What goes with Beethoven's Ninth Symphony? We must be up to Example No. 2743 by now.
Everybody's a got a different idea, and some, such as Gustavo Dudamel, more than one. Last summer, with our contentious country in a stir, Dudamel asked the beloved sportscaster Vin Scully to recite Copland's "Lincoln Portrait" as a prelude to Beethoven's great hymn — a hymn to a brotherhood that the world more than ever finds inconvenient.
Thursday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Dudamel had another good idea for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Master Chorale: Leonard Bernstein's "Chichester Psalms." Like Beethoven, Bernstein was a Goliath of music who identified with David, a man of song, a champion of the common in the face of the monstrous and tyrannical. Also like Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," Bernstein's setting of three Hebrew psalm texts for chorus and orchestra is an ode to joy, though unlike Beethoven's, not an unsullied one.
The psalms were written at the request of Chichester Cathedral in England and were the one, last-minute product of a frustrating 1963-64 sabbatical season that Bernstein took off from his duties as music director of the New York Philharmonic. The main project of the sabbatical was to have been a musical based on Thornton Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth," which fell through.
Bernstein was, in general, filled with angst. In his previous work, Symphony No. 3 ("Kaddish"), Bernstein is a David challenging God for making an unjust world. Just before "Kaddish" was finished, John F. Kennedy, whom Bernstein adored, was assassinated. A further confirmation of outrage, two months later and just before getting the "Chichester" commission, Bernstein's friend and former mentor, composer Marc Blitzstein, was killed on a street in Martinique.
"Chichester Psalms" is the quest for rediscovering the sweetness in life and finding peace, as did Beethoven at an exalted level, even as he railed against heaven with the best of them. Each of the three movements includes a full psalm along with contrasting parts of another. There can be no concept of peace without the reality of rough and warring nations, no sense of the forever without the premonition of death.
Crashing angular intervals (taken from discarded "Skin of Our Teeth" material) open the first and third movements, before lyricism and buoyancy, before dancing and bongos (probably a first in a British cathedral, and not without sniping from snotty critics) can counter. The center of the score is the Davidic Psalm 23, "The Lord is my shepherd," with an entrancing melody for a soprano solo that glimpses heaven.
Bernstein meant this for a boy soprano, partly in his love for the wholesomeness of the sound as well as a nod to British choral tradition. He put in the score that a countertenor could be used, but that was meant as a second-best alternative. In inviting John Holiday, a true male soprano with a voice of soaring purity and none of the nasal virility more common of countertenors, the L.A. Phil had the best of both worlds.
Dudamel captured everything there is to capture in "Chichester Psalms." Along with the sweetness of simple song came exultation verging on ecstasy with undercurrents of unanswerable angst. After the Chichester premiere, the delighted dean of the cathedral called this "David dancing at the Arc." We now know it's much more.
Ten years later, Bernstein conducted Beethoven's Ninth with the Vienna Philharmonic and afterward, he had this to ask: In the millennia since David had proclaimed how good and lovely it was for men to dwell together, is the world any closer to David? In the century and a half since Beethoven's struggle for peace, have our wars brought us any closer to brotherhood?
Dudamel's response is not to give up. The symphony has been his rallying cry since the day he became music director, conducting the Ninth at a free Hollywood Bowl concert almost nine years ago.
As he demonstrated at the Bowl last summer, his Ninth remains optimistic but has become more tempered, an acknowledgment that peace remains more a certainty than actuality. The mystery of the first movement, the startling shock of the jarringly accents that break the pulse of the Scherzo, the serenity that is utopian yet subliminal in the Adagio are all expressed with great, somber seriousness. This makes the joy at the end, when the chorus and four vocal soloists let loose, all the harder won and therefore all the more exceptional for its visionary realism.
The Master Chorale and L.A. Phil know this score backward and forward, and the performance had an unerring surety, as did soloists Julianna Di Giacomo, Jennifer Johnson Cano, Michael König and Craig Colclough (replacing Davóne Tines, who took ill). The L.A. Phil now takes this program to New York, London and Paris (although with different choruses).
But there is the danger that in today's Washington, D.C., Bernstein's Davidic forewarning would fall on deaf ears. The L.A. Phil performance of the Ninth at the Kennedy Center next week will be Example No. 2744. Esa-Pekka Salonen's solemn new "Pollux" will lead into the quiet tremolo opening of Beethoven's symphony.
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‘Dudamel Conducts Beethoven 9 & Bernstein’
Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Friday (Beethoven only, no Bernstein) and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: Almost sold out; very limited seats remaining for $100-$225 (subject to change)
Information: (323) 850-2000, laphil.org