SEACOAST — Celebrate the holiday season with Portsmouth Pro Musica as they blend Christian, Jewish and Solstice traditions during their “Dwelling in Unity” winter concerts on Dec. 7 in Dover and Dec. 9 in Portsmouth.
A celebration of Leonard Bernstein’s would-be 100th birthday is the centerpiece of each day’s concert. Portsmouth Pro Musica will perform the prolific composer’s “Chichester Psalms,” a three-movement piece, combining traditional Christian choral music with Hebrew language.
Aside from this piece being one of her favorites, founder and current artistic director of the group, Priscilla French, explains her choice for the featured selection this year: “I wanted to commemorate the centennial birth of Leonard Bernstein, 20th-century America’s most famous composer, conductor and educator. …In April 2013, Portsmouth Pro Musica had performed Bernstein’s ‘Chichester Psalms,’ and I decided it was time to reprise this choral masterpiece.”
This piece was derived from work Bernstein originally wrote for an abandoned Broadway project based on Thornton Wilder’s “By the Skin of Our Teeth.” When the project fell through, Bernstein used that music as a starting point to fulfill a commission request from the Rev. Walter Hussey for the Chichester Cathedral’s music festival. This commission became the “Chichester Psalms” and premiered in 1965.
The Broadway influence is evident throughout the work.
“There is also a loud, aggressive-sounding section in the second movement, which comes from a song originally intended for ‘West Side Story,’ but later cut. As the tenors and basses sing, you can imagine the fight between the Jets and the Sharks,” says French.
Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms” also inspired the title for this year’s concert. According to French, “Dwelling in Unity” is a reference to the last lines of Psalm 133, verse 1 in the piece: “Hineh mah tov, Umah nayim, Shevet ahim, Gam yahad,” which translates to “Behold how good, and how pleasant it is, for brethren to dwell together in unity.”
“As I was reviewing the beautiful psalm texts to this score last winter, it occurred to me that ‘Dwelling in Unity’ would make a perfect concert title. I also contemplated Bernstein’s unusual choice to use ecumenical psalms in Hebrew for a commission in an English cathedral festival. It seems (as) though he was deliberately bridging cultures – and this was in 1965. Of course, it resonates in our world right now,” French says.
The “Chichester Psalms” will feature Portsmouth Pro Musica’s accompanist, Robert Littlefield, on the organ, and returning guests, harpist, Sorana Scarlat, and her 12-year-old son, Alec Scarlat, singing the solo in the second movement.
The Scarlats were also guest artists for Portsmouth Pro Musica’s “Ceremony of Carols” last year. “I knew I wanted Alec to sing it before his voice changed! So, that was another reason for programming the ‘Chichester Psalms’ in 2018!” French says.
In addition to the blend of Christian and Hebrew in the “Chichester Psalms,” Portsmouth Pro Musica will perform “Hallelujah Amen” from Handel’s “Judas Maccabaeus,” “Al Hanissim” and “Gabriel’s Message.” The concert will open with a Welsh wassail, completing the trio of Jewish, Christian and Solstice themes for this year’s annual performance.
An a cappella subset of Portsmouth Pro Musica singers, The Overtones, will perform a few seasonal selections, including the “Gloria” movement from “The World Beloved: A Bluegrass Mass,” by Carol Barnett.
The concert will round out with voluntary audience participation on a handful of seasonal carols.
“Dwelling in Unity” will be performed at 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 7, at First Parish Church, 218 Central Ave., in Dover. The second iteration of the same selections will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 9, at North Church/Market Square, 2 Congress St., in Portsmouth.
Advanced tickets are $13 general admission or $11 for students and seniors. Tickets are also available at the door for $16 general admission or $13 for students and seniors. For information or to purchase tickets, visit ppmnh.org.