Bernstein
Songfest
Dvořák
Carnival – Overture, Op.92
Prokofiev
Cinderella, Op.107 – Suite No.1

Lynn Houghton (soprano)
Zoe South (mezzo-soprano)
Carolyn Filak Royan (mezzo-soprano)
Robert Watson (tenor)
Rob Gildon (baritone)
Keel Watson (bass)

Westminster Philharmonic Orchestra
Jonathan Butcher
The enterprising Westminster Philharmonic celebrated its 30th Anniversary with a suitably festive programme. As an amateur orchestra it has tackled, over the years, some demanding works – not least Mahler symphonies – and this programme demonstrated a spirit of enthusiasm and a willingness to respond to the challenges which taxing music poses to even the most seasoned of professionals.
Dvořák ’s dashing Carnival Overture began the programme. The orchestra immediately displayed the required vigour to convey this colourful score, with some suitably boisterous percussion and bright brass playing. If some detail in the cellos and basses was lost in the mêlée, then this was partly due to the reverberant acoustic; balance-wise, the strings as a whole were at something of a disadvantage throughout, with the wind and brass dominating. But there was some lyrical string playing in the more relaxed moments, and the cor anglais and flute solos were effectively delivered. The varied moods of the piece were well contrasted, although a little more abandon in the wild coda would have been welcome.
Prokofiev’s first suite from his last ballet afforded further opportunity for the solo woodwind and horn to shine. The players rose to the occasion with good phrasing and sense of character. Here again, however, some thinness of upper-string tone was exposed, and Prokofiev’s tricky corners were not always negotiated immaculately. The rather lopsided (on Prokofiev’s part) Mazurka was given with panache, with clear counter-melodies and brazen brass – one or two moments of dubious intonation aside. The strings really dug into Cinderella’s distinctly Tchaikovskian Waltz, but there was a lack of forward propulsion here and elsewhere which might have lent the performance overall a lighter touch. The clock striking midnight was appropriately dramatic; the horns ensured that this passage did not pass by without a hint of danger. The whole ensemble blended well in the final peroration.
The choice of Leonard Bernstein’s Songfest was an audacious one, and a rare opportunity to hear the work live. There have, hitherto, been less than a handful of performances in this country – two of them conducted by the composer – and all credit to the Westminster Philharmonic for programming this taxing piece.
Songfest consists of settings of American poems sung by six singers – in varying combinations and as solos – the texts of which span some three hundred years. Intended to celebrate the American bicentennial the work, as was invariably the case with Bernstein, was completed late and first performed in 1977, although various individual settings had been performed previously. It was written during a troubled time in Bernstein’s private and public life, but the spirit of hope and optimism prevails, although there are some reflective and indeed darker moments in its twelve sections. The opening ’To the Poem’, a hymn-like setting for all the singers, revealed some difficulties which prevailed throughout this performance, the main one being of balance. The orchestration is admittedly quite hefty in places and very judicious balancing is needed – along with very powerful projection from the singers – if the all-important words are to make their mark.
This was not always the case on this occasion, with some of the singers struggling valiantly to be heard. Baritone Rob Gildon was heard to good effect in the nervy, jazzy setting of ’The Pennycandystore beyond the El’, although a more hushed, anxious accompaniment would have been appropriate, but was even better in ’To what you said’, that touching setting of Walt Whitman’s posthumously-published declaration of his homosexuality. The poised calm of the music was not fully realised due to some discrepancy of tempo, but the cello solo at the start was most expressively played.
Lynn Houghton had difficulty projecting the Spanish text of ’A Julia de Burgos’ but the orchestra relished the opportunity to let rip in one of Bernstein’s wild outbursts, as it did in the bluesy/big-band middle section of ’I, too, sing America’ and ’Okay Negroes’ where Zoe South and Keel Watson put forward their contrasting views on black Americans with an apt sense of conflict. Repose follows in ’To my dear and loving husband’, where the three female soloists sing a restrained trio in close harmony. Unfortunately, the voices did not blend ideally, and the accompaniment needed more-gentle handling.
The duet ’Storyette H.M’ and the central sextet ’...if you can’t eat you got to...’ were both marred by rhythmic uncertainty and some false entries, though the hushed close of the latter drew a good blend from the singers. The ambiguities of ’Music I heard with you’ were convincingly conveyed by Zoe South with poised and delicate orchestral playing, but Robert Watson was too polite for the gyrating belly-dance of ’Zizi’s Lament’ where there was once again some vivid playing – snaky bassoon and cor anglais, with slithering trombones conveying the bitterness of Bernstein’s setting. Carolyn Filak Royan was properly anguished in ’What my lips have kissed’ (Bernstein’s favourite from the cycle) – perhaps too much in places and the climactic high A-flat was a bit of a struggle. The ghostly, muttering coda with sinister low strings and percussion was eerily evocative. The final sextet-setting of Poe’s ’Israfel’ needed a firmer rhythmic sense, but the tuned percussion rose to the occasion when the poet refers to ’those unusual strings’ and Bernstein responds with some virtuoso writing.
All told, one admired the courage of mounting a performance of this demanding work. The Westminster Philharmonic’s anniversary was marked in fine style.

 

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