A fitting conclusion to the city's Bernstein in Chichester festival

Leonard Bernstein (credit Allan  Warren)
Leonard Bernstein (credit Allan Warren)

REVIEW by Noel Osborne

A year-long celebration of Leonard Bernstein’s centenary, imaginatively conceived and brilliantly executed by Emma-Jane Wyatt and Edward Milward-Oliver, reached its climax over the weekend of 23/24 November. The composer/conductor’s connection with Chichester dates from 1965 when his Southern Cathedrals Festival commission from Dean Walter Hussey, ‘Chichester Psalms’, was premièred in the Cathedral by the choirs of Salisbury, Winchester and Chichester.

Since that time this popular choral work has been performed around the world and recorded many times.

The final act of the whole celebration was a concert in the Cathedral with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under their Conductor Emeritus, Marin Alsop, one of Bernstein’s best known pupils, who revered him as her hero, and the three Cathedral choirs. Alexander Bernstein, the composer’s son, was present, as indeed he had been in 1965, and he was clearly very moved by the warmth of his welcome back to Chichester.

The programme combined the music of Bach and Bernstein, opening with the latter’s Symphony No. 1 ‘Jeremiah’. The composer’s initial idea was for a Lamentation for soprano and orchestra, and its roots go back to music Bernstein heard as a boy in the synagogue. The BSO fully met the challenges of the score, playing with virtuosity and fervour in the first two movements, not least in the string tune central to the scherzo, and matching the full, rich tone of the soprano soloist, Michelle De Young, in the finale.

There followed three Bach motets, conducted in turn by the three Cathedral organists. Here the ‘football stand’ layout did not help the unaccompanied singers, and there were problems of ensemble and precision. It might have been better for each of these fine choirs to contribute something on its own.

No matter. The main focus of the evening was, naturally, on the Psalms, which received a stunning performance, the choirs coping well with the Hebrew texts, and being alert to all the demands of tempi, rhythm and balance. Jago Brazier, the treble soloist, sang the middle movement with great clarity and maturity, his expressive voice reaching the furthest corners of the building with ease. You may never hear this work sung or played better.

The final verse of the selected texts is: Behold how good and joyful a thing it is, brethren, to dwell together in unity. Another favourite text of Bernstein was given as an encore in a glorious, full-bodied rendering of the final chorus from Candide: ‘We’ll build our home, and chop our wood, and make our garden grow’.

What better tribute to the inspirational collaboration between Walter Hussey and Leonard Bernstein, which from unlikely beginnings delivered an enduring masterpiece?

Noel Osborne

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