Thursday, 19 November 2015

13 November, 2015 Walter & Lenny at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester ****

This can best be summed up as a local play for local people. Peter McEnery and his wife Julia St John are residents of West Sussex and have produced a fascinating chronicle of the genesis of Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. The show consists entirely of the correspondence between Walter Hussey, Dean of Chichester Cathedral in the 60’s and patron of the arts, and Leonard Bernstein. Directed by Julia St John, Peter McEnery portrays both men in a piece that consists entirely of the texts of the letters between the two men as the Chichester Psalms is commissioned, written and performed.

There is a similarity between this piece and 84 Charring Cross Road. A stack of letters does not seem at first to have much dramatic potential. However, not only are these letters beautifully written but they also tell you much about the writers. On the surface you could not find two more diverse characters and yet initially each writer manages to say just enough to intrigue the other. One can imagine that the last thing Leonard Bernstein expected in 1964 was a letter from the Dean of an English Cathedral commissioning a work for a festival he would never have heard of (The southern Cathedrals Festival). What he would also have been unaware of at the time, was that this mild mannered English cleric has form when it came to persuading major artists to produce work for the church. Britten, Finzi and Tippet, Auden Moore and Sutherland as well as Chagall had all accepted commissions. It took a nudge or two for Hussey to get a response, but Hussey was a dab hand at exerting pressure without seeming to.

Once Bernstein was hooked the tone of the letters softened and became more informal, and as in Helen Hanft’s account, a close relationship developed between the two correspondents to a point where a meeting in the flesh was inevitable. Bernstein delivered on time – just, and brought his family to Chichester in 1965 for the first performance. Except that it wasn’t quite the first performance. In order to keep the great man onside, Hussey had had to yield to a request to preview Chichester Psalms with the New York Philharmonic a few weeks earlier. Bernstein and his wife stayed with Hussey at the Deanery and judging by the ensuing letters this was a magical few days for both men.

What brought these two disparate personalities together was a common theme: a heartfelt belief in the intrinsic goodness of men and humanity. Both men were compassionate and pacific and although from different religions and cultures found common ground in this extraordinary musical setting of some of the Psalms of David in the original Hebrew.

The show ends with the text of one more letter, but this one written by neither man. This was a letter written to Bernstein by Jackie Kennedy just days after the assassination of her brother-in-law Bobby. The text is a wonderful testimony to the power of music to express the unsayable and to be both memorial and cathartic at the same time.

Chichester Psalms is part of the repertoire now and is performed regularly. But not, alas at Chichester. The Southern Cathedrals Festival continues to this day. Next year it is the turn of Chichester to host the Festival. Surely the time is ripe for a revival?

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