Leonard Bernstein spent a good deal of time confronting age-old existential questions of life, religion, identity. He was determined to discover definitive meaning and purpose. But, as the famed conductor-composer wrote in 1960, "I have two answers to everything and one answer to nothing."
In much of his music, Bernstein can be heard wrestling with himself, the equivalent of Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof" constantly considering "on the other hand" possibilities. Two examples can be found on a rewarding Baltimore Symphony Orchestra program conducted by Marin Alsop.
Symphony No. 1, a 1940s work subtitled "Jeremiah," suggests a struggle to believe in God and keep any faith in humankind. The enraged voice of the prophet — the finale contains excerpts from the Book of Lamentations, intoned by a mezzo-soprano — decries a myopic world losing its way.
The "Chichester Psalms," commissioned in the 1960s by England's Chichester Cathedral, contain its share of warning and worry. But Bernstein tilts the argument this time toward the side of hope, seeing a chance for "brethren to dwell together in unity."
On Friday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Alsop approached both compositions with great sensitivity, tapping deeply into the emotion and poetry of each.
"Jeremiah," being recorded at this weekend's concerts for a set of Bernstein symphonies that will be issued on the Naxos label, received a taut, engrossing account.
The conductor drew a dark sound and vivid phrasing from the BSO in the opening "Prophecy" movement. The subsequent "Profanation" passage emerged with a seductive charm (Bernstein makes misbehaving sound like a lot of fun).
The finale benefited from the riveting contributions of soloist Jennifer Johnson Cano. Her deep, velvety mezzo and impassioned phrasing gave Jeremiah's warnings such startling immediacy that I wouldn't have been surprised to see people in the hall ducking under their seats. Alsop shaped the concluding orchestral measures emerged with a particularly poignant power.
Throughout "Jeremiah," the BSO demonstrated admirable clarity and cohesion, as it did in the "Chichester Psalms." Alsop had that score's jazzy bits crackling wonderfully and gave the lyrical side considerable expressive nuance.
Except for a few uneven balances, the Cathedral Choral Society from Washington National Cathedral delivered the psalm texts with admirable polish, not to mention character.
The singing by boy soprano Nolan Musslewhite in the 23rd Psalm was notable for its purity of tone and simplicity of expression. He won an extra roar from the audience during the bows.
Alsop balanced the two works by Bernstein, her mentor and friend, with Beethoven's Symphony No. 7, the last piece he conducted before his death in 1990. That performance was notable for Bernstein's broad tempos and weighty phrasing; Alsop's was notable for uplifting drive and a contagious sense of joy.
The conductor did ease up on the propulsion to let the second movement's bittersweet quality emerge tellingly. Everything else bounded along to terrific effect, reaching a downright rip-snorting level in the finale, and Alsop's keen attention to little shifts of dynamics ensured expressive variety along the way.
The opening chord could have been cleaner, but the orchestra went on to deliver extraordinarily polished, high-voltage playing. No wonder there were so many smiles onstage afterward. Lots of smiles in the house, too.