FEATURE – Savoring the ‘Symphony of Psalms’

By Celia R. Baker| Special to The Tribune

Published Feb 24 2012 03:16 pm

Igor Stravinsky said his “Symphony of Psalms” shouldn’t be thought of as a symphony that merely includes the singing of texts from the biblical book of Psalms. “On the contrary,” said the Russian giant of 20th-century music, “it is the singing of the Psalms that I am symphonizing.”

The Russian composer’s unusual amalgam of symphony and psalm, written in 1930, is the centerpiece of this week’s Utah Chamber Artists concert. Other works on the program celebrate psalms in various guises and reveal another surprising definition of the term “symphony.”

UCA music director Barlow Bradford long has wished for his professional choir to perform “Symphony of Psalms,” widely regarded as one of the 20th century’s most important works. It hasn’t happened until now for two reasons.

Stravinsky scored the piece for unconventional musical forces — a big contingent of woodwinds, brass and percussion, plus low strings, two pianos and harp. Clarinets, violins and violas are notably missing. It’s not an easy combination to pull together, and until recently, Bradford had difficulty finding the right players.

With the orchestra in place, another dilemma still needed solving: Pitting a 40-voice chamber choir against a bold phalanx of trumpets and trombones is a recipe for balance problems.

The solution was found right under Bradford’s baton, which he has waved over the University of Utah’s choirs for the past two years. The school’s most selective choir, University of Utah Singers, will swell UCA’s ranks for “Symphony of Psalms.” The rest of the program belongs to UCA’s singers, with accompaniment for some of the sections provided by organist Doug O’Neill.

“Because of the unusual instrumentation for ‘Symphony of Psalms,’ we found that putting together a completely different orchestra for the rest of the program wasn’t practical,” said UCA executive director Becky Durham. “Why not use the wonderful organ in Libby Gardner Hall?”

The organ, and O’Neill, will be featured in selections from the fifth “Organ Symphony” of French composer Charles-Marie Widor, who capitalized on the organ’s array of symphonic voices by writing pieces constructed similarly to symphonies written for orchestra.

The last movement of the fifth Widor “Organ Symphony” is a well-known favorite among organists and their fans. “It’s one of the most brilliant and outright joyous pieces you’ve ever heard,” Bradford said.

The program also includes two luminous settings of “We Hymn Thee” by the Russian composers Rachmaninoff and Tchesnokoff. The text is a “private psalm,” not a biblical one.

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