Austin Symphony and Conspirare Partner to Present Psalm Settings by Stravinsky and Bernstein


by Paul Robinson

Maestro Peter Bay

Bach/Stokowski: Toccata and Fugue in D minor BWV 565*
Stravinsky: Symphony of Psalms**
Bach-Stokowski: Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor BWV 582**
Bernstein: Chichester Psalms*

Conspirare Symphonic Choir
Austin Symphony Orchestra
Craig Hella Johnson/ conductor*
Peter Bay/ conductor**
LongCenter for the Performing Arts
Austin, Texas

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.

Paul Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. For friends: The Art of the Conductor podcast, “Classical Airs.”

Photo of Peter Bay by Marita

About Author

Former conductor and broadcaster, Paul E. Robinson, is the author of four books on conductors, Digital Editor for Classical Voice America, and a regular contributor to La Scena Musicale.

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