Two 20th-century choral masterworks opened the Buffalo Philharmonic "Stained Glass" series in grand fashion Saturday night at Westminster Presbyterian Church, with the orchestra and host Westminster Choir under the direction of Thomas Swan.
The more recent work, Leonard Bernstein's 1965 "Chichester Psalms," is by far the more familiar to American audiences. It's a jazzy, joyful and lyrical triptych of Hebrew Psalm texts set for chorus, soloists and orchestra.
Conductor Swan and his forces had the measure of this piece from note one, with a beautifully colorful and sensitive reading by the orchestra, vibrant yet precise singing from the choir and uniformly fine solo work. Treble Aaron Bartley was particularly notable in this last category, with sweetly lofted and subtly phrased lines that were not in his optimum range.
There were a few balance problems, almost inevitable in a church setting with a large orchestra and medium-size choir, and one would occasionally have liked to turn up the choral and soloist knob on the equalizer.
Other than that, it was a performance close to ideal, with rousing declamatory passages, Bernstein's meld of tin-pan alley syncopation and Orff-like Slavic drive, and the choir slipping into the succulent suspensions and touch of the blues like it lived there.
The orchestra was particularly effective in the doleful introduction to Part II, with the chorus entering with noble richness, conductor Swan sustaining the long phrase in the arching lyric section. The most haunting moment came near the end as the choir emerges a cappella into a modulatory thicket, a gorgeous harmonic plea to the text ". . . for brethren to dwell together in unity."
Leo Janacek's 1927 "Glagolitic Mass" represents an enormous challenge to chorus, orchestra and soloists, not to mention the conductor, who must negotiate a fiendishly tricky rhythmic vocabulary.
The work is more symphonic than choral in conception, is quite thick in texture and unrelenting in intensity, and offers the added nicety of a text that reads like one of the more virulent strains of alphabet soup.
If this performance, then, did not quite have the stylish panache of the Bernstein, it was nevertheless genuinely impressive in its fervor, as a visitor to a foreign land would speak the language with perfect syntax but a slight accent.
Along with the rhythmic cadence of the Czech language and a touch of Eastern Orthodox melodic and harmonic tradition, Janacek's idea of the Mass seems a Slavic "sturm und drang" relying heavily on brass and percussion, with the chorus and soloists used almost instrumentally.
Swan got a powerful focused sound from his choir, which seemed more at home with the insistent, sometimes convulsive rhythms than did the orchestra . The Sanctus was particularly compelling in its throbbing build to a blossoming, fiery climax.
Conductor Swan's casting was superb in the solo department, bringing soprano Laurie Wyant back from Cincinnati for her brilliant shimmering tone in the upper reaches and enlisting tenor Harold McAulliffe for his knock 'em down ringing power.
Mezzo Marilyn Barber and baritone Frank Pullano were effective in less prominent roles. There was also organist Barbara Harbach for the big penultimate organ solo, a furious apocalyptic toccata trumped by the cataclysmic orchestral finale.
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra Stained Glass Series opener.
Bernstein's "Chichester Psalms" and Janacek's "Glagolitic Mass"
The choir of Westminster Presbyterian Church and the Buffalo Philharmonic, Saturday evening at Westminster Presbyterian Church.