The Washington Master Chorale gave a multifaceted tribute to a multifaceted artist on Sunday afternoon.
Lenny was the artist in question: Leonard Bernstein — mercurial, brilliant, colorful, populist and popular. You don’t sum him up in a single program, and you could come up with a range of different ones (the Washington Chorus offered its own “Essential Bernstein” concert in 2012). But the Master Chorale concert, led by founder and artistic director Thomas Colohan, did a wonderful job reflecting the composer’s variety, offering, in true Bernsteinian spirit, something for everyone.
There was a piece written for a synagogue (“Hashkiveinu,” from 1945) and one for a church. There was musical theater (the finale of “Candide”) and religious music (a “Missa Brevis” from 1988, Bernstein’s final completed choral work). Like everything he did, even the “Missa Brevis” had its roots in the theatrical. It was adapted from incidental music Bernstein wrote more than 30 years earlier for “The Lark,” a Jean Anouilh play about Joan of Arc. The Master Chorale presented the two little-known pieces side by side, offering the parts of “The Lark” that made their way into the “Missa Brevis” in arrangements for only seven voices, a kind of aural italics that enabled the audience to follow the transformation.
The music showed Bernstein reaching back to the historicity of early music, harnessing his abundant melodic gift to a kind of plainspoken freshness. This was matched by NPR’s Nina Totenberg, who read a condensation of Joan of Arc’s words between the musical selections, speaking so directly and lightly that she brought the young girl to life as movingly as any actor could have. It was interesting to hear the audible shift between music that we perceive as “theatrical” and music in the more formal church setting. The music was largely unchanged, but the context made it seem quite different. It was a thoughtful juxtaposition that rewarded the presentation of little-heard work.
The Master Chorale is starting its fifth season, having collected itself from the ashes of the Master Chorale of Washington (which was disbanded in 2009) and reconstituted itself in a slightly different guise. It’s smaller than the old Master Chorale, but like that group, it’s semi-professional, with a few pro voices among the volunteer corps. This makes for a taut, focused sound that did full justice to both the spare “Lark” excerpts and the fortissimo roar of the “Candide” close, with plenty of tight ebullience to spare in the “Chichester Psalms.” That the group has established itself on the scene is perhaps confirmed by the National Symphony Orchestra’s decision to include it in an informal rotation of local choruses; the Master Chorale will sing in Ravel’s “Daphnis and Chloe” with the NSO in February.
To add to the exuberance of this concert, the Master Chorale brought in the Children’s Chorus of Washington, which joined in an opening selection from “Mass” (the “Sanctus”) and later offered a rendition of “Simple Songs” from the same piece, its poignancy deliberately heightened by the young voices. Thomas Lynch, a member of the children’s chorus, was the boy soprano in the “Chichester Psalms,” which remains a work that, although one of Bernstein’s most popular, I find opaque even on repeated hearings. It wasn’t the Master Chorale’s fault that, having sold me on “The Lark,” it couldn’t close the deal with “Chichester Psalms.” I’d wager that each listener came away with his or her own favorite moment, and credit the chorus with the fact that there was so much to like.