Bernstein & Beethoven Part 2

The National Philharmonic went big for its final program of the season, pairing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms in the second of two concerts featuring their works. That first concert, reviewed here, banished my sense of Bernstein overload and left me impressed by the National Phil’s enthusiastic performance, led by its Artistic Director Piotr Gajewski. Still, I had some lingering trepidation about Part 2; here was yet another Bernstein piece that’s tricky to make work under the best circumstances, followed by the most monumental symphony in the entire classical music canon. It’s an ambitious program for a full-time orchestra, let alone one with the kind of part-time schedule of the National Phil.

My initial concerns proved unfounded almost immediately. Vivid and sharp percussive strokes enlivened the Intro section of Chichester Psalms, and what followed revealed a keen understanding of its many nuances. The women’s voices of the National Philharmonic Chorale were ethereal, the men’s emphatic, and guest soloist Enzo Baldanza (boy soprano) was wholly convincing, providing the dramatic center of the work while soaring over the orchestra. The uncredited soloists from the Chorale were splendid, and Gejewski’s pacing of the orchestra was appropriately dramatic.

The Ninth presented more challenges, not all of which were met successfully. The first half of the first movement found the strings unable to sustain a sense of heft, opting instead for momentum that at times felt sluggish and unbalanced. Eventually they found their way toward a more cohesive sound, but then the winds, horns, and brass seemed to strain to keep up.

Timpanist Tom Maloy was a steady presence during the second movement, admirably keeping his instrument at a volume in service to the rest of the orchestra and never overwhelming it. Still, a push me-pull me quality remained in the strings as they tried to match Gajewski’s brisk pacing. The whole never quite took off into the galloping triumph one hopes to hear during the Ninth’s scherzo, despite being played undeniably fast.

The groove was finally found in the slow third movement, and most of the orchestra was able to mine its beauty. If the heights didn’t quite reach for sublime territory, it achieved a kind of transcendence despite uneven horns. Horns aside, it felt like the center had been found, and ably brought forth.

I’ve never before seen what happened next, and it proved to be something every orchestra performing Beethoven’s Ninth might want to consider doing: start the fourth movement without the vocal soloists on the stage, and bring them out altogether just before the baritone is set to sing “O Freunde…” This small change to the norm had an outsized positive effect, in no small part due to the magnificent vocal entrance of baritone Kevin Short, who sung his part with gusto and superb diction, suddenly elevating everything and everyone around him.

With the soloists offstage, the focus became the music instead of the expressions on the faces of people waiting to sing their parts. It was a small, but joyful revelation, and presented the fourth’s opening in an entirely new way (to me, at least). Tenor Colin Eaton sung his part earnestly and by heart over the Turkish March, His voice was no match for Short’s impressive volume, but they paired well together. The glamorous mezzo-soprano Shirin Eskandani was also pleasing, and soprano Colleen Daly, stepping in at the last minute to replace Esther Heideman, wove herself into the fabric of the quartet as if she intended to be there all along, and killed it nearly as well as Short did.

What followed wasn’t an “Ode to Joy” for the ages, but it was heartfelt, and managed to hit an emotional bulls-eye, especially during the frenzied double fugue following the Turkish march section which led to an exceptionally satisfying ending.

Photo: Piotr-Gajewski conducting the National Philharmonic. Photo by Joshua-Cogan.