There was a time when any performance of a choral work by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus was a good bet for a sold-out house, especially with not just one but two significant choral-orchestral works on the bill. But at Thursday night’s performance in Symphony Hall, there were a visibly uncomfortable number of empty seats on ground level.
The concert, which will be repeated tonight (Saturday), is significant because it will also be performed October 27 at Carnegie Hall in New York.
Music Director Robert Spano and the orchestra opened with the suite from Aaron Copland’s ballet “Appalachian Spring.” While the ballet was originally scored for a chamber orchestra of 13 instruments, Copland expanded the instrumentation for the 25-minute concert suite to full orchestra. Spano led the ASO in a clean, unambiguous performance of this popular work, with no surprises.
Next up was the first of the evening’s two choral works, Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms,” sung in Hebrew. Although the ASO had not performed it since 1995, it is undertaken with reasonable frequency by choral groups, even if too often at a mediocre level. At just under 20 minutes it’s a relatively short work, but it poses some genuine challenges that can leave a chorus musically exposed if things go wrong.
The opening movement, the shortest of the three, proved fortuitous from its sharply stenciled opening fanfare (“Awake, psaltry and harp”) through the infectious dance rhythms in 7/4 meter that exhort singers, musicians and audience alike to “Make a joyful noise to the Lord.”
The second movement didn’t fare quite as well. The treble solo should be sung by either a boy alto or an adult countertenor — Bernstein insisted that it never be sung by a female voice. Countertenor John Holiday was the soloist, making his Atlanta Symphony debut. He has a fine, solidly lyrical voice, though I must admit to a preference for the sound of a skilled boy alto in this work. The problem was tempo. The piece should feel confidently relaxed, but it felt rushed and Holiday seemed to be pushing the already fast pace. At one uncomfortable point near the beginning, it felt as if someone dropped a beat, which caused a few moments of uncertainty in terms of getting soloist, harp and strings in sync.
The forward-leaning tempo was a red warning flag for the men of the chorus who entered later with the radically contrasting text of Psalm 2: “Why do the heathen rage?” The exposed percussive, spiky and pattering verbal rhythms are hard enough to sing in contrapuntal coordination between tenors and basses, but more so to sing in close coordination with the orchestra’s percussion section.
The final movement also felt hurried, though it does not pose some of the tricky problems of the second. Nevertheless, its broad melodic lines — setting Psalm 131 (“Lord, Lord, my heart is not haughty”) in 10/4 meter — were warmly sung. The redeeming element for the whole work was the gossamer pianissimo chorale at the end: “Behold how good and pleasant is it for brethren to dwell together in unity,” sung by the unaccompanied chorus until the final unison “Amen,” where strings underscored quietly and a lone trumpet slowly, gently restated the work’s opening motif.
William Walton’s 40-minute cantata “Belshazzar’s Feast” is also a difficult work, but in different ways from “Chichester Psalms.” It is a continuous thread of drama with a libretto by Osbert Sitwell — based upon parts of the Book of Daniel, with excepts from Isaiah, Revelation and a couple of Psalms thrown in — surrounding the end of the Jewish captivity in Babylon. It’s the kind of libretto from Sitwell’s era, filled with bombast and righteous vengeance, that today would make public school teachers squirm and attempt to cover their students’ ears.
The vocal soloist, Brett Polegato, has a fine, clear baritone voice, and one could well understand what he was singing without the supertitles projected above the stage. The chorus and orchestra performed their parts notably in this dense, complex and dramatic work.
A notable footnote of the evening’s programming is that “Belshazzar’s Feast” and “Chichester Psalms” were recorded together on a single disc by Robert Shaw and the ASO and Chorus in 1989, along with Bernstein’s “Missa Brevis.” That recording won a Grammy Award for Best Choral Performance.