BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
ST. PETERSBURG — Leonard Bernstein lamented that his conducting and celebrity stole from his composing, and his output did have a scattershot quality. The great works came early in his career, and were mainly for Broadway (On the Town, West Side Story, Candide) or ballet (Fancy Free). Bernstein's classical catalog is somewhat sketchy (Serenade, the violin concerto, may be the most enduring score), and his choral writing could be hit or miss.
The Master Chorale of Tampa Bay, directed by Richard Zielinski, came to terms with Bernstein as well as it could Saturday night, but the program lacked the anchoring masterwork that would tie everything together. Chichester Psalms, which opened the concert at First Presbyterian Church, was probably meant to be the centerpiece, but the performance remained stubbornly earthbound, despite the jazzy riffs. Perhaps the problem is the Hebrew text, which would sound better chanted by a cantor than sung by a choir.
Raymond Chenez was the soloist, and his countertenor was more full-bodied than the boy alto for whom the part was written. A highlight was the dissonant organ interlude, played by Robert Winslow on the church's mighty Reuter. Winslow, the University of South Florida Percussion Ensemble and harpist Dolly Roberts replaced the orchestra normally heard with the work, and the percussion seemed much too loud and raucous.
There was more of Bernstein's sacred music, including tenor Brad Diamond in A Simple Song from the Mass in memory of John F. Kennedy. Missa Brevis, in a Robert Shaw arrangement, featured Chenez as the soloist, and the chorus built up a good head of steam in the rollicking rhythms of Dona Nobis Pacem.
Bernstein's stage music occupied the second half of the program, and its familiarity was a bit anticlimactic, with not just one but two of the three selections from West Side Story. The percussion ensemble kicked things off with a gleaming marimba solo in Maria and other transcriptions of songs for the Sharks and Jets.
Glitter and Be Gay, from Candide, is Bernstein's answer to Adele's laughing song from Die Fledermaus, a high-wire act for soprano. Lisa Katt Watson dashed if off with plenty of fun theatricality, pulling a bracelet, necklace, rings and other baubles from a jewel box as she scaled the vocal heights.
Watson and Diamond were the soloists in a medley from West Side Story (finally being revived on Broadway this season), and their voices blended nicely in Tonight and One Hand, One Heart. Diamond was excellent in Maria, with a no-frills, plain-spoken style that was refreshing in a song that is often taken way over the top. The chorus didn't have a lot to do in the medley, aside from the women in I Feel Pretty and the whole group in a lively America, but it saved the best for last, encoring with a richly flowing Somewhere.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.