp soloist Dawn Marie Edwards, sounded almost mournful — or were current events coloring my perception?
Then, the full orchestra burst into a radiant warmth as uplifting as a sunbeam streaming through a stained-glass window.
An inventive staging of Randall Thompson's "Alleluia" had the choir surround the audience. Acoustics in the chapel kindly let the audience hear a blend of singers and not just those standing nearby.
The U.S. wasn't left out of the nationalism theme. Although the trumpets weren't as precise as one might like at the start of native son Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man," they rebounded to blend beautifully with the harmonies of the lower brass.
In a preshow lecture on the complicated history between Russia and Ukraine, Stetson University professor Mayhill Fowler explained that the arts play an important part in defining a people's identity — but not always in a "let's hold hands and sing 'Kumbaya'" kind of way.
"Culture can be aggressive and build walls, not bridges, between people," she said to the crowd of about 70 who attended her talk. But for one afternoon, at least, Central Floridians could unite in an appreciation of fine music.