Ristow’s Conducting Reveals Subtleties in Choral Repertoire

Neil McCalmont, Staff Writer

Choral music holds a prominent position in Western music history. From your run-of-the-mill caroling groups and barbershop quartets to religious choirs, choirs have provided spaces for people to come together and sing. Last Sunday, both the Oberlin Musical Union and College Choir came together under the baton of director Gregory Ristow, OC ’01, to perform Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. Both works were originally composed for chorus and orchestra, but the Stravinsky was arranged for chorus and two pianos and the Bernstein for chorus, harp, organ and percussion. These less imposing arrangements created a more personal atmosphere with more religious undertones than their grander original instrumentations.

Stravinsky aimed to create a new choral aesthetic with his Symphony of Psalms. As a devout Eastern Orthodox Christian, he sought to instill his belief in restraint and dispassion instead of individualism and sentimentality into the work. This is not surprising, as the symphony is a product of the composer’s neoclassical period, during which he harkened back to Renaissance and Baroque styles in his music. The result is a symphonization of psalms rich with awe and beauty but that steers clear of any heart-on-the-sleeve Romanticism. All of the passion is much more internal and cerebral instead. He hoped to create an objective realization of religious music.

The first movement begins with an introductory melody on the piano. While the reduction lacks orchestral timbre, it creates a drier sound which fits the piece much better. The performances of the chorus and the pianists showed that their director, Ristow, had a competent understanding of the piece, and that the conductor got the sound he desired from them. Ristow’s conducting was also well thought out; he balanced technical clarity with emotional understanding. The second movement opens with a double fugue, a technique from the Baroque era often considered the most difficult or academic way of composing, which begins softly and mysteriously and grows organically into a daringly complex musical entity. Most incredibly, the music becomes a magnificent beast of sound following strict contrapuntal rules, as if a colossal machine were building and building upon itself. The chorus and accompanying pianists Javier Gonzalez and Joseph Williams captured the entire piece brilliantly, aptly forgoing outward emotion while still conveying a restrained sound.

Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, on the other hand, strikes at the very core of one’s heart. Intensely personal laments and bombasts fill the piece with surges of emotion along with an overall feeling of longing. The text is in Biblical Hebrew, and the piece is considered — along with his Third Symphony — to be one of Bernstein’s works most influenced by Jewish culture and identity. It is also an infamously difficult work to perform, with numerous tone clusters, rhythmic tricks and range extremities. Though this arrangement lacks the rich sound of the orchestra, it keeps the most important instruments — the harp and percussion — and adds the organ in place of the rest of the orchestra. The harp part is so vital that Bernstein composed it before the rest of the instrumental parts and had it rehearsed especially before the piece’s premiere. The harpist, Conservatory first-year Phoebe Durand, did justice to this extra responsibility marvelously, in conjunction with spot-on playing by Conservatory first-year percussionist Benjamin Craig and a stellar organ performance by Conservatory senior Nicholas Capozzoli.

Chichester Psalms begins with a loud bang immediately followed by an urgent sounding chorus. This erupts into a jubilant song of praise that sounds nothing like stereotypically solemn church music. The chorus struggled a bit with the tone clusters in the first psalm, though, as the audience was occasionally hit with a brick wall of voices. This was the only disappointment of the performance. Noah Underhill sang the boy soprano in the second psalm with wondrous innocence and beauty and was rewarded by vociferous applause after the performance. Psalm 2 (“Why do the nations rage”) sparked sounds of fury and was executed convincingly. The quartet of soloists got to shine more in the latter half of the piece. The final psalm concocted such an exquisite waft of gentle but undeniably impassioned music, due greatly to Ristow’s interpretation, that there is no doubt in this listener’s mind that the audience went home completely transfigured.