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Leonard Bernstein: a survey of the choral and vocal works

(February 2017)

BernsteinRepertoireChoral.jpg The run up to the centennial of Leonard Bernstein in 2018 offers the opportunity to explore the composer's choral and vocal works, from Chichester Psalms to selections from the stageworks.

With the Bernstein centennial in 2018 the composer’s special affinity with the human voice will be much in evidence, both on stage and in the concert hall. Most performed of all his choral works is Chichester Psalms, available in versions with orchestra or with organ, percussion and harp. This characteristic hybrid score was commissioned by Chichester Cathedral and Bernstein succeeded in his aim to create a "forthright, songful, rhythmic, youthful" work, setting Hebrew Psalms in an infectious jazzy style.

A number of choral works grew from theatrical projects, including Missa Brevis for a cappella mixed chorus. This started as a set of Latin Mass settings within his incidental music to Jean Anouilh’s The Lark, a drama relating the trial and execution of Joan of Arc. Scored for soloists, chorus and orchestra, A White House Cantata is a full-evening sequence of scenes from Bernstein’s musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue about the residents at this illustrious Washington address, while Olympic Hymn is a chorus and orchestra version of one of the songs from the original stagework.

An unclassifiable large-scale statement is Symphony No.3: Kaddish for soprano, speaker, boys’ choir, mixed chorus and orchestra. This highly personal work combines the Hebrew-Aramaic prayer for the singing voices with a spoken text exploring the relationship between man and God. A crisis of faith is also central to Bernstein’s flamboyant stagework Mass, created to launch Washington’s Kennedy Center. In recent years it has found itself reinvented as an ideal community project, combining choirs, dancers and musicians, and is increasingly programmed by large arts centres and festivals. Shorter alternatives are a 25-minute suite, Celebrations from Mass, with choir and orchestra and a 35-minute set of Concert Selections from Mass with choir and ensemble.

Vocal numbers from Bernstein’s evergreen classic West Side Story are grouped into two alternative collections for concert performance. Concert Suite No.1 contains arrangements for soprano, tenor and orchestra of Maria, One Hand, One Heart, Somewhere and the Balcony Scene, while Concert Suite No.2 for a larger group of soloists, chorus and orchestra embraces I Feel Pretty, Jet Song, America and the Tonight Quintet. Bernstein’s Blues collects four favourite songs in arrangements for voice and orchestra, while other classic numbers available with orchestra include Take Care of this House, A Simple Song, and Glitter and Be Gay and Let My Garden Grow from Candide.

Songfest and Arias and Barcarolles are two works for vocal soloists specially deserving of exploration in the centenary year. The former is a 40-minute celebration of American poetry for six soloists and either full orchestra or chamber ensemble. Bookended by hymns for the full sextet, the interior of the work contrasts a solo number for each vocalist with duos, a female trio and a sextet setting of e.e. cummings’ if you can’t eat you got to. Arias and Barcarolles was Bernstein’s last major work, reflecting on life’s odyssey through love and marriage. It has three versions: for four soloists and piano four hands or for mezzo and baritone with either strings and percussion or chamber orchestra.

For full information about Bernstein repertoire visit www.boosey.com/bernstein100brochure.

Other Bernstein centennial web surveys:
> Stageworks 
> Orchestral works 



Photo: © Alfred Eisenstaedt

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