In this year of the Bernstein centenary, there’s no dearth of performances of the iconic composer’s music – at least here in America. This Minnesota Orchestra concert led by Andrew Litton was no exception, with half of the program being taken up by two Bernstein compositions. Fancy Free is an early Bernstein creation, dating from 1944 when the composer was just 26 years old. Yet it’s a highly representative work – indeed, one of the best examples of Bernstein’s use of dance rhythms and jazz idioms in his music.

Minnesota Orchestra © Isaac Risseeuw
Minnesota Orchestra
© Isaac Risseeuw

Most probably, US audiences have had more opportunities to hear the piece in concert in 2018 than ever before. I reviewed another Fancy Free performance earlier this year, presented by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra conducted by Fabien Gabel. Compared to that performance – and indeed to others that I’ve heard – I found the Minnesota outing curiously uninvolving. There was plenty of rhythmic bite, but little discernible differentiation in dynamic range throughout the 25-minute suite of dances.

Instrumental ensemble was fine and the various solo turns were handled deftly, but the end result was a rather characterless performance. Some passages seemed stuck on one volume level (“loud”), which in the end made the presentation sound – dare I say it – rather dull. It surprised me. For the other works on the program, the orchestra was joined by a well-prepped Minnesota Chorale for Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and Sir William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast. The Walton piece was never supposed to become famous. It was a one-off creation for the 1931 Leeds Triennial Music Festival, and it was the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham who advised Walton that he might as well use all of the extensive choral and instrumental forces at his disposal (including antiphonal trumpets) in his composition because “you’ll never hear the thing again.” Perhaps the composer was as surprised as anyone that Belshazzar’s Feast went on to become a staple of the choral repertoire, beloved by singers, musicians and audiences alike.

The Minnesota Chorale’s presentation was highly effective, providing dramatic contrasts in the beginning sections (“Thus Spake Isaiah” and “If I Forget Thee”) – then switching gears in their colorful depiction of the grand feast, the king’s murder, and the rejoicing of the Hebrews. Christopher Maltman’s baritone solo passages were persuasive and colorful in the opening sections, but when he decided to become more stentorian in his declamatory solo introducing the feast, his voicing took on an unpleasant tone with excessive vibrato (and intonation approximate at best). It was a miscalculation. In the grand celebration that followed (“Praise Ye the God of Gold”), the forward propulsion that is innate to this music somehow lagged. Litton’s somewhat stolid tempo may have been partially the cause, but I think it was also the lack of dynamic contrasts, which are so critical to making the music soar even in its loudest and most forceful passages. That didn’t happen tonight; instead, I found my mind wandering when it should have been fully engaged.

One other aspect of the performance, which had little to do with the music we were hearing, was an intrusion nevertheless. The way the percussion instruments were arrayed on the stage had one of the players frantically racing back and forth between stations. It was the kind of visual distraction that couldn’t help but get in the way of fuller enjoyment of the concert.

Happily, the choral and orchestral forces were brought together in a second piece which turned out to be the pinnacle of the evening: Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. Reportedly, Bernstein wanted this music to be “forthright, songful, rhythmic and youthful”, in which he clearly succeeded. Similarly, the members of the Minnesota Chorale succeeded beyond measure in bringing forth those very qualities as part of their exemplary interpretation.

At the outset, the Chorale voiced the words of Psalm 108 with crisp diction and incisive singing. The contrasting 23rd Psalm was beautifully presented by the chorus and orchestra, ably assisted by boy soprano Kevin Torstenson, who was a last-minute replacement for an indisposed Nick Cecchi. The third and final part of Chichester began with an elegiac introduction played with subdued passion by the orchestra’s string section, leading to a quietly intense setting of Psalm 131. The quartet of cellos called for in this section were gorgeously silken, as were the unaccompanied voices intoning the verse from Psalm 133 to end the piece.

I often smile at the little ditty that Bernstein wrote once about his Chichester Psalms: “These Psalms are a simple and modest affair – tonal and tuneful and somewhat square.” In tonight’s performance, “tonal and tuneful and somewhat square” turned out to be the winning ticket, making Chichester the crowning achievement of the evening’s concert.