In concert – Soloists, CBSO Chorus, CBSO / Joshua Weilerstein: Robert Nathaniel Dett – The Ordering of Moses

Ives (orch. Schuman) Variations on ‘America’ (1891/1962)
Bernstein (orch. Ramin & Kostal)
 Symphonic Dances from ‘West Side Story’ (1957/61)
Dett
The Ordering of Moses (1937) [UK premiere]

Nadine Benjamin (soprano), Chrystal E Williams (mezzo-soprano), Rodrick Dixon (tenor), Eric Greene (baritone), CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Joshua Weilerstein

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 23 February 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This evening’s concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was an all-American programme, centred as it was upon the first performance in this country for what is likely the most ambitious work by the African/American composer Robert Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943).

Although he gained prominence as a choral conductor (his Hampton Choir having performed for President Hoover and Britain’s Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald), Canadian-born Dett failed to make a lasting breakthrough as composer – his death when barely 61 confining him to a footnote in American cultural history. The ‘sacred cantata’ The Ordering of Moses was a statement of intent when submitted for his MMus in June 1932. Adapted from Exodus and Lamentations, its text describes the Hebrews escaping slavery in Egypt by the parting of the Red Sea over the course of 55 eventful minutes. The brooding prelude is rich in atmospheric writing for lower woodwind and brass, while the climactic sequence draws wordless chorus and orchestra into a graphic depiction of the ‘crossing’; after which, thanks is rendered unto God in suitably festive terms – Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast an audible precedent. Much has been made of the use of spirituals but, apart from the rallying presence of ‘Go down, Moses’, they serve more a textural and harmonic role in heightening the music’s expressive potency.

A potency owing in no small part to its vocal and choral forces. Eric Greene was predictably sonorous in his eloquence when setting the scene as ‘The Word’, while Chrystal E Williams made the most of her small if crucial part as ‘The Voice of Israel’. Most memorable, though, were those contributions of Rodrick Dixon as the impulsive and ardent Moses, then Nadine Benjamin whose Miriam exuded poignancy and fervour in equal measure. The CBSO Chorus represented ‘The Children of Israel’ in suitably implacable and ultimately affirmative terms.

The whole performance was ably handled by Joshua Weilerstein, who ensured certain more discursive episodes in the cantata’s earlier stages never hung fire and drew a lusty response from the CBSO. Astute programming, moreover, in preceding a still little-known work with staples from the American repertoire. It might not encapsulate the whole of the musical, but Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from ‘West Side Story’ captures its essence via orchestration (with judicious assistance from Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal) as made a suitable impact here.

Surprising that William Schuman’s bracing orchestration of the teenage Charles Ives’s bravura organ piece Variations on ‘America’ does not enjoy more regular performance this side of the pond, or perhaps the quirky and increasingly uproarious incarnations of what Weilerstein pointedly referred to as the National Anthem of Lichtenstein still rankles with home-grown listeners? Whatever the case, the conductor made a persuasive case for this engaging and effervescent music to be heard more frequently – the CBSO players remaining straight-faced throughout.

It certainly provided an irreverent curtain-raiser to an engrossing programme as may yet have blazed a trail. More little-known American music on Sunday when Weilerstein directs only a second UK outing for Florence Price’s Piano Concerto, alongside Korngold and Tchaikovsky.

For more information on the next CBSO Youth Orchestra concert, click here. For more on the composer Robert Nathaniel Dett, head to a website devoted to his work. Meanwhile click on the links for information on the artsts – Joshua Weilerstein, Nadine Benjamin, Chrystal E Williams, Roderick Dixon and Eric Greene

Live review – Kensington SO / Russell Keable: William Schuman 3rd Symphony, Adams, Bernstein & Tower

Kensington Symphony OrchestraRussell Keable (above)

St. John’s, Smith Square, London. Monday October 15, 2018

Tower Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman No. 1 (1986)
Bernstein Divertimento (1980)
Adams Doctor Atomic Symphony (2007, rev 2008)
Schuman Symphony No. 3 (1941)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The Kensington Symphony Orchestra‘s 63rd season got off to a most impressive start with tonight’s concert of American music (simultaneously continuing the Americana ’18 festival taking place at St John’s during this year), opening with the Fanfare for the Common Woman with which Joan Tower launched her wider reputation over three decades ago. Rhythmically bracing while not without harmonic subtlety, it provided a fitting showcase for the KSO brass and percussion as well as a pertinent tribute to this composer in the year of her 70th birthday.

Leonard Bernstein‘s centenary was marked with his Divertimento, seven succinct movements that touch upon most of his salient traits and a reminder that his latter-day creativity was one where less equals more. Highlights include a delectable Waltz (enjoying frequent exposure on Classic FM), wistful Mazurka, evocative Blues then a rousing March: The BSO Forever whose Johann Strauss take-off duly makes for an uproarious close. Suffice to add the KSO was not found wanting in a piece written for the Boston Symphony’s own 100th birthday.

As Russell Keable‘s opening remarks made plain, John Adams’s Doctor Atomic Symphony was an altogether more serious proposition. First heard at the 2007 Proms, the rather diffuse 45-minute work in four movements was duly streamlined into a continuous structure lasting barely half an hour. Surprising, then, that the result seems less than cohesive – its reworking of material from the composer’s third opera one of cinematic contrast than symphonic unity. Some of his most virtuoso orchestral writing, which the KSO tackled with relish, is hampered by the recourse to post-minimalist gestures that remain Adams’s (unwitting?) stock-in-trade. Even the final section, a setting of John Donne‘s sonnet Batter my heart with its baritone part taken by trumpet (here the mellifluous Stephen Willcox), felt less than truly affecting.

After the interval, a welcome revival (likely the first in London for two decades) for William Schuman‘s Third Symphony. One of a triumvirate of such pieces by American composers to emerge either side of the Second World War, it evinces a formal integration and expressive panache that its composer never surpassed – not least in the way its four movements are arranged in two larger parts such as complement each other unerringly, and with a steadily accumulating momentum which emerges across the whole in what is itself a marvel of tensile dynamism.

Keable delineated the variations of the initial Passacaglia with assurance, ensuring textural clarity here and in the ensuing Fugue while underlining how the numerous woodwind and brass solos emerge naturally from the string polyphony rather than sounding laminated onto it. Nor was there any lack of emotional poise with the Chorale, its understated eloquence in contrast to the inexorably mounting impetus of the closing Toccata whose final pages are as visceral as any in the symphonic literature – not least when rendered with such verve as here.

A memorable reading of a seminal though under-appreciated piece such as the KSO has long championed. Hopefully future seasons will see revivals of comparable American works – the Second Symphony of Roger Sessions and Seventh (Variation) Symphony of Peter Mennin.

For further information on the Kensington Symphony Orchestra you can visit the orchestra’s website