Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) is arguably the most famous/successful American musician, composing widely varying styles from symphonic literature (including three symphonies), Broadway smash hits (West Side Story), as well as movie scores (On the Waterfront). His conducting of the world's leading symphonies is legendary. He was instrumental in bringing the works of Charles Ives and Gustav Mahler into the mainstream repertoire. This year marks the 100th anniversary of his birthday.
His first symphony, Jeremiah, was finished in 1942 and premiered in Pittsburgh in 1944 with the composer at the podium. Bernstein stated that the symphony depicts his "wrestling with . . the struggle that is born of the crisis of our century, a crisis of faith." The work is in three movements, each with a subtitle: "Prophecy," Profanation," and "Lamentation."
The opening begins with a horn solo which is joined by winds and strings and paints a tense and somber mood. The second movement is a bit dance-like and makes use of an actual Hebrew chant. Syncopated and fragmented rhythms provide drive and energy which depict the oncoming destruction of Jerusalem. The finale brought mezzo-soprano Stephanie Foley Davis to the stage to sing declamatory text from Jeremiah.
Winston-Salem Symphony music director Robert Moody provided a vivid reading, with strong emotions at the fore. Davis' singing of the text was appropriately dark and full of despair – profound and moving. It was great to hear weighty concert music from this influential and American icon.
The companion piece in this concert for peace, was The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace by Sir Karl William Pamp Jenkins (b. 1944 in Wales). Jenkins is active as a performer, teacher, and composer and has accrued a number of awards and honors. He was also a founding member of the 1970s rock band The Soft Machine.
Maestro Moody, in explaining the subtext of the concert, pointed out that Bernstein was born during World War I, and he wrote the Jeremiah symphony during WWII. The Jenkins piece (written in 1990) was dedicated to the victims of the war in Kosovo.
The mass is scored for large orchestra (including five percussionists) and chorus. The overall arc of the 13 movements is from militaristic pride, through the destruction of war, to a call for a peace that would be the end of all wars.
The 15th century French folk song, "L'homme armé" ("The Armed Man"), is heard either in full or in bits and pieces throughout the 60-minute work and provides cohesion. Other elements that determine the form are sections of the Catholic mass as well as the Muslim Call to Prayer (Adhaan) and choral settings of various poems and writings from such diverse sources as the Sanskrit Mahabharata, a lament about Hiroshima, and authors such as Rudyard Kipling and John Dryden.
The first movement ("The Armed Man") begins appropriately with march rhythms from the percussion section, leading to the choir intoning the Medieval tune. Following is the unaccompanied Adhaan, given here by Adam Gagan.
The Kyrie, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and Benedictus break up the secular movements: "Save Me from Bloody Men," sung by the men; the unison "Hymn Before Action," which praises dying in battle for one's country; "Charge!" (beginning, of course, with a brass fanfare); the horrific "Angry Flames;" and "Torches" in which human flesh is charred. Following the fervent cry for battle comes the resolution in the form of "Now the Guns Have Stopped" (emotionally sung by Foley) and "Better Is Peace," which uses the opening tune with the new words.
This was a dramatic tour-de-force, complete with red lights bathing the stage on a couple of occasions. Moody insisted that the orchestra and chorus keep the tension taut. The text was presented as supertitles above the stage (both here and in the Bernstein), so it was easy for the audience to follow the proceedings.
The large chorus was made up of the Winston-Salem Symphony Chorale and members of the Myers Park United Methodist Church Chancel Choir (both well prepared by Dr. Christopher Gilliam and James Jones, respectively). The orchestra played like gangbusters; especially notable was Robert Campbell's horn playing as well as Anita Cirba's trumpet, and Brooks Whitehouse's cello).
Sometimes the writing for the chorus was high for the sopranos, which resulted in some shrieking sounds (maybe intentional by the composer), and sometimes the music was a bit too repetitive. Nonetheless, the Mass stands as a call for humanity to give up its destructive ways – a sentiment every bit as pertinent now as was the very first prayer for peace.
This performance repeats on March 13. See our sidebar for details.