Pleasing Bernstein arrangements at Rush Hour Concerts

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

This year has been filled with concerts to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein. (He was born on Aug. 25, 1918.) A multi-talented musician — conductor, composer, pianist, lecturer, and author — he became one of the world’s most famous faces in the classical music realm of the 20th century.

Earlier this summer I wrote about “Chichester Psalms” (a work Bernstein completed in 1965), performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus at Ravinia. In its original form, it is a work for large forces. Yet Bernstein himself recognized that the piece had potential for a smaller collection of musicians and created an arrangement which maintained the choral and boy soprano parts, but reduced the orchestra to harp, percussion, and organ.

Rush Hour Concerts, an arm of the International Music Foundation (which also produces the Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concerts in Preston Bradley Hall at the Chicago Cultural Center), offered up the reduced “Chichester Psalms” for their last Rush Hour concert of the season, held at St. James Cathedral, a stone’s throw from the Miracle Mile.

Stephen Buzard, the director of music at St. James, served as the conductor. The choir was his own St. James Cathedral Choir, a half-and-half mix of professional and volunteer singers. Eleanor Kirk, the principal harpist with the Civic Orchestra, was one soloist along with St. James organist Mary Pan, and the percussionist for the University of Chicago’s Grossman Ensemble, John Corkill.

Anthony Devroye performed Leonard Bernstein’s Sonata, Op. 1, Aug. 28, as part of International Music Foundation’s Rush Hour Concert at St. James Cathedral, 65 E. Huron St. -Photo courtesy of the International Music Foundation
An organ cannot replace everything in an orchestra, yet the deep sounds and textures of that instrument offer compelling music and give the “Psalms” a different feel, one that remains exciting and stimulating. Pan played with both vigor and commitment. At times the roaring organ completely enveloped the space, seeming to swirl with hurricane force. Kirk’s harp added ecclesiastical elegance and lovely calm. Corkill — whose percussion instruments for the performance included bass and snare drums, crash and suspended cymbals, a wide assortment of mallets and sticks, as well as triangle — punctuated the work with powerful accents and gentle tingles, adding depth and drama. (The full orchestral score, which Corkill has also performed, calls for five percussionists!)

The choir stumbled a few times and the acoustically live room sometimes muddied their sound considerably, but their dedication to the music was clear. The four soloists drawn from the choir were sturdy and sang with good force.

William Lewis did fine work as the boy soprano. His voice was clear, pure, and plangent. He sang with confidence and conveyed the meaning of the text admirably.

The full effect of the music was powerful and Buzard marshaled his musicians well, paying close attention to dynamics and phrasing. As the texts are set to the Hebrew version of the Psalms, a translation is usually offered to the audience (in either the program or in projected titles), but while neither were offered here, the feeling was nonetheless conveyed.

The concert opened with Bernstein’s first published work, completed in 1942, his Sonata, Op. 1. Written for clarinet and piano, it has been arranged for other instruments, including a cello and piano version created by Yo-Yo Ma. In this concert, an arrangement for viola and piano was performed. This version was created by Raphael Hillyer, a classmate, friend, and recital partner of the composer at Harvard. Hillyer would later go on to be the founding violist of the Juilliard String Quartet.

Kuang-Hao Huang performed Leonard Bernstein’s Sonata, Op. 1, Aug. 28, as part of International Music Foundation’s Rush Hour Concert at St. James Cathedral, 65 E. Huron St. -Mari Nord
Anthony Devroye of the Avalon String Quartet (and artistic director of Rush Hour Concerts) took the viola part and pianist Kuang-Hao Huang of Fulcrum Point New Music Project, took the piano.

They were a well-matched pair with the two of them luxuriating in the long meandering lines. The viola opened with warm and melting melodies and the piano was clear and bright. The first of the two movements ends triple-p, and the pair rendered this as a beautifully hushed whisper.

The final movement began with pretty playing that never veered into sentimentality. As the end approached, the meter became more irregular. In a pre-concert lecture, Devroye described this section of the score as being characterized by “irregular irregularity.” The pair deftly navigated the change in meter and brought the work to a glorious conclusion.

To learn more about the International Music Foundation’s free concerts, visit their website at www.imfchicago.org. The next Dame Myra Hess concert is today at 12:15 in Preston Bradley Hall (78 E. Washington St.) and features cellist Riana Anthony.