Nadine Sierra (soprano), Anthony Roth Costanzo (countertenor) & Stephen Powell (baritone)
Cleveland Orchestra Chorus
Miami Children’s Chorus
Reviewed by: David M. Rice
Reviewed: 26 March, 2015
Venue: Knight Concert Hall, Adrienne Arsht Center, Miami, Florida
The Cleveland Orchestra, joined for the first time in its nine years of residency in Miami by the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, is concluding its season at the Arsht Center with performances of two choral masterpieces. In this concert, the first of three in as many nights, principal guest conductor Giancarlo Guerrero led a sensitive performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and a rousing rendition of Carl Orff’s secular cantata, Carmina Burana.
Chichester Psalms, commissioned for the 1965 Southern Cathedrals Festival, was composed while Bernstein was on sabbatical from his duties as music director of the New York Philharmonic. His score indicates that the soprano and alto choral parts were “written with boys’ voices in mind”, which is how it was performed at Chichester that year. Bernstein wrote that substitution of women’s voices was “possible, though not preferable”, yet when he had given the world premiere with the Philharmonic he used a mixed chorus, as did Guerrero. Bernstein also specified that the second movement solos must not be sung by a woman, but either by a boy treble (as at Chichester) or by a countertenor, the latter option being chosen here. Although Guerrero did not use the composer’s preferred vocal forces, it did not seem to suffer as a result. Anthony Roth Costanzo’s sweet, penetrating voice effectively emulated the youthful shepherd-psalmist David intoning his most famous creation, and the Chorus was exemplary, responding to Guerrero’s often minimal gestures with tonal accuracy, excellent unison and clear diction – the latter not an easy task in this Hebrew-language work. (Printed transliterations and translations of the psalms were provided, with the latter also projected as supertitles.)
The Cleveland Orchestra, heavily stocked with percussion but without woodwinds (trumpets and trombones moved up to where flutes and oboes are usually seated), gave a fine account of Bernstein’s score, portions of which are based on ideas originally intended for West Side Story. The opening chord was indeed a wake-up call accompanying Psalm 108’s admonition to “Awake, psaltery and harp!”, and the performers complied with Psalm 100’s command to “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord”. The initial verse of Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want”, sung by Costanzo to gentle harp strains, was a recurring refrain. The women joined him, but they were suddenly interrupted by the men, crying out (from Psalm 2) “Why do the nations rage?”. Guerrero masterfully balanced this clash of choruses, the men’s voices dying away as the women and Costanzo completed the Twenty-third Psalm, the fine result making a strong case for utilizing a mixed chorus. The Cleveland strings were outstanding in the introduction to the final setting, delicately capped by a muted trumpet, and the choir’s gentle rendition of Psalm 131 was enhanced by cellist Mark Kosower’s gorgeous solo, with countermelodies from two of his colleagues. The final passage, from Psalm 133, “Behold how good and how pleasant it is, for brethren to dwell together in unity”, was beautifully sung ppp, the trumpet playing its motif one last time as the chorus’s “Amen” brought a calm if uplifting conclusion.
For Carmina Burana, the forces that had performed the Bernstein were augmented by woodwinds, the very accomplished Miami Children’s Chorus, and the other vocal soloists. Guerrero, conducting from memory, brought out the enormous range of colors and textures and widely contrasting moods. Without holding back on the bombastic moments, he maintained dynamic balances that allowed each instrument and vocal line to be heard. He also took well-calculated liberties with tempos, speeding up at times yet allowing concluding notes to die away unhurried. The two orchestral dance sections were particularly delightful, the driving rhythms on the violins contrasting with flute and drum and then with raucous brass in ‘Uf dem Anger’, and the stately ‘Reie’ gloriously topped by trumpet cadences. Among many other highlights was the magnificent conclusion to ‘Blanziflor and Helena’ just before ‘Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi’ was reprised as the work’s full-circle epilogue.
Stephen Powell was outstanding in his very demanding part, singing ‘Omnia sol temperat’ not only in beautiful voice, but with real feeling for the text. In the tavern scene, he gave a humorous portrayal of the Abbot’s drunkenness, at first staggering to his feet and, after his song, all but jumping out of his seat as the tuba signaled the chorus’s final laughing “Wafna!”. In ‘Dies, nox et omnia’ he did not shy away from upper-register notes.
Although the part was written for a tenor, Costanzo successfully portrayed the agony of the roasted swan in ‘Olim lacus colueram’. In the “Court of Love” section, Nadine Sierra joined the children in ‘Amor volat undique’ sustaining its final note for what seemed an eternity. Her voice was crystalline in ‘Stetit puella’ and ‘In trutina’ and she capped off her contribution with the brief but lovely ‘Dulcissime’.