On March 14 and 15, Ars Musica presented a dynamic program of three exciting works: Bernstein’s beloved Chichester Psalms, Kodàly’s colorful Missa Brevis, and Composer-in-Residence Joshua Groffman’s groundbreaking Foster the Light. Curious to know more about these incredible pieces? Read on!
In 1965, Leonard Bernstein took a sabbatical from his post as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic. Freed from the time-consuming obligations of conducting and studying scores, he turned his attention to composition. His popular “Chichester Psalms,” a tuneful, contemporary synthesis of Hebrew biblical verse and Christian choral tradition, was written during this period. Although sung entirely in Hebrew, it can be seen as a musical illustration of Bernstein’s own hope for brotherhood and peace. The second movement juxtaposes a tranquil setting of the twenty-third psalm against driving choral rhythms that graphically depict “raging nations.” The serene finale closes the work with a sense of mankind’s unity. A careful listener will hear motifs reminiscent of “West Side Story.” In fact, the work includes music that was cut from the earlier score. First heard by a sold-out house at Philharmonic Hall on July 15, 1965, it remains popular with audiences and performers alike.
Zoltán Kodály and Bela Bartok were Hungary’s most famous composers of the 20th century. Kodály is regarded by some scholars as a key figure in the early twentieth-century revival of church music, which had undergone a steep decline in the preceding century. Kodály was also an exceptional teacher and assistant director of the Liszt Academy of Music. Remaining in Budapest during the Nazi occupation, he protected not only his Jewish wife from harm, but helped many Jews to find refuge. It was during the brutal siege of the city by Soviet forces in 1945 that Kodály adapted an earlier organ piece into his luminous Missa Brevis, subtitled “tempore belli” (in time of war), for organ and choir. The premiere took place in a cloakroom of the Budapest Opera House on February 11, 1945, performed by a choir of the opera company’s soloists and accompanied by the harmonium and the sound of bombs and gunfire. In the piece, Kodály writes in a colorful harmonic language and demonstrates a varied range of influences: Gregorian chant, Palestrina, Bach, Handel, Dohnanyi, and Hungarian folk music.
The world premiere of Joshua Groffman’s “Foster the Light” is the culmination of a season-long collaboration with Ars Musica based on Dylan Thomas’s poem by the same name. Dr. Groffman notes that the poem is an exhortation addressed to both the Creator and the creator, the artist, specifically treating “the idea of artistic creation, painting it fundamentally as a celebration of life’s diversity and complexity.” Using medieval plainchant, Renaissance polyphony, Romantic harmonies, and modernist noise textures throughout this cycle of three works, Groffman illustrates a complex text in which he feels the poet urges us to “find meaningful interactions within the ‘singing choir’ of human community and the experience of the ‘marrowroot’ of daily life.”
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