In salute to Bernstein, Fresno Community Chorus tackles ‘Chichester Psalms’ and other works

Leonard Bernstein, the famed conductor and composer, is getting a lot of attention in 2018. And for good reason: It’s the 100th anniversary of his birth. The Fresno Community Chorus is getting in on the celebration with a spring concert that devotes a big chunk of the program to Bernstein. It takes place 2:30 p.m. Sunday, April 29, at the Shaghoian Concert Hall.

Here’s a rundown:

The marquee piece: Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms” will be performed by the Fresno Master Chorale, the chorus’ largest ensemble. The text was created with the juxtaposition of segments of Psalms (including all of Psalms 100, 23, 131, and parts of 108, 2, and 133). Most familiar, of course, is the 23rd Psalm, says conductor Anna Hamre, which starts with, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

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The background: Bernstein insisted that, in depicting young King David, the solo be sung by either a countertenor or a boy. So, while there isn’t a specific familiar Bible story, there is nevertheless a tale being told. Hamre tells me: “The end of the second movement includes the fiendishly difficult section where the text translates as ‘Why do the nations rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?’ Within a few measures, the treble voices intone above this war-like text with the words “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.” Bernstein’s notes instruct the treble voices to sing that segment “blissfully unaware of threat.”


The countertenor: Clifton Massey from New York City will do the honors. “I learned of his work a few years ago when mutual friends recommended him as a wonderful countertenor in the Bay Area,” Hamre says. “He now makes his professional career while located on the East Coast.”

The difficulty level, on a scale of 1 to 10: The “raging nations” segment is textually as difficult as anything that Hamre can imagine — so there are definitely moments that are 10, she says. “However, luckily there aren’t too many of those, so this work is more like a 7 or an 8.”

The mood or ambiance that Bernstein was trying for: He created a variety of atmospheres and scenes: exaltation, boisterous jubilation, sweetness, conflict and threat, insulting derision, contrition, resignation and comfort. Hamre explains:

The work is not just noteworthy for the journey it takes the listener on, but astounding in juxtaposition of ideas, textual and musical. Listen for the “raging nations” simmering and seething under the “blissfully unaware” treble voices singing the 23rd Psalm. Eventually, the “raging nations” give way to the text, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Note, however, that the orchestra repeats the “raging nations” text, as if to remind the listener that evil is never far away.

One “insider” thing for audiences to know about the piece: Think about how beautifully Bernstein created unity out of a variety of texts. Hamre asks us to note the opening choral statement: “Urah, hanevel, v’chinor urah! A-irah shahar! [Awake, psaltery and harp; I will rouse the dawn!]” He concludes the work with the same intervals on the text “Hiney mah tov, Umah naim, Shevet ahim Gam yahad.” [Behold how good, and how pleasant it is, for brethren to dwell together in unity.]” “Isn’t that a wonderful sentiment?” Hamre says. “Bernstein’s work is truly timeless, even though he was profoundly affected by events of his time.”

Other Bernstein pieces on the program: Quintus, the chorus’ new male quintet, will sing two Bernstein musical-theatre selections: an arrangement of “One Hand, One Heart” from “West Side Story”; and “Pirate Song” from “Peter Pan.” Perhaps less well-known, Hamre says, is Bernstein’s incidental music written for “The Lark,” Lillian Hellman’s adaptation of the play by Jean Anouilh dealing with the story of Joan of Arc. While the movements are substantial enough to stand alone in performance (as is typically done), Mary Comelli, depicting an adult Joan, has created a monologue to connect the movements into a story.

Also featured: Henry Purcell’s “Come, Ye Sons of Art” was written for the birthday of Queen Mary (thus continuing the concert’s “birthday” theme) in 1694. Less common today, countertenors were very prominent in the Baroque era, and frequently featured in the music of Purcell. So once again the audience will get to hear countertenor Clifton Massey. (“On a practical note, if you have to hire a countertenor, you need to use him all you can!” Hamre says.)

And Dan Forrest, composer of Three Nocturnes, is celebrating his own milestone birthday in 2018 at 40 years old. Already a well-established and beloved composer of sacred music, in this work Forrest pulls together secular American poems by Sara Teasdale, Emily Dickinson, and Walt Whitman. Final thoughts from Hamre:

These pieces may be secular, but Forrest’s brilliant orchestration of percussion underscores the feeling of awe and majesty inherit in the texts, demonstrating that he approaches all of his music-making with a sense of sacredness. Indeed, he quotes the Psalms in a note to the performers: “When I consider Thy heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which Thou has ordained; What is man, that Thou art mindful of him? And the son of man, that Thou visitest him?” So, in a sense, the second half of today’s concert, featuring the Chichester Psalms and Three Nocturnes, finds its roots in the sacred Psalms of David.

Concert info

Fresno Community Chorus’ “Celebrating Leonard Bernstein at 100 Years,” 2:30 p.m. Sunday, April 29, Shaghoian Hall, 2770 E. International Ave., Fresno. Tickets are $25.

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Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

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