Atlanta Symphony Orchestra/Robert Spano in New York – Appalachian Spring, Chichester Psalms, Belshazzar’s Feast

Appalachian Spring – Suite
Chichester Psalms
Belshazzar’s Feast

John Holiday (countertenor)

Brett Polegato (baritone)

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
Robert Spano

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 27 October, 2012
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Robert Spano. Photograph: J. D. ScottThe Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, with music director Robert Spano, visited Carnegie Hall for a concert that featured two choral masterpieces – Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast.

In the Suite from Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, the Atlanta SO evoked the pioneering spirit and optimism of early settlers in the hills of Pennsylvania – the subject of the ballet choreographed by Martha Graham. The connection with Appalachia seems perfect, yet it was never intended by Copland, whose title was simply ‘Ballet for Martha’. It was Graham who gave the work its story – and its title, a phrase borrowed from a Hart Crane poem. Copland’s suite for orchestra sacrifices some of the charm of the 13-piece chamber ensemble original, but preserves the delightful and characterizing woodwind timbres, played extremely well by the ASO’s members.

No woodwinds are needed for Chichester Psalms, commissioned for the Southern Cathedrals’ Festival by Dean Walter Hussey. Bernstein sets three complete Psalms and selections from three others – in their original Hebrew. The Atlanta Symphony Chorus employed both male and female voices, as in the 1965 world premiere by the New York Philharmonic conducted by the composer rather than the tenor/bass chorus that he preferred as heard a couple of weeks later at Chichester Cathedral in England.

The first of the work’s three sections begins with a literal wake-up call (from Psalm 108), which was appropriately rendered by the Chorus and the orchestra’s brass and percussion; and singers and orchestra fully complied with Psalm 100’s command to “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord”. In the centerpiece, Psalm 23, countertenor John Holiday (rather than the more-usual treble) sang with extraordinary sweetness and solidity of tone. In the interlude preceding the final section, incisive strings were interrupted by fine contributions from harp and trumpet, and the Chorus paused in its excellent rendition of Psalm 131 for a lovely cello solo. The a cappella rendition of the closing verses, extolling brotherhood and unity, was particularly touching.

The highlight of the concert was the blazing performance of Belshazzar’s Feast. Brett Polegato gave an impressive and stirring account of the narrative crafted by Osbert Sitwell from an episode in the Book of Daniel, and the Chorus sang with great energy and clarity of diction. They shared the narrative function with Polegato and brilliantly adapted to the music’s varied moods, singing in hushed tones of weeping (“By the waters of Babylon”), shocking listeners with their incisive “Slain!” at the crucial point of the drama, and softly noting, unaccompanied, the onset of silence and darkness just before the final glorious “Alleluia!”.

Spano opted against employing two physically opposed brass ensembles (a watered-down alternative allowed in the score), instead seating these instruments in a straight line across the stage; and, from the ominous opening to the tremendous closing chords, these musicians weighed in with such power. A trumpet fanfare and a grand march accompanied Polegato and choristers as they sang the praises of the gods – of silver, iron, wood and stone. The combined AS forces were spectacular in the transition from the king’s demise to rejoicing – and this was quite a calling-card for the Atlantans to have left behind in New York.

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