Which city do you most associate with Leonard Bernstein? (Clue – It’s a Wonderful Town). Yes, New York of course, but others from Tel Aviv to Tanglewood via Vienna have a claim, as does Chichester, of Chichester Psalms fame. In 2018, the small West Sussex city has become NYC-on-sea, with a year of celebrations of the Bernstein centenary which, in the words of Bernstein pupil Marin Alsop, “no other city can possibly match”. So with the glorious Cathedral standing in for Carnegie Hall this concert was the climactic event of those celebrations, and Alsop conducted the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, bookending the concert with two major Bernstein works, both concerned with faith and using settings in Hebrew of Old Testament texts.

Jago Brazier and Marin Alsop © Nick Cary | Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Jago Brazier and Marin Alsop
© Nick Cary | Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

Bernstein’s Symphony no. 1 “Jeremiah” is from 1942 but the setting for mezzo that forms its last movement, called “Lamentations” after its biblical source, originated in 1939. The first two purely orchestral movements are also each given religious titles, “Prophecy” and “Profanation”. The first movement’s motivic substance is derived (consciously or otherwise) from liturgical material familiar from Bernstein’s traditional Jewish upbringing and depicts the pleading of Jeremiah with his errant people. The Bournemouth players sounded committed and as inside the idiom as Alsop, their former director and now Conductor Emeritus. The virtuosity of the Scherzo second movement was dispatched with aplomb, even if the big string tune in the middle was denied some richness by the reverberant acoustic – which otherwise served the programme very well. The moving finale was sung by Michelle DeYoung with passionate intensity, the rich tone and glorious amplitude of her voice effortlessly conveying this great Hebrew jeremiad the length of the nave and beyond.

The second half featured the Cathedral choirs of Chichester, Winchester and Salisbury. “Chichester Psalms” does not fill a second half so what could they offer as the centrepiece of such a programme? The choice fell upon three of Bach’s motets, each led by one of the directors of those three choirs. The very first Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf sounded a little undercooked from the outset and never quite settled down. The second, Komm, Jesu, komm, fared a little better but had some of the same problems of execution. Only the third motet, Lobet den Herrn made the effect it should. Great as this music can sound with larger choral groups in such spaces, without precise entry timings, metrical alertness or contrapuntal tidiness, then Bach – heresy alert – becomes boring. It was just a couple of rehearsals short of concert-readiness maybe. Would some more familiar music from these wonderfully well-schooled singers’ Anglican tradition have worked better?

<i>Chichester Psalms</i> rehearsal in Chichester Cathedral © Nick Cary | Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Chichester Psalms rehearsal in Chichester Cathedral
© Nick Cary | Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

Chichester Psalms was commissioned by Chichester Cathedral's Dean Walter Hussey, and performed there in Bernstein's presence on 31 July 1965. Marin Alsop prefaced the work with a few remarks on Bernstein, “I miss him every day… great composer, conductor, educator, humanitarian... limerick-writer”. (I’m sure I heard that last one, but alas no examples were offered). The composer’s son, Alexander Bernstein, was there (as he was in 1965), and was invited by Marin Alsop to stand, which he gracefully did, gesturing aloft to the roof of the nave – and whoever was listening beyond. She also invited those present who had sung for the composer in that 1965 performance to stand up. Boys no longer, they were recalling a great day in their distant youth, which must have been a touching moment for them.

Their successors did them proud. Singing in Hebrew – far less familiar to them than Bach’s German – they relished the relative straightforwardness of much of this music, and made this work, given in its orchestral version, sound splendid. Bernstein’s fondness for Latin rhythms drives the 7/4 metre of the first movement, which made “a joyful noise unto the Lord” as Psalm 100 requires, and which the singers relished. Jago Brazier, Head Chorister at Chichester, was the astounding treble soloist in the second movement, not merely accurate and pure-toned, but maturely expressive in his phrasing. “Not sentimental” the singers are instructed for the third movement, and Alsop and her three choirs kept the right side of the line between sentiment and sentimentality (in which respect Alsop did better than the composer in his 1977 recording).

This great occasion ended ideally with the slow fade on the lines from Psalm 133:

“Behold how good and how pleasant it is,

For Brethren to dwell together in unity.”

Which as a final message from the composer required no encore, surely. Except that Marin Alsop found the perfect envoi in the soaring final chorus from Candide: “We’ll build our home, and chop our wood, and make our garden grow” – another of Bernstein’s affirmations of faith. Cue suppressed sniffs from anyone who had a dry eye after the Psalms. “Not sentimental”? Lenny would have loved it.

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