If you like thematic programming, the concert that Robert Moody conducted Sunday afternoon at Merrill Auditorium was designed for you. Its announced subject was Leonard Bernstein’s centennial, which the musical world is commemorating this season, and to that end, it included the first of Bernstein’s three symphonies, “Jeremiah,” completed in 1942.

But the program was also a paean to ecumenism, and to the meeting of the sacred and the secular. Besides the Bernstein symphony, which includes a setting of passages from “Lamentations” in Hebrew, the program included Mason Bates’ “The Book of Matthew” (2009) with a New Testament text and Karl Jenkins’ “The Armed Man” (1999), which includes sections of the Latin Mass, as well as Muslim and Hindu texts and passages from Kipling, Mallory, Tennyson and others.

There was another theme, too. With Jeremiah’s painful description of Jerusalem’s destruction by the Babylonians, in the Bernstein – a work composed in the early years of World War II – and a broader overview of war in the Jenkins, which is based partly on the 15th century French song “L’Homme Armé,” the program offered a compelling anti-war message.

Yet another connection among the composers was that all three worked in both classical and pop music. Bernstein, whose classical works began to command the respect they deserve only toward the end of his life (he died in 1990), has been more enthusiastically celebrated as the composer of “West Side Story” and “Candide.” Bates has worked as a deejay and often imports pop and electronic elements into his music. And Jenkins, who spent the mid-1970s as the keyboardist in the Soft Machine, a British art-rock band, wrote classical-tinged music for advertisements in the 1990s.

Almost lost in the shuffle was that this was an all-contemporary program, albeit one devoted entirely to various strains of neo-Romanticism. Bernstein, one of the greatest conductors of his time, was well-versed in more complex contemporary styles, but for his own music he preferred the continuity of the classical tradition as it evolved through the early 20th century, before Schoenberg and the Serialists reconfigured ideas about tonality and harmony.

“Jeremiah” is infused with the Mahlerian language that fascinated Bernstein, but with modernist touches, including insistent meter shifting that owes something to both Stravinsky and jazz. Moody and his players handled the work beautifully, with warm-toned playing that effectively evoked the tensions and ominous undercurrents of the opening “Prophecy” movement, as well as the bright, heedless frivolity of the central “Profanation” section.


For the finale, a passionate setting of passages from “Lamentations,” Bernstein modified his language to take in hints of the modal cantillation style, in which he heard the book chanted annually on the Jewish holiday of Tisha B’Av. Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Foley Davis projected the bleak text powerfully, and with the doleful, deeply expressive quality it demands.

Before the Jenkins, the orchestra left the stage and Moody led the ChoralArt Masterworks choir, accompanied by organist Ray Cornils (who was not credited in the program book), in the Bates, a brief, gracefully harmonized movement from the composer’s more expansive “Sirens,” in an arrangement by Moody and P. Scott. The choir sang it with an appealing smoothness, but it was a puzzling inclusion: Shouldn’t the works at an orchestra’s concert be performed by the orchestra?

You could argue, perhaps, that Jenkins’ heftily orchestrated choral score made up for that. Stylistically, “The Armed Man” is a messy pastiche with tentacles that stretch in all directions during its 13 movements. At its heart, along with the recurring “L’Homme Armé” melody, are the Mass movements, including a Kyrie that quotes Palestrina’s “Missa L’Home Armé” (which was built, in turn, on the French tune); but mostly the score is etched in mid-20th century cinematic bombast, with brass flourishes and percussion fusillades.

Just as you’re about to give up on the piece, though, Jenkins offers stretches of inventive choral writing, lovely passages for solo instruments, and the soothing balm of a chorale-like finale (”Better Is Peace”).

Before the concert, Moody acknowledged the 50th anniversary, last week, of the first Portland Symphony Orchestra concert by one of his predecessors, Paul Vermel, who was in the audience. It was a generous gesture, and there was a Bernstein connection there, too: Vermel studied with Bernstein at Tanglewood.

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at:


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