Evocative Bernstein, Machover’s Crowd-Sourced Philadelphia Voices and Spectacular Mussorgsky

United StatesUnited States Bernstein, Machover, Mussorgsky: Dante Michael DiMaio (boy soprano), Westminster Symphonic Choir, Keystone State Boychoir, Pennsylvania Girlchoir, Sister Cities Girlchoir, Philadelphia Orchestra / Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York, 10.4.2018. (RP)

Dante Michael DiMaio & Yannick Nézet-Séguin with the Philadelphia Orchestra
© Jennifer Taylor

BernsteinChichester Psalms
MachoverPhiladelphia Voices (New York Premiere)
MussorgskyPictures from an Exhibition (arr. Maurice Ravel)

The Bernstein centenary is providing an opportunity to reassess his legacy as a composer, with works, both the obscure and the insanely popular, performed everywhere. The Chichester Psalms are among the latter, perhaps because Bernstein chose to heed the Dean of Chichester Cathedral’s advice to give a ‘hint of West Side Story to the music’. The good dean got what he wanted, as Bernstein incorporated music into the cathedral’s commission that had been cut from the musical. The result was one of Bernstein’s most evocative and spiritual works.

Chichester Psalms opened the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Carnegie Hall mixed-bag concert under the baton of its music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, resplendent in a white tunic. The orchestra was magnificent, and Dante Michael DiMaio’s singing of one of Bernstein’s most beautiful vocal lines was purity itself. DiMaio flashed a quick grin after he had sung his last note. Was he relieved to have sung the music flawlessly, or did the boy actually know how special his performance was?

It wasn’t all perfection. Balance was an issue between chorus and orchestra, despite the large number of young singers on stage. The unidentified solo quartet was quite good, especially the soprano who floated lovely high notes. The basses, however, did not have the edge or the depth to do full justice to ‘Lamah rag’shu goyim Ul’umim yeh’gu rik?’ in the middle of the second movement (the bit originally intended for West Side Story). The chorus had some rough patches, especially in the third movement where a phrase simply evaporated, followed by some fudged intonation. The four solo cellos then repeated the same passage – absolute perfection.

Philadelphia Voices is the seventh and latest of Tod Machover’s ‘City Symphonies’ that embrace egalitarianism by inviting source material from anyone who wishes to be involved. Introducing the work, Nézet-Séguin said that the Philly version was a crowd-sourced undertaking; a mobile app collected some 8,000 recordings, and there were countless other old-school, meet-and-greet sessions soliciting input as well. When he said that the voices were predominantly those of Philadelphia’s youth, adding that they are the future and must be heard, applause broke out in the hall.

As a celebration of the city in musical vignettes – its history, diversity, triumphs, challenges and people – Philadelphia Voices succeeds. Musically and artistically, however, Machover does not break new ground. The choral music was pretty run-of-the-mill, while computer technology was used in the sixties and seventies to greater effect in far edgier music. Much fuss has been made over the actual sounds of preparing a cheese steak and the final moments of the Philadelphia Eagles’ 2018 Super Bowl victory, but I would up the ante and add film clips. They would give a glimpse of the city’s grandeur and grit that Machover strived to capture but was lacking in the music.

The most exciting of the musical portraits was ‘Block Party’ with its catchy rhythms and cacophony of sounds. In the city where both the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution were penned, Jacob Weinstein’s text wryly observes that ‘the most democratic document signed in the city is the block party petition’. In ‘My House Is Full of Black People’, references to gerrymandering were accompanied by atonal, jagged sounds in the strings, brass and percussion. There were a lot of young people on stage singing their hearts out, reason enough for me to celebrate Philadelphia Voices.

Pictures from an Exhibition closed the concert and it was pretty spectacular, but one would expect nothing less. The orchestra reveled in Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s popular work, and Carnegie Hall resounded with the grandeur of the blazing brass, the dazzling, deft playing of the woodwinds and the rich carpet of string sound. Nézet-Séguin goes for grandeur and drama and it was there aplenty, but so were the delicate details. As a musical tourist, I would opt for Mussorgsky and Ravel as guides over Machover, but I’m happy to follow the Philadelphia Orchestra anywhere it may lead.

Rick Perdian

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