Irving — If you think that a choral concert consists of a group of singers on risers singing a range of music from uninteresting to esoteric, passing through wonderful on occasion, then you haven’t seen Verdigris Ensemble. Sam Brukhman’s innovative chorale, populated by some of the top local singers, is always as excellent as it is surprising. The choir moves around while they sing, always in a manner appropriate to the music.
And so it was on Oct. 6 when the group opens its second season with a concert that featured the music of Leonard Bernstein entitled Lenny, Lenny, Lenny!, which sounds more like his mother’s exclamation than a concert title.
The venue was Plymouth Park United Methodist Church in Irving. It was a collaborative effort in that Verdigris was joined by the Irving Chorale and the Mid-Cities Chamber Singers. Brukhman shared the podium with Harry Wooten, artistic director of the Irving Chorale. The concert repeats on Oct. 21 at Temple Emanu-El with the temple chorus.
Such an enlarged chorus was needed for the scope of the major Bernstein works presented. The centerpiece of the concert was his Chichester Psalms, a work originally for a large orchestra reduced down to organ, harp and percussion by the composer to allow performances just like this one. While the full orchestral version is preferable, very little is lost in this reduction and certainly none of its overwhelming impact.
Also on the program were some selections from another large-scale work, Bernstein’s take on the mass, simply titled Mass. This is a stage work for massive forces: three choirs plus a children’s choir, an orchestra split between the stage and the pit, and a tenor soloist. It uses the Roman Catholic Church’s Tridentine Mass, a product of the Council of Trent, with added texts by Stephen Schwartz, Bernstein himself, and a few lines by Paul Simon.
The concert also included selections from his biggest musical hit, West Side Story. There were also some less familiar works, such as some extraordinarily beautiful choruses written as incidental music for the play The Lark and selections from his Songfest, a multi-movement work for six singers and orchestra based on poems by Americans such as Walt Whitman. An interloper on the program was Zion’s Walls by Aaron Copland, a stirring work based on music from his opera The Tender Land recast for his song cycle Old American Songs.
All of this was surrounded by poignant letters from Bernstein to various recipients that explore his travails and triumphs. It would have been nice if the texts were read out loud, because they were hard to read in the program—tiny type set in white italics against a celadon background. There was plenty of time, since the concert clocked in a slightly over an hour. Some might have been too controversial for the church, discussing his fluid sexuality.
All of the performances were equally excellent so there is little value in reviewing each one separately. They moved with ease from one to the other, even as Bernstein’s musical language jumped from dissonance to Broadway. All of the solo voices were terrific as well. Standouts were David Stanley, countertenor, and two contrasting regular tenors: Alex Bumpas and Alex Longnecker. Another outstanding performer was Jordan DeRouen, an accomplished organist and pianist who even improvised music to connect the various selections and to cover stage set-up arrangements. There also has to be a shout-out for the recital-worthy organ itself.
The Sunday performance Temple Emanu-El and is on my not-to-be-missed list.