by Michael Caruso
Nearly 600 music lovers gathered together in the Kimmel Center’s intimate Perelman Theater Sunday, Oct. 21, to celebrate the legacy of Leonard Bernstein. The “Biography in Music” was organized by the Chestnut Hill-based Lyric Fest and presented by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society.
Bernstein, who lived from 1918 until 1990, remains the most all-encompassing classical and popular musician in the history of this country. His prodigious talents included not just composing in a myriad of styles for a plethora of forces, but dazzling gifts as a pianist and transcendent powers as a conductor.
His score for the Broadway musical, “West Side Story,” continues to be ranked as among the finest ever penned in that genre. With the passing of every season, his classical works such as “Chichester Psalms” and “The Age of Anxiety” are more and more viewed with the respect and appreciation they deserve.
His tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic stands as a template for involvement by a classical music ensemble and its director in the social and even political life of the community it serves. His interpretations on the podium with both the New York and Vienna Philharmonics remain the gold standard of personal style and artistic integrity.
Plus, he has a “local connection” to Philadelphia. He attended the Curtis Institute of Music, where he studied with Isabella Vengerova, Fritz Reiner and Virgil Thomson.
Sunday afternoon’s concert was organized by Lyric Fest’s founders and directors, pianist Laura Ward of Chestnut Hill and mezzo-soprano Suzanne DuPlantis of East Falls. DuPlantis’ finely wrought commentary established a revelatory narrative detailing Bernstein’s life and career. Ward’s accompaniment of the concert’s bevy of fine singers reminded one and all that she remains the region’s finest supportive pianist when it comes to collaborating with vocalists. And we got to hear her play the Perelman’s excellent Steinway & Sons concert grand piano, perhaps the finest in the city.
The program spanned a roster of some of Bernstein’s most telling creations, many of which have been overlooked or under-appreciated. For instance, “Lamentations” from the “Jeremiah Symphony” was revealed to be a gorgeous aria sung beautifully by mezzo Elizabeth Shammash. And her pairing with baritone Randall Scarlata in “Well, of All People” from the opera, “Trouble in Tahiti,” was another ear-opener. The work might have a troubled history in the theater, but mightn’t a concert performance work in the right hands?
But the real “star of the show” — other than Bernstein, himself — was his daughter, Jamie. With both intimate insights and an effortlessly expressed wry sense of humor, she read excerpts from her father’s treasure trove of letters with just the right amount of “you know what he meant” in her tone and “you know what I mean” in her inflection. Ms. Bernstein’s father was a trailblazer in so many aspects of his life — musically, socially, politically and sexually. She shared his letters as exuberant revelations.
Coming away from this particular “Biography in Music,” one couldn’t help but feel both sad that we may never see and hear Bernstein’s like again but happy that the record of his genius remains with us today.
Donald Nally and The Crossing presented “The Tower and the Garden” Saturday, Oct. 27, in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. The moniker of the concert was taken from the name of the commissioned work by Gregory Spears that occupied the entire second half of the program and that was far and away the evening’s finest score.
The young composer based his work on three separate texts. The first movement (and its reprise at the conclusion) is entitled “80” and comes from the pen of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. The second movement, “In the Land of Shinar,” is taken from Denise Levertov’s “Evening Train.” The third, “Dungeons Documentary,” comes from “Blue: the Derek Jarman Poems” by Keith Garebian. All three sets of lyrics deal with the many moral crises of the modern world: spiritual, sociological, technological and personal.
Spears’ musical response to these often jarring texts is a score that’s both inventive and accessible. Set for a multi-voiced choir accompanied by a string quartet, Spears’ writing for chorus calls upon the traditions of linear counterpoint producing discernible harmonic progressions within the context of a highly chromatic tonality. And yet, there’s nothing imitative of the past in “The Tower and the Garden.” Its sound is freshly minted and its impact uniquely potent.
Although this performance was its world premiere, Nally and The Crossing performed “The Tower and the Garden” with authority and expressivity.
Prior to the intermission, Nally and The Crossing sang three other works commissioned by the ensemble: Toivo Tulev’s “A child said, what is the grass,” Joel Puckett’s “I enter the earth,” and the world premiere of James Primosch’s “Carthage.”
Both of Chestnut Hill’s Episcopal Churches will mark the ancient Feast of All Souls with performances of acclaimed choral settings of the Roman Catholic Latin Mass for the Dead. All Souls falls on Nov. 2, the day after the Feast of All Saints, Nov. 1. Although the region’s leading “Anglican High Church” parish, St. Mark’s, Locust Street, Philadelphia, will mark the actual day with a performance of Gabriel Faure’s “Requiem Mass” within the liturgy, both St. Paul’s and St. Martin-in-the-Fields will celebrate it on Sunday, Nov. 4, at 5 p.m.
St. Paul’s Church will, indeed, perform the Faure setting within a liturgy of remembrance of those who have died during the past year. Those not familiar with hearing a concert-level setting of the principal parts of the Requiem Mass within the traditional Anglican liturgy of the Episcopal Church, and who are interested in doing so in the future, should note that it’s done every Sunday at St. Mark’s Church under the direction of Robert McCormick.
Only recently, I attended the Choral High Mass at St. Mark’s and heard W.A. Mozart’s “Missa brevis in F-major,” KV 192, along with his “Ave verum corpus” and John Ireland’s “Greater love hath no man.” No professional cathedral choir, even in England itself, could have sung these works more beautifully.
Over at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Mozart’s “Requiem Mass” will be the musical centerpiece but not the entire score we’re accustomed to hearing. The score was completed by Mozart’s student, Franz Xaver Sussmayr, following the composer’s untimely death in 1791. The most likely reason for the rush was to enable Mozart’s widow, Constanze, to collect the money from the original commission. But even though Sussmayr initially maintained that he was simply following Mozart’s intentions — he later asserted that the post-Mozart music was his own — musicians throughout the centuries have always found his work far beneath even Mozart’s least successful scores.
St. Martin’s music director, Erik Meyer, explained that the parish’s choir will only sing the “Requiem Mass” up until the “Domine Jesu Christe” movement and then complete the musical program with the “Laudate Dominum” and “Dixit Dominus” movements from Mozart’s “Solemn Vespers.”
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