Best of Both Worlds – Old meets New

CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★

The Victorians’ judgement on children – that they should be seen but not heard – ought usually apply to conductors. Joshua Weilerstein was an exception, with a short, pithy platform address and outlined the theme of this cogently constructed concert. Contradiction was the keyword: four works whose nature or circumstances of composition were in tension but harmoniously reconciled. Then he launched the CBSO into the Czech composer Pavel Haas’s ‘Study for Strings’ which, like a white dwarf star, packs enormous energy into a tiny space – just seven minutes. The exhilarating opening shouts life-affirmation, while Haas’s use of canonic imitation was thrilling, starting with second fiddles against violas, then cellos, first and finally basses entering the fray. He slips in a brief elegiac slow movement before a final arms-raised dash to the finishing line, winningly played by the CBSO strings. Yet Haas wrote this joyous miniature while an inmate in the Theresienstadt concentration camp in an orchestra created as a propaganda tool by the Nazis. Music blooms in some strange soil.

The American composer Caroline Shaw’s ‘Music in Common Time’ is almost an oxymoron – a choral work without words. There are just ten of her own, repeated once. She weaves an interesting musical tapestry, with the CBSO Chorus often integrated into the orchestra. The surging start sounds conventionally uplifting like big-hearted American Howard Hanson, but deviates interestingly. The CBSO Chorus enjoys a challenge and tackled Shaw’s demands for “throat singing” and occasionally astringent vocals with enthusiasm, tussling with the strings’ violent clucking pizzicati. What a contrast in their floating, hushed a capella intonation of Shaw’s text: “Years ago I forget, Years to come, Just let them.” Homespun philosophy perhaps but very moving in context.

In 1965 Walter Hussey, Chichester Cathedral’s Dean, commissioned a new work not from the ranks of English composers but from American musical icon Leonard Bernstein. An inspired choice as his ‘Chichester Psalms’ is musical populism at its finest – joyous, engaging, easy on the ear but never trite. The CBSO Chorus sang Bernstein’s choice of Hebrew texts in a spirit the composer would have loved – “Make a joyful noise” Psalm 100 exhorts and by God they did. Another fine performance under Associate Chorus Director Julian Wilkins. Bernstein switches moods, with pertinent use of percussion, as the tenors and basses interject “Why do the nations rage” to great effect. Bernstein uses a boy treble for the slow movement setting of “The Lord is my shepherd”. Here it was 11-year-old Michael Mulroy who softly intoned the words of peace and reconciliation with a harp accompaniment. A little sweet perhaps but not saccharine.

Weilerstein conducted a performance of Dvořák’s Symphony No.9 that combined New and Old World lyricism with driving energy, the CBSO easily eclipsing the Czech Philharmonic’s reading I saw here in 2018. The revved-up start was powerful and fiercely concentrated, the Largo’s famous American folk-music inspired melody engagingly played by Rachael Pankhurst on cor anglais. Dvořák wrote superbly for winds – think of the masterful ‘Serenade’ – and the CBSO’s section made the most of the stream of Bohemian melodies in the third movement. The American conductor managed Dvořák’s tricky double ending well for a rousing finish.

Norman Stinchcombe

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