by Paul Robinson
|Maestro Peter Bay|
Toccata and Fugue in D minor BWV 565*
Symphony of Psalms**
Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor BWV 582**
Hella Johnson/ conductor*
It was a clever idea to program
together two important Twentieth Century musical settings of psalms, one by
Igor Stravinsky and the other by Leonard Bernstein. While the texts are drawn
from the same source, the music could hardly be more different. Stravinsky’s Symphony
of Psalms is cool and austere while Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms” is
emotional and more popular in style.
The juxtaposition of these compositions
was both absorbing and thought-provoking. The Stravinsky piece is from the
composer’s neo-classical period and treats the psalm texts in a largely
abstract way. One might say that Stravinsky - the man and the artist - was himself
“abstract”. He famously postulated that music was by its very nature “incapable
of expressing anything;” in other words, it should be understood as organized
sounds rather than as a depiction of feelings or things outside itself.
Bernstein, on the other hand, was
inspired by Mahler and the idea that music could express all manner of deep
thoughts about life. Bernstein the conductor interpreted most music this way
and in his own compositions, he was seldom abstract. His pieces are nearly
always about something.
In the performances of these works by
the Conspirare Symphonic Chorus and the Austin Symphony on this evening, there
was another contrast to consider. Two conductors shared the podium over the
course of the evening: Peter Bay, the Austin Symphony’s music director led the
Stravinsky, and Craig Hella Johnson, (photo: right) the director of Conspirare conducted the
Bernstein. Bay’s rather reserved and analytical persona was perfectly suited to
the Stravinsky, and Johnson’s more physical and extroverted conducting style
was ideal for the Bernstein.
The program’s two fine choral works
were nicely balanced by two Stokowski orchestrations of organ works by Bach. These
orchestrations are unabashedly romantic in style and sound more like Wagner or Richard
Strauss than Bach. Purists indubitably find such orchestrations entirely
inappropriate, but so much the worse for them. Not many concertgoers attend
organ recitals and consequently rarely encounter these great works in their
original versions. In orchestrating these pieces Stokowski made them available
to a much larger audience.
Johnson conducted the famous Toccata
and Fugue – one of Stokowski’s signature pieces in concert and in the film Fantasia – with excellent control and a fine sense of drama. Peter Bay handled the Passacaglia
and Fugue in C minor with equal mastery.
These organ pieces may sound like
Wagner or Strauss to the purist “ear”, but the comparison is ultimately
superficial. The “sound” comes from an enlarged orchestra and the instruments
available to Stokowski, but the essence of the music remains the creation of
the original composer – J.S. Bach.
The imaginative improvisatory music
which opens the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, the glorious theme which is the
basis of the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, the complex contrapuntal
writing, and the beautifully constructed climaxes are all the work of one
incomparable composer of the Baroque era – J.S. Bach. Bach’s compositional style
was, and remains unique and these are two of his greatest works; they are in no
way diminished by being orchestrated by a musician of the stature of Stokowski
- quite the contrary.
The hit of the evening was undoubtedly
the performance of Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. With its jazzy rhythms in
the first movement and the heartfelt plea for peace which ends it, the work has
become a favorite with audiences around the world. Tonight’s performance was
superb, with the choir much more disciplined and scrupulous about intonation
than it had been in the Stravinsky. Young boy soprano Lucas Revering was a
little timid in his solo but his contribution was nonetheless touching.
Labels: Austin Symphony, bach, Bernstein, classical music, Concert_Review, conductors, Conspirare, Craig Hella Johnson, Long Center, Stokowski, Stravinsky