San Jose Symphonic Choir and the Cambrian Symphony will present a concert on June 9, 7:30 p.m., in the San Jose State University Concert Hall, 1 Washington Square, San Jose. The concert celebrates Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday and his distinctly American musical style, and includes works of Ludwig van Beethoven and Arturo Márquez. The concert is free; however, RSVPs are required. Visit www.sanjosesymphonicchoir.org or www.cambriansymphony.org for a direct link to the reservation site on Eventbrite and more information.
Leonard Bernstein (1918 – 1990) was an iconic American conductor, composer, and pianist. He left a legacy of symphonic, ballet, film and theatre music, choral works, opera, chamber music and pieces for the piano, and was recognized throughout his long career for music that reflected a wide variety of American styles.
Bernstein was famous for his long tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic, and for conducting most of the world’s leading orchestras. He played a critical role in making classical music accessible through his long-running television lecture series, the “Young Peoples’ Concerts”. He was also a political activist throughout his life, famously leading concerts at the site of the Berlin Wall, just after its fall in 1989, performing Beethoven’s 9th Symphony to celebrate the reunification of Germany.
Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms was written in early 1965 for a festival at Chichester Cathedral in Sussex, England. It was commissioned by the cathedral’s Dean, Reverend Walter Hussey, who suggested a setting of Psalm 2, and also expressed a hope that the music would reflect something of the style of West Side Story. Bernstein obliged on both counts: he used text – in the original Hebrew – from several psalms for the three parts of the work. In addition, a section of Part 2 for male chorus (based on the text “Why do the nations rage, and people utter vanities?” from Psalm 2) was set to music originally written, then cut from, the score for West Side Story.
The piece also contains a beautiful setting of the 23rd Psalm for a boy soprano, accompanied by a harp. Bernstein was explicit in requiring that the part could be sung by a countertenor or a boy soprano, but never by a woman. This was to reinforce the liturgical meaning of the passage, a “Psalm of David,” by having it heard as if sung by the boy David himself.
Today Bernstein may be best known for the music of West Side Story, written in 1957. A 20th century, big-city adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, it moves the tragic tale of the lovers to the streets of New York. In 1960, Bernstein wrote an orchestral suite – the West Side Story Symphonic Dances – which follows the principal episodes of the drama. The suite brings together the musical’s most famous songs and orchestral sections in a range of moods and emotions that highlight Bernstein’s stylistic diversity and compositional skill.
The concert will also feature two works by Ludwig van Beethoven. The Hallelujah from Beethoven’s Christ on the Mount of Olives will open the program. Beethoven wrote only this one oratorio, in the fall of 1802, and it was not a critical success. However, this chorus from the finale, with its stirring melody, has enjoyed popularity as a choral concert piece.
Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy was composed in 1808, as the concluding work of a concert, with Beethoven himself as the piano soloist. The concert also included the premieres of his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, his Piano Concerto No. 4, and his Mass in C major. The Fantasy was intended as a brilliant finale that brought together all the assembled musical forces. Unfortunately, it was so poorly rehearsed that it had to be stopped halfway through and started again.
Between this error in execution and the overall length of the concert, the Choral Fantasy did not initially receive critical acclaim. However, the resemblance between its graceful theme and that of Beethoven’s much more grandly-scaled Symphony No. 9 (Choral) ensured its place in the canon of his often-performed works. The work begins with a lengthy solo piano passage; the orchestra then joins in, and the chorus enters for the grand finale. The beautiful piano solo part will be performed by local artist Tamami Honma.
The concert will conclude with Dánzon No. 2, written in 1994 by Mexican composer Arturo Márquez. This sprightly and upbeat work is named for a specific dance rhythm, though rhythmic variety abounds, highlighting the talents of several solo instrumental sections.