“My idea,” Music Director Thomas Heuser said in an interview earlier this year about the Bernstein centennial (1918-2018), “was to present works of a celebratory nature, works with the same kind of unbridled enthusiasm that Bernstein himself embodied as a musician.”
Leonard Bernstein was born in 1918 and died in 1990. This year, the world has celebrated his birth centennial with worldwide performances of his symphonies, his opera “Candide” (Los Angeles and Santa Fe Opera companies, among others), revivals of his Broadway hit “West Side Story” (Pagosa Springs Performing Arts Center, among others), his film scores, orchestral suites and other works.
In short, 2018 has brimmed with all kinds of Bernstein tributes. Last winter, The New York Philharmonic performed all three symphonies. The Philadelphia Orchestra, the National and Boston Symphonies began their seasons with Bernstein galas. The Los Angeles Philharmonic and Chamber Orchestra both offered Bernstein’s violin concerto, the incredibly beautiful “Serenade.” The London Symphony will conclude the year with Bernstein’s Second Symphony (“The Age of Anxiety”) plus the concert version of “Wonderful Town.” And now, our regional orchestra presents its final centennial tribute this weekend.
On Saturday and Sunday, conductor Heuser and Co. will round out the 2018 celebration of America’s most prolific composer by performing Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms.”
What’s been called one of the most complete musical expressions of sheer joy, the “Chichester Psalms” came into being in 1964-65. Commissioned by Walter Hussey, the enlightened dean of England’s Chichester Cathedral, the three-movement work intertwines various biblical psalms and is sung in Hebrew. Having met the composer in the early 1960s and learning about Bernstein’s “West Side Story,” Hussey encouraged Bernstein to write freely: “Many of us would be very delighted if there was a hint of ‘West Side Story’ about the music,” he wrote in a letter.
Early in summer 1965, Bernstein himself conducted the official world premiere at New York’s Philharmonic Hall with the orchestra and Camerata Singers. In July, the Chichester Summer Festival presented the work in the cathedral.
In a letter to Hussey, Bernstein summed up his view of the commission, especially noting the freedom to incorporate so-called “popular” musical elements: “It has an old-fashioned sweetness along with its more violent moments.”
The work interlaces at least two psalms, a full text of one and an extract from another in each of the three movements, contrasting often in theme and texture. Scored for strings, a large, Bernsteinian percussion section, six brass, two harps, mixed chorus and boy soprano, it’s a massive undertaking.
Music director of the Durango Choral Society, Linda Mack Berven, invited Virginia Nickels-Hircock and her Caliente Community Chorus from Farmington to join in the Bernstein celebration.
“It’s been a wonderful, musical challenge,” Mack Berven said. “Not the least of which has been teaching our singers to sing in Hebrew.”
“When Linda called me to talk about a soloist, “I immediately said Ben Hinkley.” said director of the Durango Children’s Chorale, Amy Barrett. She said she has watched and admired Hinkley’s musicianship over the years. “He’s the perfect singer for this concert.”
For the second half of the program, Heuser has programmed Brahms’ Symphony No 1 in C minor. The four-movement work is immense and traverses an emotional landscape that ends in a redemptive finale.
Making good on its season theme, “Energy in Action,” the final Bernstein celebration concert is sponsored by Jim and Nancy Fisher in memory of Beverly Danielson.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.