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NMSO concert review: Bernstein, “Chichester Psalms”

The article below appeared in the Albuquerque Journal of February 28, 2010.

NMSO and chorus deliver a high-energy performance

by Joanne Sheehy

Friday night at UNM's Popejoy Hall the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under conductor Guillermo Figueroa offered an evening of composers bold and brash. It began with music by two Americans, Leonard Bernstein and Lowell Liebermann, in the first half. After intermission, the second half was devoted to Beethoven.

In its own way each selection on the program demanded high energy, and the performers met the challenge with enthusiasm. The program opener was Bernstein's Chichester Psalms.

Noted for being a brassy and bold exponent of American music, Bernstein in this work manages to insert a jazzy element into the religious theme. He telegraphs his intention immediately. The work begins with a call to “make a joyful noise unto the world.”

That call was heeded in no uncertain terms as the chorus responded with sharp attack and precise diction of the Hebrew text as well as a few brief solos. The singers' eloquent control in the softer passages was notable.

A battery of seven percussionists heightened the response to the composer's call for exuberance as they deftly handled the score's tricky rhythmic demands. A contrast was supplied by the boy soprano, Craig Short, in his gentle solo interludes.

The second work on the program, the “Concerto for Flute and Orchestra” by the American Lowell Liebermann, brought more virtuosity into play. A kind of Mount Everest for flutists, it asks the soloist for almost everything except standing on one's head while playing. For those flutists brave enough to take up the challenge it offers rich rewards. Not the least of them is an expansion of their concept of what they can achieve on their instrument.

Valerie Potter, the NMSO's principal flutist, met the challenge with flair and fierce concentration as well as sustained eloquence. Her elegantly sustained line in the slow movement was just one of many satisfying moments in a finely modulated performance. The last movement found her hopping about with seeming ease through formidable challenges. In that movement and throughout, she received consistently lively and sympathetic support from the orchestra in their many exchanges with her.

The second half of the concert was devoted to Beethoven's Third Symphony, popularly known as the Eroica. This work represents a significant development in his evolution toward an ever greater intensity and structural power. In this symphony, Beethoven breaks out of the conventional style of his first two symphonies and finds his own voice.

Though the Fifth may be Beethoven's most popular symphony, the Third and the final Ninth Symphony are his most powerful statements. Perhaps not incidentally, they are also his longest efforts in the form.

Though choosing not to probe deeply into the power of the Third, Figueroa's precise direction yielded a pointed and supple interpretation. His interpretation quite credibly placed a stress on the music's lyricism.

The first movement had a confident, athletic stride. Handled with care, the second movement nonetheless bordered on the tedious, missing some of the deeper currents. The third movement swept along with some lovely phrasing from the three horns. The final movement brought the evening to a lively close with a light, precise touch from all.

Next: NMSO concert review: Haydn, ``Creation''
See also: New Mexico Symphony Orchestra Chorus: schedule and reviews, 1995–2011
Previous: El Defensor-Chieftain article on Shipman and the NMSO
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John W. Shipman,
Last updated: 2010/03/02 05:54:25