The connective tissue between tonight’s three works was easily discernible. All were works of genuine religious feeling, drawing specifically on the prayers, traditions or metaphysics of Catholicism. The concert opened with Poulenc’s Salve Regina (1941), a work composed when, bereaved by the sudden death of a dear friend, Poulence visited a Marian shrine, and rooted himself again in a faith he had shelved. A work for a cappella choir, the Kansas City Symphony Chorus, under the director Charles Bruffy, gave a sweet and sensitive rendition, attune to the tenderness of the words, and the swelling of the pleas for mercy and grace.

Michael Stern © Todd Rosenberg
Michael Stern
© Todd Rosenberg

The Salve Regina was followed, almost without pause, by Stravinsky’s Symphony of the Psalms (1930, revised 1948), a work composed for the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony, but actually performed first in Brussels. It is a work of profound depths, covering the gamut of prayer in the words of three Psalms in the Latin Vulgate – praise, petition, plea, hope, fear. The two flanking movements were the most convincing tonight. In the first, tensions were held well between the voices, and the dramatic contrasts of tone gave the fears and hopes of the psalmist an existential edge. Michael Stern, who clearly felt passionately about the work, worked the orchestral and choral soundscape into a beautifully sustained ending in the first movement. Likewise, in the third movement, he shaped a climax of sound nobly from within.

There were certainly elements that could have stood out somewhat more. In the opening of the third movement, the men’s voices needed more richness and colour. In the softer parts of the second movement, voices sounded a little too faded to retain a real, if hushed intensity. I found the ending a little disappointing in terms of the quality of sound; the piece is meant to transcend itself in a paean of divine praise, but it did not quite reach those heights of musicianship.

The musicologist Deryck Cooke contends that Bruckner’s symphonic music is like walking around a cathedral, taking in the variety of different aspects of it: Bruckner does not set out to bring his audience on a goal-directed journey. Contemplation rather than teleology, you might say. By that token, Stern will have been pleased with what he elicited from the orchestra tonight, in the performance of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony (1883). In tempo, expressiveness, and a sense of mystical gravitas, it was a pleasing performance. There was rich playing from the strings in particular: lyrical, dark, intense, brooding, and sometimes sourly sweet. The climaxes were carefully shaped from within: full of purpose and sustained sounds. The massive work came across as authentic, fervent even: it came together as a whole.

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