Photograph of Leonard Slatkin

Schuller
Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee
Bernstein
Chichester Psalms
Dvorak
Symphony No.9 in E minor, Op.95 (From the New World)

Pablo Strong (treble)
Brighton Festival Chorus
National Symphony Orchestra of Washington DC conducted by Leonard Slatkin
There was very little to criticise and much to applaud at this concert. The Brighton Festival was certainly launched with considerable musical style. The concert opened with a rousing rendition of the American National Anthem, with the Brighton Festival Chorus’s full-throated delivery being especially effective.
The programme proper began with Gunther Schuller’s Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee. Born in 1925, Schuller has been an important figure in various spheres of American music, not only as composer, but also as writer, conductor, historian and educator. These Klee studies were first performed in 1959, but sounded as fresh and inventive as if they were written yesterday – not always the case with much contemporary music. Whilst Schuller’s style is eclectic (a characteristic his music shares with that of Leonard Bernstein), there is nevertheless an individual stamp. These styles range from a Webern/Stockhausen sparseness of texture to a wonderful jazz-like pastiche – each movement reflecting the very personal qualities of the original paintings and most convincingly rendered here by orchestra and conductor.
Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms has now become something of a ’standard’ in the choral repertoire – in spite of its rather unusual orchestration of strings, two harps, brass and percussion. Although Bernstein originally intended the soprano and alto lines to be sung by male voices, his own recordings and sanctions in the score allow for women, with the important exception of the solo voice in the second movement. Here a boy’s voice (the remarkably poised and confident Pablo Strong) intones the words of Psalm 23, suggesting the psalmist David himself, replete with harp accompaniment. The gentle, pastoral quality of this music is rudely interrupted by the men’s voices who declaim the text of Psalm 2 – “Why do the nations so furiously rage together?” – and it is incredible to reflect that this music was originally intended for West Side Story. Very much the case of the secular being turned to the sacred, as it was with Bach.
The chorus and orchestra quite wonderfully delivered the very varied moods of this work. Exuberance in the first movement (a setting of Psalm 100 – “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord”) and touching simplicity in the last (Psalm 131 – “Lord, my heart is not haughty”) received appropriate colour and definition, with the string orchestra prelude to the latter being especially poignant and intense. Leonard Slatkin has done much to promote Bernstein the composer, and this performance was further evidence of his empathy with the music. My only quibble is that the passages set for solo voices were sung chorally. Perhaps this was for reasons of balance but Bernstein’s changes of texture suffered by this decision.
Dvorak’s ’New World’ Symphony – an old war-horse if ever there was one – was given as if newly-minted. There was no hint of routine in this performance. On the contrary, one noted how fresh this music must have sounded when first performed. Once again, Slatkin and his players demonstrated commitment, poise and polish. Altogether, this was a hugely enjoyable concert, rounded off with encores from Walton’s “Henry V” music and Sousa’s Liberty Bell march. Do catch the broadcast tonight.

 

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