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Lessons Learned from Chichester Psalms9:47 pm Wednesday, February 16, 2011
by christa woodall
The first time Chichester Psalms crossed my path was my junior year of high school. Little did I know then that Leonard Bernstein's gorgeous musical work would profoundly impact my life for years to come.
A new choir director had started at our suburban Los Angeles school that year - only the second director since the school opened in the 1960s - and his arrival ruffled some feathers, my own included. Among the points of controversy was the director's selection of Bernstein's piece. The rhythmic complexity and unfamiliar Hebrew turned off many of my peers (especially the guys, who, bless their hearts, never could nail the challenging second movement, even in concert), but for me, it was the one thing our new director had done right all year! Instantly I felt a deep connection to the work, enthralled by the beauty of the language, the richness of the text, and the sophistication of the musical structure, the way the tonal intervals evoked such a range of emotions - joy, anger, unity, peace. It was unlike anything I'd ever experienced.
Chichester Psalms, which premiered in 1965, was Bernstein's first composition following his Kaddish (Third Symphony). Where Kaddish is mournful, Chichester Psalms is vibrant, intense and serene, with text pulled from Psalms 108, 100, 23, 131 and 133. The piece opens with the full choir jubilantly praising God in song to an evocative contrast between a blissfully unaware boy soloist, representing David, singing the famed 23rd Psalm in contrast to the men angrily lamenting why the nations anger and rage. The piece finds resolution in the choir accepting God's wisdom, ending with the well-known words "Hineh mah tov / Umah na'im / Shevet ahim / Gam yahad" ("Behold how good, and how pleasant it is, for brethren to dwell together in unity").
The night we performed Chichester Psalms was a memorable one - not only because I had a minor solo in the piece, but because it was my final time performing on my high school's stage. Due to - dare I say it? - "creative differences," I retired from the arts programs and, in doing so, left behind what had been a defining part of my life since childhood.
Fast forward almost a decade. I may have left behind singing, but Chichester Psalms stayed with me. I listened to the piece often, always grinning at the music's buoyant first movement, loving the gorgeous Hebrew text. As an adult in Orange County, I'd heard that an LDS choir had started up, but despite my friends encouraging me to join the Orange County Mormon Choral Organization, I resisted, figuring my performing days were past.
That is, until I heard they were planning to perform Chichester Psalms.
When attending the Christmas 2008 OCMCO concert, I received a flier about their spring 2009 concert, and when I saw Chichester Psalms on the lineup, I could resist no longer. The urgent need to audition overwhelmed me - there was no way I could pass up the opportunity to perform that dearly beloved work again, let alone with a talented choir and full orchestra in Costa Mesa's world-class Segerstrom Concert Hall.
As soon as auditions were announced, I scheduled mine, made the cut, and reveled in every moment of performing again. The choir actually became a huge part of my 2009 - in addition to singing, I spearheaded the choir's publicity - and my soul expanded as this dormant piece of myself reawakened. In singing, I felt like I drew nearer to my true self, rediscovering my talents and remembering my passions. I felt like the piece drew me nearer to God, appreciating the beauty of religious texts in all their varieties, from reverent hymns to rambunctious spirituals. Singing Chichester Psalms in the packed concert hall is still one of my most cherished memories.
As I've begun this project of blogging about connections between Judaism and my Mormon faith, Chichester Psalms has taken on a new dimension. While listening to it recently, that final refrain - "Hineh mah tov / Umah na'im / Shevet ahim / Gam yahad" - leapt out at me. The choir moves from singing rich harmonies to joining toward a single note on "yahad," or "as one," before unifying on "amen." In a world that is increasingly complex and dissonant, especially in light of recent world events, I can think of few messages more vital than the beauty of unity and peace among the brotherhood of man. It is good and pleasant when we can dwell together in harmony - as much today as when David penned the psalms or when Bernstein composed his Chichester Psalms.
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Tags: Leonard Bernstein, Mormon, Christmas, Kaddish
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