A Machover Premiere Celebrates the City of Brotherly Love

13/04/2018

Bernstein, Machover, Musorgsky (orch. Ravel): Westminster Symphonic Choir (Joe Miller, director) Keystone State Boychoir and Pennsylvania Girlchoir (Stephen M. Fisher, artistic director), Sister Cities Girlchoir (Alysia Lee, artistic director), Temuri Tavelishvili (boy soprano), Ben Bloomberg (audio technology), Philadelphia Orchestra / Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 7.4.2018. (BJ)

Bernstein – Chichester Psalms

MachoverPhiladelphia Voices (Philadelphia Orchestra commission, world premiere)

Musorgsky (orch. Ravel)Pictures at an Exhibition

In clear contrast to the view of Sibelius, who regarded straight and narrow adherence to disciplined logic as essential to the craft of symphonic composition, Gustav Mahler declared that ‘A symphony must be like the world…it must contain everything!’ If Tod Machover, in his series of ‘City Symphonies’ (there are by now seven of them) does not go quite that far, the one he has written in response to a commission from Philadelphia’s orchestra nevertheless comes across as a creation open to the world and indeed drawing on an omnivorous variety of materials ranging from the literary, by way of quotations from our contemporaries, to evocations of visual, social, and traditional elements that vividly express the character of this one specific corner of the world.

One reaction that I think few listeners will have to Philadelphia Voices would be to accuse it of gentility. The piece is a gigantic jamboree. It does not hold back, in the challenging context of the world as it is, from skewering some aspects of the city’s past and present, though these are vastly overweighted by the celebration of all that makes this such a great, genial, humane, and still improving city. I have, by the way, not encountered Ben Bloomberg before, but I should like to stress that the work, given in this third in a three-day set of premieres in a performance that wonderfully communicated the tone of positively rhapsodic enthusiasm voiced in Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s introductory remarks, could not have made anything like so scintillating an impression without the clarity Mr Bloomberg’s audio technology brought to it.

The new work reflected so much glory on all the multitudinous forces involved, and it epitomized so essentially communal an enterprise, that on this occasion I think picking out individuals for praise would be inappropriate. It was preceded on the program, in continuing celebration of the Bernstein centenary, by that composer’s Chichester Psalms. Joe Miller’s Westminster Symphonic Choir presented it with an excellent mixture of zestful ardor and rapt contemplation, and Temuri Tavelishvili, the boy soprano soloist in the performance I heard, achieved some genuinely touching moments.

Having given us this thoroughly traditional account of what surely ranks as one of Bernstein’s finest works, Nézet-Séguin proceeded after intermission to lead a performance of the Musorgsky/Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition that at many points sounded not traditional at all. He had clearly devoted some very conscientious thought to the score. As a result, I heard things in it that I hadn’t been aware of before, and music too often treated as a matter of routine emerged with its fundamental freshness gratifyingly restored and reinvigorated.

Bernard Jacobson

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