May 18, 2006

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CLASSICAL REVIEWS
Reviews by Jeff Rapsis jrapsis@hippopress.com

Group adds some syncopated spring to spring concert
Review: Concord Chorale tackles Bernstein 0/18: Music history is studded with figures who created a great stir during their lives but then faded into obscurity. If flamboyant pianist/composer/conductor (and now late) Leonard Bernstein will escape that fate, it'll likely be for the same reason we continue to celebrate Liszt and Rachmaninoff and Paganini today—because of stuff they wrote down.

Bernstein died only 16 years ago, so it's really too early to gauge the staying power of his "serious" music, as opposed to popular stuff like the songs from West Side Story. But if Bernstein's concert scores are to endure at all, it'll be due to conductors such as Ryan Turner of the Concord Chorale, who's willing to root around in Lenny's trunk and tackle some of the tougher scores.

Taking the "Bernstein Connection" as his theme, Turner made the composer the focus of the Chorale's spring performances. The result, heard last weekend at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Concord, was a worthy program that reminded audiences that Bernstein was about a lot more than just the "Officer Krupke" song.

The main work, Bernstein's Chichester Psalms (1965), stood tall and strong. With Turner guiding the way through the many uneven rhythmic patterns, the three-movement piece radiated plenty of raw sonic energy even in the reduced-calorie score for organ, harp and percussion (as opposed to full orchestra).

A highlight was 5th-grader Sam Zuk of Littleton, who sang the second movement's prominent boy soprano part. Zuk has a sweet and ringing voice that easily filled the church and carried the music along with grace and delicacy.

Zuk needs to be sure those long held notes don't morph into something unintended before they're done, but overall his work was fine. Equally impressive were several soloists drawn from the Chorale, especially the golden high note of soprano Binney Wells near the end.

The Chorale also captured the composer's unmistakable spirit in three excerpts from Bernstein's Mass (1971) that opened the concert. Making good use of a full-bodied ensemble sound, Turner drew localized crescendos on key words, making the most of the work's theatrical possiblities.

One complaint about the Mass excerpts was the placement of the piano, which was way off to the side and sounded a million miles away. It's hard for the keyboard to be an equal partner or to blend well with the chorus in that situation.

Rounding out the Bernstein tribute was a choral setting of the "Make Our Garden Grow" number from the musical-operetta Candide (1956), which featured fine solo work from tenor Leslie Combs and powerhouse singing from soprano Paula Cabot. Despite some unfortunate synchronization issues stemming from the soloists being unable to see Turner, it made for a moving conclusion to the concert.

A rendition of four gypsy songs by Brahms showed room for improvement. Sung in German (and by many singers with heads buried in their music), many plosive consonants come out in machine gun style (instead of in crisp unison) and pronunciation at times was sloppy—for example, the chorus consistently sang the "st" sound (as in the verb "steht) as "sht," which isn't correct.

Better results came with Copland's Old American Songs. Not only was the text in familiar English, but the chorale memorized their parts. This eemed to help Turner get the group to function at a higher level of unity.

A convincingly dramatic excerpt from Samuel Barber's now-obscure opera Vanessa (1958) was thrown in, too, making the spring concert very much of the "less-trodden-path" variety. As demonstrated by Turner and the Concord Chorale singers, it's a route worth taking a lot more often.
— Jeff Rapsis


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